Ode to Hobie

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Hobie Alter died Saturday.

Known as the Henry Ford of surfboarding, he designed the Hobie Cat, the ultra-light fiberglass catamaran that put sailing on another plane.

I first sailed one in 1969. I was just a kid, but my older cousin Lynn (who drove a powder blue Mustang and was in college) let me sail her Hobie 14. It took off like lightning on the WeWeantic River where we summered, skimming the surface like a firefly. We all cracked up on the shore when she later took it out with her dog (a black lab mutt named Bufferin) and the webbing came loose on the trampoline-style deck and she and her startled dog fell through the canvas while the boat kept sailing on.

“Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, “this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Hobie was the first name of the guy who said he wanted to make a living without wearing hard-soled shoes, and whose philosophy of designing a new boat was to take it out in screaming 30+ knot winds, see what breaks, then fix it. Unlike the more august Hinckleys, Herreshoffs, or Bertrams, the right foot of the H on his logo underscored his first name with zeal. This was a rock n’ roller at the regatta.

It turns out my father, who knew his way around boats, once met Hobie Alter. An engineer, my father moved to Southern California in the late ‘40s, where he built kayaks in his spare time. He’d take them down to Laguna Beach to launch in the surf. Those were heady days, with other guys on the beach too who loved water and woodworking and were launching surfboards they’d built in their garages. One was Hobie, who built balsa boards for his friends. But then my dad got lucky that way – he once rode the train home to Boston and sat next to a guy who told him all about the polarizing technology he was developing – it was Edwin Land, working on his first Land Camera, which became the Polaroid.

Growing up, we lived by the sea and had more boats than family members, and when I eventually moved to New York City and then western Massachusetts, I mourned my land-bound lack of boats. The gravitational pull of clanking halyards and swells of the sea are strong. Then a dozen years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Minneapolis airport – of all places – and saw this spectacle that looked like a nautical bird on display, its sail flapping at the confluence of Terminals A and B. It was a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island: part kayak, part trimaran sailboat, part paddle boat. It could be loaded on top of a car and transported anywhere.

We bought it.

My father was skeptical (it was ridiculous looking) but it sailed like the wind. We can take our Hobie wherever there is a breeze – Shaftsbury Lake in Vermont, Somes Sound in Maine, Buzzard’s Bay in Southeastern Massachusetts. Slung low in the molded cockpit, inches from the waves, you feel free and fast as you skim across the water, your leeward ama chiseling into the water while the windward one goes airborne. You surf, you sail, you sing (well, I sing), you soar – you just can’t believe your good fortune to be out on the water, so close to the water, so influenced by the wind, on such a beautiful day.

It’s a blast.

Keep sailing on, Hobie.

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2 Comments to “Ode to Hobie”

  1. A recent Boat/US Magazine artlcie reported that 70% of boat sales were sales of used boats. It’s no wonder that used boat reviews are popular boating magazine features. With new boat prices in the six figure range, most of us will be looking at used boats for our first or next purchase. The Best Used Boat Notebook is a compilation of 50 used boat reviews written by John Kretschmer and originally published in Sailing magazine. Kretschmer is a noted and frequently published bluewater sailor with over 250,000 miles in his wake. His reviews cover boats of all sizes, from the 19 foot West Wight Potter to a 52 foot Irwin. Reviews are grouped in two parts, Forty Great Used Boats and Ten Great New Boats to Sail Around the World. Kretschmer’s reviews follow a standard format, one often used in boat surveys. Beginning with his first impressions, he moves on to construction and what to look for. He finishes with conclusion and discussion of the boat’s value on the market and a value guide, in which he rates different aspects of the boat using a five-boat rating system. Ketschmer’s reviews are thorough and often include information directly from current and past owners of the model being reviewed. By virtue of reviewing used boats, he is relieved of any pressure to soft sell a boat’s weaknesses, improving his credibility. Of obvious value to a sailor in the boat market, the Used Boat Notebook offers great value to those simply interested in sailboats. Embedded in Kretschmer’s reviews is a history of the modern boat building industry. His reviews include information on the design history, construction history, and boat builder’s history. Comparing the reviews of similarly sized boats is a tutorial in boat design considerations, purposes, and construction. Kretschmer provides a wealth of information to mine. A worthwhile addition to a library, the value of The Best Used Boat Notebook could be enhanced with a couple of modifications. First, the reviews span ten years, from 1996 to 2006 but the reviews are undated. If you are in the market, knowing the age of the review would be helpful. A boat that was holding up well in 1996, might not be fairing as well 12 years later. Closely related to this date issue are the listed prices, we don’t know if these were the prices at the time the review was originally published or were they updated at the time of the book’s publication. It would be a short afternoon’s task to compile more current market information and identify it as such. Tracking price history over the course of several years would be a good indication of a boat’s value. Written with clarity and authority The Best Used Boat Notebook lives up to its name. Dave Lochner NauticalReads

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