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Hobie Alter – Surfer Dude, Marketing Whiz, Savvy Businessman, and All Around Good Guy – Gone at 80.

We’ve just learned that Hobie Alter has caught the ultimate wave, and left his earthly friends and family behind. We were friends, competitors, and collaborators with this remarkable man, and thought a few anecdotes might be in order.

Hobie on the 14 early days

We originally got to know Hobie through Phil Edwards and Mickey Muñoz, two catamaran racing buddies. Hobie occasionally sailed with Phil on El Gato, a skinny 22-foot cat and he did one of the early Ensenada races with Phil. This was in the mid-1960s when we went down with our 20-foot Shark catamaran, the original Beowulf.  It was in Hussongs Cantina when we had an early discussion about the relative merits of various catamaran designs.

A few years later we were first introduced to Hobie’s new fourteen foot cat. This was at the Pacific Coast Catamaran Association championship regatta. We were sailing Beowulf III, a C-class cat, and dueling with the larger and more powerful 32-foot Wildwind. After the speed trials we had a break and walked over to where there were a couple of Hobie 14s, and had a good laugh.

The boat had no daggerboards, was heavy, held together with a bunch of silly castings, but was so easy to build. And compared to the other cats, it was slow. Except that Hobie could make it fly. We’d occasionally see Hobie 14s at the PMA regattas, with rockstars like Hobie himself, or Wayne Schafer driving. Hobie and his partner, Stanford MBA Art Hendrickson, were selling a few boats, but not setting the world on fire by any means. We and the rest of the competitors thought this was one dumb cat.

Then came the 1969 Yachting One of a Kind regatta. During the second race, when a northeaster turned Lake Michigan into a survival contest (and we pitch-poled the C-Cat we were racing), Hobie put on an exhibition of seamanship with his little fourteen that caught everyone’s attention. There was a great shot of the Hobie 14 airborne, which Art Hendrickson somehow got Life Magazine to run, and then they were off to the races (pun intended).

Hobie was always interested in new things and what others were doing. He was into flying model gliders in the early days of radio control, developed a nice monohull, the Hobie 33, which was radically skinny and fast, and was experimenting with advanced ABS  plastic vacuum forming for dinghy production before anyone else.

He was with us on Beowulf V during the PMA speed trials, in which we upped our previous record for speed under sail to 31.5 knots.

B5 3158 record

This was Hobie’s first experience with an all crew trapeze setup, we sailed with skipper and both crew on the wire, and he is on the forward trapeze, with Norm Riise in the middle. He took the speed and the trapeze in stride, and in his usual low-key manner said he was going to think about trapezes for a new design.

We had a chance to work with Hobie on the development of the Hobie 18 hull shape. We did a parametric VPP shape analysis using Norm Riise’s VPP code (uploaded with IBM punch cards during quiet times on the main frame computer at JPL, where Norm worked). Once we had the correct prismatic nailed down, Norm produced a set of offsets for us which we sent along to Hobie. Phil Edwards and the crew at Hobie’s prototype shop soon had several prototypes sailing. It was interesting to see how they worked at the development cycle. Someone would have an idea, they’d build some parts, and go sailing to test it in the real world. Eventually through trial and error they would come up with a design compromise that made sense. A formal design process this was not, but it worked.

Hobie 18 dual traps

They sold a bunch of boats. And we earned a fee for the hull design, our first paying gig in the field of yacht design.

One of the keys to the success of the Hobie Cat concept was an innovative social program. Rather than stuffy yacht club affairs, the Hobie fleets sailed off the beach, and had great parties between races. They experimented with the racing rules to make them more user friendly, including such now common innovations as the 360 degree penalty turn.

The Hobie Cat business was eventually sold to Coleman Manufacturing and Hobie moved on to other endeavors, like investing in California beachfront properties in the late 1970s.

Hobie 2

Ever the innovator, Hobie created a large power cat with which he and his wife Susan spent many enjoyable hours. When not out on the water Hobie busied himself with real-estate, racing horses, and working at the licensing of the Hobie brand. When we went cruising in 1976 we lost touch.

Then in 2006, on our way to Alaska with Wind Horse, we anchored off Hobie and Susan’s home in the San Juan islands near Seattle and spent a couple of days catching up. That’s Hobie and Susan to the left in the cockpit of their power cat.

Hobie 1 030

Although we had not seen each other in years,that old camaraderie from the early days was immediately in place.

Hobie had a great ride, and leaves the world of sailing behind much the better for his presence. We send our condolences to his family and friends.


Posted by Steve Dashew  (April 5, 2014)




2 Responses to “Hobie Alter – Surfer Dude, Marketing Whiz, Savvy Businessman, and All Around Good Guy – Gone at 80.”

  1. Matt L Says:
    The good times that were had with co-eds during spring break on the Gulf Coast in the 1980′s on Hobie cat trampolines was something to behold. Occasionally, we actually sailed one. But then everyone had their decade and I am sure just about everyone has their favorite Hobie Cat memory. My last outing on one was with my 5 year old son, now 9, in the Cayman Islands. Not quite the same memories, but even more precious. I was surprised that I remembered how to kick it around a bit.

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  2. Greg Gregory Says:
    I am sorry to hear about the loss of a friend. I mentioned this to my father, who sailed early hobies on the west coast and then did some of the early east coast mid atlantic races. He got a kick out of reading your tribute and has fond memories of early hobies, computer modeling, and the old punch cards. He was commenting on your ground breaking work and was envious. I had to remind him that he was teaching at top gun at the time that you guys did your first race to ensenada, and his many “firsts” as a career test pilot. I swear he is suffering from an overexposure to adrenaline. Thanks for an interesting story.

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