Remembering Hobie Alter, the Surfing Visionary Who Invented a Sport and a Culture
The father of the modern surfing industry -- who vowed, at the beginning of his career, to make a living without ever having to wear hard-soled shoes -- died peacefully at his California home on Saturday at the age of 80.
Hobie Alter is credited with inventing the polyurethane foam surfboard -- and therein, ushering in the internationally competitive sport and inimitable culture we know today.
“By making people a toy and giving them a game to play with it, he was able to realize his dream,” reads an obituary message on Alter’s website.
Though surfing is believed to have been a part of Polynesian culture for centuries, boards were typically constructed from wood before Alter, a self-taught engineer, caught an entrepreneurial wave while tooling around in his garage one day.
The use of foam boards democratized the sport by making riding waves faster and easier for all -- and Alter’s Dana Point surf shop, the first in Southern California, quickly became the epicenter of a burgeoning community.
Alter’s story shows that addressing an unforeseen need by thinking outside of the box can quite literally change the world.
That his inventions were born of a deep and abiding passion -- Alter was a noted competitive surfer himself -- is a lesson for aspiring innovators to follow their hearts.
And Alter didn’t stop with surfboards. He also leaves in his wake a high-performance catamaran called the “Hobie Cat” that is credited with making sailing accessible to the masses -- beyond the swanky and exclusive yacht clubs of the era.
Other creations include a remote controlled glider and a surfboard-skateboard hybrid.
However, Alter’s propensity for innovation came at a cost -- both literally and figuratively. "Nobody had ever before given me more money for something than it had cost me to make it," he once told a reporter of his process. "I thought that was pretty keen."
His obsessive work ethic also led to the dissolution of a handful of marriages -- he counted a total of five.
While details are still pending, a surfer’s “Paddle-Out” will be scheduled in front of Alter’s Laguna Beach home to celebrate “where it all began,” his website says.