March 31, 2014
Hobie Alter, who was known as the Henry Ford of the surfboard industry for his manufacturing innovations and who used his idle time to create the Hobie Cat, the lightweight, double-hulled sailboat that achieved worldwide popularity, died on Saturday at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 80. His death was announced on his company’s website.
By the time Mr. Alter, a surfer himself, developed the Hobie Cat in the 1960s, he had had great success in developing manufacturing techniques and using breakthrough materials in the production of surfboards. He worked out of a small factory along the Southern California coast, not far from where the famous Killer Dana wave roared.
Only minutes from the beach, Mr. Alter was a familiar figure there, surfboard in tow. But like other surfers, he was frustrated when strong offshore winds were blowing, flattening the majestic wave tubes they so cherish. So he decided to use the time to work on his idea for a downsize version of a catamaran: a small, twin-hulled sailing craft that would skim the waves, not unlike a surfboard. It would give surfers something to do when they could not ride their boards to full exhilaration.
He could not have anticipated how popular his Hobie Cat would become. “Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf, this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, two years after the first Hobie Cat, a 14-foot model, went on the market. Longer versions followed.
Unlike conventional sailboats, which knife through the water, a Hobie Cat skitters across the surface, resting on two pontoons and drawing only a few inches of water. If a gust knocks it over, a sailor can easily right it by hauling lines attached to each hull.
“His catamaran was designed to help dedicated surfers find excitement on breezy days,” Life said, pointing out that 1,000 had been sold for $1,200 each in the first two years.
Since then, more than 200,000 have been sold worldwide, now at prices from $3,400 to more than $20,000. And the clientele has ranged far beyond the surfer crowd.
“It was so superfun to sail that it became the largest multihull class in the world, with its own lifestyle and culture,” Steve Pezman, the publisher of Surfer’s Journal, said in an interview in 2011. “Not only did they race the boats, thousands of people would go to the lake and party.”
Pete Melvin, a multihull designer and top America’s Cup catamaran designer, said in an interview on Monday that he sailed in Hobie Cat events in Florida as a teenager. “It was more of a cultural get-together with a different feel to the yacht club scene,” he said.