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Hobbies Have Always Been a Way of Life for Hobie Alter Family


September 03, 1989|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | Times Staff Writer

Hobie Alter didn't set out to make childhood a sun-splashed, wave-soaked, fun-filled adventure for his three kids, it just worked out that way.

Paula, Hobie Jr. and Jeff Alter really had no choice. Wherever they turned, there was more fun in the sun. With a father like Hobie, there were few alternatives--not they would have wanted it any other way.

Surfboards, skateboards, catamarans, gliders and monohull sailboats were all a part of growing up in the Alter household.

Hobie Alter, now 55 and as restless and inventive as ever, introduced a new kind of recreation not only to his family, but to the world. And the great thing about Hobie's toys was that they were simple, relatively inexpensive and, above all else, fun.

Fun was, and still is, the family's buzzword. The ocean is still their playground.

"It seems like a normal childhood when you grow up in it," Hobie Jr., 32, said. "You don't feel fortunate because you don't know any better."

Nevertheless, it's a wonderful life for the Alter clan.

Hobie Jr. designed a line of sunglasses and recently sold it for a tidy sum. Paula, 34, works for a consulting firm in San Francisco. Jeff, 27, and his wife, Laurie, 25, run Hobie Design Inc. in San Juan Capistrano on Calle Perfecto. Perfect Street, indeed.

Hobie Jr. and Jeff are still active in racing Hobie Cats. Jeff is competing in the national championships in Chicago this week.

Hobie Sr. and his wife, Susan, recently bought a home on Orcus Island in Washington's San Juan Islands. For now, though, he is keeping his home base in the South County.

His latest, and maybe greatest, project is nearing completion behind the Alters' warehouse in San Juan Capistrano.

It's a 60-foot, diesel-powered catamaran, a Hobie 60. When it's finished sometime in December it will cost about $1.5 million, Alter said. But it's going to be well worth it.

Alter plans to sail off into the sunset with his boat. Well, he's planning to take it to Orcus Island and maybe north to Alaska, anyway.

"I wonder how we'll ever get there though. There are so many great places to stop," Alter said. "I don't think we'll ever make it all the way to Alaska."

Mexico is in his plans. Hawaii also is a possibility. And an around-the-world trip isn't out of the question.

"The Hawaii crossing is the toughest," Alter said.

Hobie Jr. recently made the 2,200-mile trek, the first of the family to do so, and from the look on his father's face, it won't be long before another Alter attempts the journey.

That's hardly news. For Alter, there is always something new to be explored, tried out and improved upon in a never-ending search for the ultimate source of fun.

As a young man in the early 1950s, Alter was an avid surfer, spending the summer months at his family's cottage in Laguna Beach.

One summer, to avoid getting a job as a lifeguard, Alter started making surfboards by hand in the garage.

"I worked on the patio out front," he said. "I'd surf, then work. Then if the waves were big, I'd stop and surf again."

He sold 80 boards in four years.

"My father thought if that many people could find me in the garage, I might as well start a business," Alter said.

He opened his first store in 1954 in Dana Point. Alter sold 6,000 boards a year and he became the unquestioned king of surfboard manufacturers. He improved on the old wooden boards, designing a board made from foam and fiberglass. It was shorter, lighter and easier to maneuver than the old wooden planks.

But that soon grew old, and Alter turned his attention toward something new.

In 1967, he started working on a prototype for a 14-foot catamaran. It was a simple boat, built for one or two. A sailor could launch it himself on the beach. You could even take it apart and haul it on the roof of your car.

The Hobie 14 originally sold for $995. Now, 115,000 have been produced, and the current sticker price is still less than $2,000.

The Hobie 16, 18 and 21 followed. Alter later designed and built a Hobie 33, a monohull sailboat.

In 1976, Coleman, the camping company, bought Alter's sailboat business. Texas businessman Tony Wilson has since purchased it from Coleman. Alter has remained active on the design and advice end of the business, although the family no longer owns it.

Alter turned his passion to golf and retirement. He started a Hobie clothing line and became a part-owner of Ocean Pacific Sunwear.

He had made millions from his business and from various investments, but he couldn't sit still. There were new frontiers to be conquered.

Three years ago, Alter built a model for the 60-foot catamaran with the idea of making a radio-controlled toy. But that didn't satisfy his creative energies, so he decided to build a full-sized boat.

"Jeff took over the business and I play with the boat," Alter said.

Jeff handles the licensing involving the Hobie trademark. He also looks after the Alter's investments, including several of the properties the family owns.

"It's a lot more work than it sounds," Jeff said.

"People think there's some big corporation, but there's not," Hobie Jr. said. "It's no big deal. There's not a big board of directors with vice presidents like people assume."

Make no mistake about it, this is still a family business venture, simple and fun.

The Alter name remains at the forefront of the prototypical Southern California sports: surfing and sailing.

With his relentless pursuit of fun, Hobie Alter established himself as the top sportsman in Orange County. There was just no way he wasn't going to take his family along for the ride.

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