TOP CAT : Hobie Alter Created His Own Style of Sailing, but He’s Still Trying to Build a Better Boat
Hobie Alter was down on his knees and up to his elbows in another new boat.
“I’m really not trying to get back into the boat-building business,” he said, flicking a drop of sweat from his nose.
But there he was, in a nondescript warehouse on a side road in San Juan Capistrano, slopping on gooey black resin and crawling around the deck of a full-size mockup that would be the mold for his personal 60-foot fiberglass catamaran power cruiser.
Tentatively, it has been christened “My Fair Lady,” a Hobie 60 to join a long, legendary line.
Alter has had a monohull power cruiser for several years but decided it was less than perfect.
“When you’re moored over at Catalina, every time another boat goes by, its wake leaves you bobbing around,” Alter said. “I thought a catamaran might be more stable.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Alter, 53, had a better idea. If this one turns out like the surfboards of his youth and the small sailing catamarans of his corporate years--the generic Hobie Cats that created a style of sailing--don’t be surprised if he’s soon cranking them out for the masses. Wherever Alter has ventured in the industry, his imagination has been welcome.
“All boating is fun,” he said. “You get into one group and don’t know anything about the others, then you get into the next one and think, ‘Gee, this isn’t so bad.’
“I used to hate those power boat guys. They go by and throw a big wake on you. Then I saw how they probably hated us, too, having a little boat tack back and forth in front of them. So we’ve been in the whole range of boating and enjoyed all of it.”
Alter’s advantage has been an open mind.
“I went on an Ensenada race with Phil Edwards (in the 1950s),” he said. “I didn’t know anything about sailing. I stood on the hull and hung on to the daggerboard. That was my position.”
Edwards, a lifelong friend who went to work for Alter when he was still in high school, had a small, 20-foot catamaran. Catamarans were unofficial entries in the Ensenada race in those days when they would lie off the starting line and take off with the monohulls, soon leaving most of them behind.
“At dark we were at the Coronado Islands and were the second boat,” Alter said.
Then the wind died and everybody caught up near the finish.
“We’re like 75th, but when the wind came offshore blowing 20 (knots), all those big boats started heeling over . . . we had to be doing a full 20-plus knots going down that bay,” Alter said, recalling the thrill. “Guys were hootin’ and hollerin’ at us. Then the wind died and we coasted up to their line. We would have been the fourth boat to finish.”
A short time later, Alter bought a P-cat, an 18-foot, 600-pound catamaran with a solid wing section instead of a trampoline.
“But it was not a beach boat,” Alter said. “It took six guys to drag it off the beach. It was for two people to sail and six people to drag.”
The problem was, Alter said, that “catamarans had not caught on. They had a bad name. I don’t know why. Maybe because they’d go faster than monohulls. This guy’s got this $50,000 (monohull) and a $2,000 (catamaran) can just destroy his speed image.
“It goes back to the 1800s when (Nathaniel) Hereshoff got thrown out of a race at the New York Yacht Club because he came up with a catamaran. A guy sent me a story out of an 1800s magazine about how they ‘had now been seen and tried enough that there’s no reason for anyone to go any further experimenting with them, and their pieces littered the shorelines . . . how they not only tip over but how they can go over frontward, disgracing the skipper and the boat.’ ”
Getting a little wet never discouraged an old surfer like Alter.
“I didn’t know anything about sailing so I wasn’t confused by any past ideas. And the fact (catamarans) had speed . . . if you were a surfer, you wanted a little more thrilling thing.
“We lived on the beach (at Laguna Beach), and they were the only boats that were really usable off the beach. A monohull is not a good boat off the beach. Even a dinghy has to get a board down immediately to work at all, and a catamaran, with its hulls sealed, is totally swampable.”
Alter produced his first Hobie Cat, a 14-footer, in 1968, but thought he could build something better.
“The 16 is the one that came through,” Alter said.
Of the 150,000 Hobies that have been built since 1968 (14-, 16-, 17- and 18-footers) more than half have been the 16s, which first appeared on beaches in 1971.
