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Purring along with the cats
Dan Levin
December 06, 1971
Not a bird, not really a plane, a boat with a racy reputation came to the serene waters of Florida's Tampa Bay to show off its gentler side
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December 06, 1971

Purring Along With The Cats

Not a bird, not really a plane, a boat with a racy reputation came to the serene waters of Florida's Tampa Bay to show off its gentler side

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All it takes is the proper little puff of breeze and a Hobie Cat will stand up on one hull, hiking higher and higher until the sailor is perched six feet above the water. Because they are a romantic bunch, Hobie helmsmen call this maneuver "dancing on the edge," and because they get carried away by it, they occasionally dance up there a touch too long—until the cat slowly rolls sail down into the water. Ker-splash, end of maneuver. Since this new racing class was introduced three years ago the image has grown of Hobie Cats skittering about recklessly over rough, tossing waters.

That notion was repaired last week at the Hobie Cat 14 National Championships. True, an occasional hull rose sparkling from the water, but for the most part there they were: 119 sailors from 22 states, all calmly crisscrossing the unruffled surface of Tampa Bay. And when it was all over, the Hobies, fastest-growing class of any American production model, were at last established as one of the more versatile new boats in the business.

After four days of wafting around the 48 different courses laid out on the bay, the title went to 17-year-old Richard Loufek of Camarillo, Calif., a crafty youth sensible enough to keep both hulls as firmly in the water as possible in the eight-to 10-knot puffs.

This new proof of the more sedate sailing qualities of his catamaran was important to bemuscled, tousled surfboard builder Hobie Alter, who designed the boat and created that original wave-jumping image. Alter's first name is really Hobart, but he figures, with indisputable logic, that no one "would want to buy a boat called a Hobart Cat." Though he is only 38, Alter is steadfastly referred to as "our leader" among the Hobie Cat set, and his name was plastered on every available surface, from jackets to shirts to sails to posters around Apollo Beach.

Alter's success story is purest Americana, West Coast division. Once a knockabout surfer at California's Dana Point, he took to building and selling his own surfboards at a time when they were most in demand, becoming a reluctant tycoon with no time left for surfing. In 1965 he became "so stoked" while sailing with a friend on a 600-pound cat "that I went right home and started building tons of little scale models." By July of 1968 his own first Hobie Cat was ready: 14 feet long and 225 pounds. He sold 100 by that Christmas at $1,000 each. Next season the first national championship was staged in San Diego, and Alter's new firm, Coast Catamaran, grossed $750,000. Sales boomed to $2.8 million in 1970 and this year had hit more than $3 million by September.

Last week, sailing (he finished third in his own invention) and pacing around the beach, watching the affair like a big daddy, Alter outlined his hope for the new image. "This boat sort of started out as a flying surfboard," he said. "I had been sailing it in nine-and 10-foot waves off Dana Point, and the first posters and pictures of the boat showed the thing really taking off from the top of a wave and there was a lot of talk about flying the boat."

The reputation died hard. Nearly every cat owner at Tampa appeared to have been sold by the idea of a flying sailing boat, even folks from such surfless spots as Ohio and Iowa. But big waves aside, there was no doubt about its speed: in August at the Pacific Multihull Association's championship in Los Angeles, a Hobie Cat 14 was clocked officially at 23.2 miles per hour.

"I can drive mine over 15 miles an hour—then catch a wave going the same speed and reach 30 before I take off into midair and just about break the sound barrier," said Daytona entrant Gaulden Reed, a tanned 53-year-old enthusiast. Reed bought his cat two years ago, then sold his marina and retired in what one suspects is a cause-and-effect relationship. He had sailed a bit over the years. "But every boat I tried was so slow that I couldn't get interested," he said. Then Hobie Alter drove by the marina one September day with a dismantled cat lashed atop his car. Reed took one look at the knifelike hulls and growled, "'Lord, I've got to see it go." It was a 45� day, rainy and cold—but they sailed for nearly an hour, enough to convert Reed on the spot. Nowadays, he routinely goes Hobie Catting in the surf, though he warns that "you really have to know surfing to risk it—especially if you get hit sideways."

A lot of the Hobie Cat's speed lies in the lightness of the boat. All up and down the Tampa beach, wiry youngsters were pushing the cats in and out of the water unassisted, a stunt that is all but impossible for most other sailboats. A lot of monohulls have keels, of course, and can't be taken ashore at all; others, and most catamarans, have centerboards to deal with and rudders that are tough to lift free. But without centerboards and with two plastic rudders that swing up automatically when beaching, the Hobie Cats can be pushed about like toys. Afloat in a foot of water, they're ready to fly.

There was not much chance for flying in Tampa's eight-knot breezes, but the competition made the most out of those few extra puffs, knowing that if they did get the boats cater-wompus they were particularly easy to right.

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