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Hobie Alter, who revolutionized surfing, dies

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two words — surfboards and Hobie — were all but synonymous in the early 1960s, when teenagers who saw movies such as "Gidget" and "Beach Party" rushed to the shores of Southern California to try a mesmerizing new water sport.

The lightweight, maneuverable boards built by a surfer dude known as Hobie carried people into the pastime that for decades had remained all but invisible outside California and Hawaii. Hobart Laidlaw Alter (it's unlikely many users of his gear knew his last name or even if he had one) toiled in a small beachfront shop in Dana Point, cranking out those boards by the thousands.

Hobie surfboards eventually became the linchpin of a multimillion-dollar, worldwide empire that, by the time its unassuming namesake died last week, had grown to include catamarans, skateboards, beach wear and more.

Hobie died Saturday at his Palm Desert home after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 80. The man who revolutionized surfing with a cheap, lightweight, easily maneuverable board might have stayed out of the limelight for most of his life, but the boards and catamarans he created did not.

"The basic surfboard structure for 90 percent of the surfboards around the world remains the foam core that he developed, and that was 50 years ago," Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer's Journal and a longtime friend of Hobie, said Monday.

When Hobie built his first surfboard, about the time he graduated from high school in 1950, the old-fashioned, heavy wooden ones that had limited the sport to the strongest and most determined athletes were beginning to give way to lighter balsa wood boards. But balsa wood was hard to come by.

A few years after Hobie moved his board-building operation out of his parents Laguna Beach garage in 1954, he and his friend Gordon "Grubby" Clark decided they could build a better board using a polyurethane foam core.

It took a year of trial and error, but they prevailed: The result was a board that was easy to shape, so light a child could carry it to the ocean, and so maneuverable a good surfer could do all sorts of stunts on it.

Soon Hobie was working with a small staff, producing 250 boards a week and struggling to keep up with demand. His timing had been fortuitous. "Gidget," the film based on author Frederick Kohner's surfing-obsessed teenage daughter and her goofy friends, had arrived in theaters in 1959, sending millions on a quest to ride the wild surf — preferably on a reasonably priced surfboard.

Soon the Hobie board, which retailed for a little more than $100, and its distinctive logo were ubiquitous. The latter could be found painted on surfers' cars, sketched into wet beach sands, even carved into schoolroom desks.

As surfing spread around the world, Hobie moved on to sailing. He had been a first-rate surfer, competing in Hawaii's Makaha International Surfing Championships in 1958 and 1959, and by the mid-1960s he was living in a beachfront home where he discovered it was impossible to launch a heavy sailboat from anywhere but a marina.

So he invented the lightweight Hobie Cat, a craft small enough to be strapped onto the roof of a car and light enough to be carried down to the beach and launched from the sand. "Some people have described it as the great democratizing of yachting," Pezman said. "This was something you could wheel down to the beach and set out on it. It was affordable to blue-collar workers."

So it was fitting, perhaps, that the man who created it was always a blue-collar guy at heart. The son of a second-generation orange grower, Hobie decided soon after high school that he did not want a job that required hard-soled shoes, a coat and tie, or hours that would take him away from things like surfing. His favored style of dress was jeans and a T-shirt, the latter sometimes covered by a ratty old sweater.

"I'm making money producing things that give me pleasure, doing exactly what I want to do," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1977. "I guess I'm really lucky that way." Mostly noted for surfing and sailing, Hobie was memorialized on Huntington Beach's Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997 and enshrined in the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011.

He was also an avid skier and golfer. Pezman visited him a while back and found Hobie in his garage, working on a gadget he could use to improve his golf swing. He is survived by his wife, Susan; daughter, Paula; sons Hobie Jr. and Jeff; sisters Carolyn and Lillian; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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