Hobie Alter is a little bit beyond being a legend in his own time. He is Hobie Alter, popular culture phenomenon, folk hero to kids everywhere, at least half of whom do not know he has a last name. He is one of the few 42-year-old men around whose life-style might be genuinely described as laid back. Alter invented the celebrated Hobie surfboard in the '60s, a time when it was prestigious, indeed, to be in the vanguard of a movement extolled by no less than the Beach Boys.
Surfboards were just the first step, giant though it was, toward Alter's first million dollars, and the only thing he changed in his life-style was to move to a slightly better beach house. The house is in Dana Point, a small town slightly north of San Clemente, slightly south of Long Beach and light years from either one of them. "All the great ideas of the Western World come from Dana Point," says one Dana Point resident. "And Hobie is our guru, spreading the word through the land."
For about the last decade, the word from Dana Point has been cat, Hobie Cat, to be precise. More than a creature with a catchy name, a Hobie Cat is a catamaran sailboat, of 11, 14, 16 or 18 feet, take your choice. The boat was designed by Hobie to be as fast, light, cheap and uncomplicated as possible—fun and free of hassles, just like his vision of life. There are about 72,000 of these cats all over the world, and each day 60 more come sailing out of the Hobie plant a few miles up the road from Dana Point. It is estimated that nine-tenths of all small catamarans in the world are Hobie Cats. Obviously, this had to lead to a Hobie world championship, and it did, beginning in 1973.
The Hobie owners alternate the championship between the one-man 14-foot-ers one year and the two-man 16-foot boats the next. This was a 16-foot year, and the regatta last week far down on the Gulf Coast of Texas drew no fewer than 124 teams from 21 countries, most of them regional or national champions in the class.
And to Hobie Alter, class racing is everything. "I don't think I've ever been at a regatta where different types of boats were involved that was any fun," he says. "I don't care ever to race against a boat that's inherently faster than me, or slower than me. When I win, I want it to be strictly on sailing ability, not purchasing power. Some men have million-dollar boats, and they're crewed by 10 guys the owner wouldn't go out to dinner with. And the boat's got a spaghetti factory of lines that don't do anything. I think that's ridiculous; that's work. My idea is to get me a gal and go out and race."
Hobie has spoken.
In keeping with this spirit, the Hobie World Championship was also called the "Hobie Olympics." Not only was a sailing champion determined but also so were: a tug-of-war champion, a volleyball champion, mixed-doubles tennis champions, a soccer-ball-kicking champion, a beach-running champion, a Frisbee-throwing champion, a hot-dog-eating champion, a water-walking champion, a six-pack-relay-race champion and, needless to say, a disco champion.
But all was not hot dogs, six-packs and disco. The sailors were semi-serious by day and the racing was intense. The Hobie factory had provided 48 brand-new and boxed stock boats for the occasion; after each race, teams switched cats. The boats were launched through the surf to battle it out over triangular courses, on which the wind seemed to come at them from all directions.
By last Friday night, after four days of competition, the field was cut to the 48 best teams for Saturday's two-race showdowm
The championship was conducted at the southern end of Padre Island, a location sometimes known as Texas' best-kept secret. Padre Island is a pristinely beautiful arc of beach, 110 miles long and roughly half a mile wide stretching from Corpus Christi to Matamoros, Mexico. It is a lovely site for sailing.