VIA – OC REGISTER
t about 5 p.m. Friday, hundreds of surfers and rowers gathered around a Hobie Cat catamaran off the shore of Doheny State Beach to celebrate the life of surf and sailing entrepreneur and pioneer Hobie Alter.
BY LAYLAN CONNELLY / STAFF WRITER
Hobie Alter had only one request: He wanted a traditional Hawaiian paddle-out ceremony after he died.
In the blue waters off Dana Point and surrounded by surfboards and sailboats, Alter’s family on Friday released bowls filled with soil brought from Hawaii, ocean water and sand from Waikiki beach, and rock salt, which represented the “purification of one’s soul, body and life,” said Eric Keawe, a “Kahu,” or Hawaiian priest.
Surfers gathered on boards hooted after a prayer in the form of a Hawaiian song, splashing water to the sky and holding up paddles with the Hobie insignia. Boats surrounded the group, while the Orange County Harbor Patrol boat sprayed water, creating a rainbow in its mist. Flowers floated on the water’s surface, and occasionally, a passing wave lifted surfers.
Hundreds of people paddled out in Alter’s honor Friday, paying tribute to a man who changed the way people use the water for surfing and sailing. He is credited for transforming the foundation of a surfboard from balsa wood to foam, and then he went on to revolutionize the sailboat by creating the Hobie Cat, a catamaran dubbed the “people’s boat” because of the ease of use and low cost.
Alter was part of a generation that defined what it meant to be a Southern California surfer. He died March 29 at his Palm Desert home after a bout with cancer. He was 80.
Well-known surfer and shaper Mickey Munoz remembers Alter giving him a job at his shop in Dana Point, the first of its kind in Southern California. He did doing ding repairs on boards for Alter in the early ’50s.
“I think his legacy is ‘Have a Hobie Day.’ How better can you say it?” Munoz said, referring to Alter’s longtime slogan.
Alter started shaping boards in his parents’ Laguna Beach summer home in the early ’50s using the usual heavy balsa wood before teaming with Gordon “Grubby” Clark to develop polyurethane foam as a substitute for the core of a surfboard in the late ’50s. This enabled more people to take up the growing sport because of the less expensive and lighter boards. The aerospace industry gave him the idea of using foam; the same technology is used in most surfboards made today.
In 1954, Alter opened a custom surfboard factory and showroom in Dana Point. In the late ’60s, Alter started to design sailboats – specifically smaller boats that were affordable at $999. No longer did a boat owner need to belong to a yacht club or own a slip to enjoy the water; the boats could be launched from the beach.
Before the paddle-out at Doheny State Beach, surfers gathered with boards and wetsuits scattered in the grass. Hobie catamarans with colorful sails were propped around the hundreds who gathered.
Rob Green of Carlsbad brought a board that his father, Larry, gave him. The 40-pound board had the number 112 on it, thought to be the 12th board Alter shaped. For unknown reasons, Alter numbered his boards starting at 100, Green said.
“I think it’s great to get it out of the garage and let people see it,” said Green, who planned on paddling out on it. “He changed so many lives, all over the place. It’s great for people to break this stuff out and get it out here so people can get a full spectrum of all the stuff he accomplished. I know my dad would have appreciated it being here.”
Surf historians gathered around a booth set up by the Surfing Heritage Foundation, where the first board ever made by Hobie stood. Foundation founder Dick Metz knew the original owner in Laguna Beach, who bought it from Hobie for $40, and asked him to donate it.
Metz was also one of the early employees of Alter, quitting his job as a bartender to help Alter expand his business. Eventually he helped Alter open 20 stores.
“He was a great friend and certainly a good business partner,” Metz said. But Alter was less interested in the paperwork and more focused on the creative process.
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