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A personal tribute to Hobie Alter

by Phillip Berman on 2 Apr 2014
In loving memory of Hobie Alter © Hobie Cat http://www.hobiecat.com/
I first met Hobie at the age of 13, in Newport Beach, California, where he was showing off his latest invention, the Hobie Cat 14 at a local beach club. It was 1969 and Hobie had just created his corky little catamaran. As soon as Hobie cast away from the dock and started 'flying a hull' I was enthralled. Just a few days later I met one his friends, R. Paul Allen, who had produced the surfing classic, Endless Summer. Paul had a home on my paper delivery route in Newport and sure enough he had a Hobie 14 in his driveway. It became pretty clear that Paul never intended to use the boat, so he sold her to me at a super price with Hobie's blessing. Soon enough all I could do was live, breath and dream Hobie Cat.

What I did not realize is that I had entered the ground floor of what would become a national phenomenon. Soon enough we were racing Hobie Cats every weekend, attending regattas all over California and eventually the world. Hobie Cat racing took me to Europe, Australia, South Africa, Tahiti, Puerto Rico, all before I reached the age of twenty. The early books I wrote on the sport put me through college and grad school. So I not only have Hobie to thank for my education, but for the very company I own and operate today.


Hobie was to some extent a shy man, an enormously humble and gentle person. As I started to attend the many Hobie Cat regattas around California in high school he made a sincere effort to befriend me, as he knew I had lost my stepmother to Leukemia, and then later my father to colon cancer. I was a kid under a great deal of stress in those high school years and Hobie was always generous and kind to me, offered what fatherly advice and support he could. How shall I ever forget that smiling man in his surf shorts, his skinny knock knees, with his trademark Johnny Walker Red thermos in hand.

One of the things that most people fail to appreciate about Hobie is that he could care less about class or wealth or the things that separated people from one another. There was not a bone of pretense in his body. Part of the reason his boats became so popular is that he insisted that anyone could attend a Hobie Cat regatta and made sure that his boats were strictly one-design. He instinctively sniffed out the snobbery and exclusivity of the class based yacht club racing scene, where a rich man could buy the latest sails or gear to obtain victory. What Hobie wanted was the most inclusive and egalitarian human experience possible. He was quintessentially Californian in that sense, easy going, could care less about class, or status, or what religion you were, what car you drove. Hobie just wanted to get a bunch of people together for some fun and that they certainly had. The best days of my life were those Hobie days, and so many of my most lasting friendships I owe to Hobie.

Many people often ask me what I think about the America's Cup, if I am following it, etc. Because I am a catamaran broker and builder they assume that the Cup, now raced in catamarans, would interest me deeply. I always say to those who ask, 'The America's Cup holds no real interest to me. I grew up racing Hobie Cats, and in Hobie's world nobody could purchase their way to victory. Hobie wanted to see 75 boats on the starting line from every nation on earth, every class, every shade of color. Hobie was an inventor, yes, but he was totally opposed to the sort of arm's race that has come to characterize the America's Cup. Hobie wanted the best sailor to win, not the richest or most privileged. If I could take the millions of dollars spent on this last America's Cup race and give it to youth sailing programs I'd do it in a heartbeat. I think Hobie would too.

Hobie Alter did more for sailing than any person in the last 100 years. Go down to the Virgin Islands today and what do you see - catamarans, everywhere. And the bulk of the people who charter them, or own them, got their first 'stoke' from sailing a Hobie Cat.

Cheers to Hobie Alter. He was a great inventor, a great father to his lovely children, and he left a legacy of fun for thousands around the world. I shall always cherish his memory and those days of my Hobie youth.


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