“It’s an efficient boat to build,” he said. “It’s strong. It works. It’s dry.”
The latter virtue, Alter reasoned, would appeal to weekend sailors who like speed but can do without salt water in their face.
“All small catamarans have one major problem: They’re wet in choppy water,” Alter said. “It’s what sticks up that gets you wet, when water hits the sides.
“The 16, (because of) the raised wing and the lower hull, goes clean through the water and keeps the water underneath you.”
Later, Alter tried building an 18 to the same proportions, but the concept didn’t work.
“The 18 is very wet,” he said. “You can’t just blow a boat up. Everything changes. The 18, I thought we needed one in the marketplace, but I really didn’t want to own one.
"(The 16) was so practical, it’s a hard act to follow. If you had to have a general-purpose boat for two people to go out and sail and have fun and want some performance, the 16 will do fine. A girl and a guy can crew it.”
The 16 was designed eight-feet wide, the maximum width for trailering and, Alter said, “the weight for racing is 285, so you have a 160-pound guy and a 115-pound girl, and that’s what it takes to right the boat.”
With performance comes competition, but most yacht racing is generated by yacht clubs, and Hobie Cats were not a yacht club type of boat.
“It was kind of an elitist sport,” Edwards said.
Alter: “So we said, ‘We will make our own class, and you don’t have to belong to a yacht club.’ Moving the direction we did away from the yacht clubs gave us a whole new field of recreation-oriented sailing.”
As pleased as Alter was with the 16, he didn’t enjoy its success.
“We became a public company and pretty soon we had a board of directors,” he said. “Thank goodness one of their desires was to make money, which might be my weaker side. I was having fun building boats, and if we could make money and keep going, that was great.
“But I’m sitting there dealing with five guys that don’t put their feet in the water and don’t understand at all what it’s about.”
Alter had opened his own surfboard shop in Dana Point when he was 20, in 50% partnership with Art Hendrickson. They sold off 10% to raise money at one point, then wound up with 26% each when they went public. Finally, in ’76, they sold to Coleman, the camping products company, for $3.5 million.
“It wasn’t as much fun,” Alter said. “I didn’t like what we were doing and the way we were doing it and the way they were treating the people that worked for us. (Coleman) offered what seemed like a lot of money at that time.”
Alter stayed on in research and development until ’82.
“I just wanted to stay there and work,” he said. “I didn’t want to be head of anything . . . go to meetings.”
It was then he created the Hobie 33, a high-performance boat that caused a stir at all the boat shows.
“Coleman thought we should have a trailerable monohull in our line,” Alter said. “We wanted to be different and hoped to put together a class, so they had to be able to move and be launchable.
“At that time, the Olson 30 was the best small boat around. We were competitive right off the bat with ‘em.”
But the 33 is no longer being built.
“It was a good boat,” Alter said. “The price was just too high, and I couldn’t figure out what I’d take off to make it cheaper.”
Continuing quality control was Alter’s concern when he departed the company and left his name behind.
“But Coleman is a quality type of company,” he said. “They have maintained it. I can’t complain. They don’t pay me anymore--no royalties or anything like that. I maintain the rights for clothing and surfboards and other things. They have ‘em for the boats. We’re still promoting the Hobie name, so we are kind of married to each other.
“And the kids love to sail the boats. We didn’t want to lose what was there.”
Alter’s sons, Hobie and Jeff, compete with and against each other in major Hobie regattas.
By the way, Alter pointed out, he is Hobart L. Alter, son of Hobart R.; his eldest son is Hobart P.
“My father was either Hobart or Hobe. I was called Hobe and Hobie. None of us were juniors. All (my son’s) friends call him Junior, but we all have different middle initials.”
There also is a family feeling among the people who were with the company in the early days.
Edwards, who still works for Coleman in research and development, said, “We have employees that have been fired and they still come back to the parties and regattas and say ‘we.’ Ten years after they left they still say ‘we.’ ”
That makes Alter happy. All he ever wanted was to build better boats and have a good time. He hasn’t stopped yet.