Chairman of the Board: Hobie Alter shaped surfing and parenting

Hobie Alter, considered the 'father of popular surfing' and the creator of the Hobie Cat sailboat, died on Saturday. More than surf culture, Mr. Alter inspired 'go-with-the-flow' parenting culture too.

Francisco Seco/AP/FILE
In this photo, a surfer leaves the beach after a surf session at the Coxos break point, in Ericeira, central coast of Portugal on March 10.

Surf enthusiasts are celebrating the life of the “father of popular surfing” – Hobart “Hobie” Alter, who died Saturday at 80. Parents might want to celebrate his lifestyle contributions and go-with-the-flow “Surfer Parent” approach.

I believe parenting is a lot like surfing in as much as it requires balance, skill, optimism, and a willingness to let go and allow forces much larger than ourselves to lift us to a precarious edge where we find new heights of joy.

That is how his friends and those lucky enough to spend any amount of time with Mr. Alter saw his approach to life, business, and parenting his three children.

“Hobie was not only the father of modern surfing, but such a good father and a real family man as well," says Alter’s lifelong friend and surfing buddy, Bob Holland, of Virginia Beach, Va. “He did all kinds of things with his kids from surfing to sailing and starting businesses. He was an all-arounder.”

According to Mr. Holland, Alter opened Southern California’s first surf shop, along Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point back in 1965, not long after his first trip to Virginia Beach, where the two met and became friends. He last spoke with Alter just a few months ago, during one of Alter’s regular calls to the Virginia Beach resident who still surfs.

Holland admired many things about his friend, particularly his parenting.

“You know he was a good father by seeing his sons take over the business,” Holland says. “Hobie included his kids.”

Holland explains that while his friend wasn’t a master surfer, he was the man who brought surfing to the general public, and particularly families, by “making the boards widely available and affordable to everyone.”

“Hobie pioneered things such as the lightweight foam materials of which boards are made today,” Holland explains. “In the late ’60s, he invented a small, affordable, and fun sailboat that didn’t cost a lot.”

The catamaran he invented was a sailboat consisting of a trampoline stretched between what looked like two surfboard-like hulls – the Hobie Cat.

“Before Hobie Alter, surfing was just a novelty,” says surf enthusiast Jay Mann of Ship Bottom, N.J. “After Hobie, people finally stopped asking if these were airplane wings we were carrying around.”

Mr. Mann met Alter after running away to Maui, Hawaii, as a teenager and buying his first board – designed by Alter.

“Years after buying that board, I finally met and surfed with Hobie on Oahu,” says Mann, from his office at The SandPaper news magazine, where he is an editor. “It wasn’t that he shredded [was a remarkable surfer]. In fact, he’d rather sit on the board and talk about inventions and science than catch waves. You could cover 10 topics in nothing flat with Hobie as the waves rolled by.”

Alter is known for popularizing the opposite of the high energy, high profile pop culture, glitz surfer image of "Gidget" and The Beach Boys.

Those who knew Alter remember him as a laid-back, eccentric inventor who quietly and methodically worked a problem of engineering, design, or even shipping for days on end while surf culture happened around him at his favorite beaches.

While he himself may have spent more time on his board in quiet contemplation, away from the very surf culture evolving around him, he was in fact a superstar of surfing.

“Whenever I went anywhere with Hobie he really had no clue he was a rock star,” says business associate Zach Kerzner, who today manages Acme Surf and Sport on Long Beach Island, N.J. “It was like being out with Elvis.”

In addition to changing the lives of generations by popularizing the relaxed, go-with-the-flow, follow the waves, wind and sun, surf and sail lifestyle, Alter also influenced the way that surf culture inspires parents and grandparents today.

“I raised all three of my kids in the Hobie lifestyle,” says Jack Bushko, who runs a daily beach and surf report for Long Beach Island.

“I threw my kids [now ages 35, 23, and 18] in the water at six-months-old and they were all surfing by age five," Mr. Bushko explains. "They still surf, sail, windsurf, and skateboard with me whenever possible today.”

“I knew him as an amazing dad to his three kids,” Mr. Kerzner recalls. “He was always getting them into things he liked but also supporting things they liked.”

My husband has inadvertently altered my parenting style over the past 25 years by introducing me to the Hobie lifestyle via windsurfing, sailing multihulls, and surfing with our children.

Being born into the late 1960s flower-power atmosphere of Greenwich Village, New York, I was very free-spirited, but not an outdoorsy person at all.

When we moved to the New Jersey shore, I was raised by a flock of helicopter nannies until my teenage years, when my old-school Polish grandmother took over the practice of telling me not to get wet, dirty, or overtired.

Basically, I was the perfect candidate to convert to the Big Kahuna method of parenting.

While I am still skittish about big waves and fast sailboats, I am the go-with-the flow “Surfer Mom” today because my water-sport-loving husband and Alter got me on board.

I may be the world’s most uncoordinated surfer, but for the three seconds I can stand up, my fears transform into flight.

My husband has managed to get all four sons to try surfing on his massive longboard on the same beaches where Alter once stood to survey the waves with his friend Holland.

Alter made water sports in general, and surfing in particular, into a family tradition, passed on from his family to ours.

The man who brought surfing to the general population, lifestyle and all, is unlikely to be remembered by younger surfers today. When asking about a traditional surfer’s paddle-out memorial ceremony, friends of Alter aren’t sure if young surfers would initiate the ceremony. In the traditional Hawaiian ceremony, surfers paddle-out into the water in a group to take a moment together to honor the memory of a surfer who has died.

“Oh maybe when the weather gets a bit warmer,” says Holland. “But it’s hard to say if anyone who would appreciate him is still around and in shape to do the honors.”

Mann agrees, saying, “It’s really unlikely kids today have a clue who he was and what he did for them and the entire sport. So, no, there probably won’t be a paddle-out for the man who was the greatest influence surfing has ever known.”

From what I have learned about him, Alter probably wouldn’t have wanted anyone to make a fuss, but rather prep their boards for summer waves and get back to the surf as soon as possible.

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