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Hobie Alter, The Henry Ford Of Surfboards, Dies At 80


Hobie Alter has been called the Henry Ford of the surfboard industry. He helped popularize surfing and later sailing. His innovations included the foam surfboard and the lightweight catamaran called the Hobie Cat. Hobie Alter was 80 years old when he passed away at his Southern California home over the weekend. NPR's Nathan Rott has our remembrance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's not a stretch to say that all lovers of ocean sports owe a debt to Hobie Alter. Dick Metz, more than most.

DICK METZ: I'd probably still be bartender in Laguna if it hadn't have been Hobie.

ROTT: Metz and Alter became friends when the later was still in high school traveling down to Laguna Beach from his hometown of Ontario during the summers.

METZ: He'd come and see us surfing there and said, that looked pretty good so I'm gonna make myself a surfboard. Well, we soon found out that he could make them a lot better than we could so it just went from there.

ROTT: Alter started building boards in his dad's garage until his dad, a second generation orange grower, got so sick of the banging, the sawing and the balsa shavings that he built a little two-car garage down by the beach.

METZ: And said go down there and make all the noise and dirt you want to and so that became our clubhouse and it soon became the beginning of Hobie's surfboards.

ROTT: The demand for Hobie's surfboards grew faster than they could even get balsa wood, so Alter started developing and mass producing foam and fiberglass surfboards. That changed everything. Movies like "Endless Summer" introduced the country to surfing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The only way to avoid a wipeout is to take this wide stinkbug stance. Spread your legs and hang on till your trunks rip right up the back.

ROTT: And Alter was making the boards for all those new surfers.

METZ: He really started the culture.

ROTT: Alter was never content with the way things were. He was always looking to innovate, to improve. He mass-produced skateboards with clay wheels because they had better traction. He made goggles and glasses with polarized tint and he built a lightweight down-sized catamaran that opened up the world of sailing to anyone with 1,000 bucks and a truck to haul it. His reasoning was always the same.

HOBIE ALTER: I guess you sit out there with nothing to do and you start thinking, I can make one better than that.

ROTT: So he did. Again, Dick Metz.

METZ: You know, he was just a regular guy that was thinking all the time.

ROTT: Hobie Alter is survived by his wife, Susan, three children, eight grandchildren and one great granddaughter. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Culver City, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.