It is the day before Thanksgiving in Southern California. A late afternoon sun hangs just above the ocean, glinting through translucent orange wings as the sailplane banks for a slow turn, loops once, then dives straight for the water off Salt Creek Beach. Two surfers, hunkering on their boards as they wait for the day's last ride, duck instinctively, but in the instant before it plummets into the waves the glider pulls sharply out of the dive, loops again and climbs swiftly on a turbulent updraft. The plane, nearly four feet long with a wingspan just over eight feet, resumes its lazy figure-eight flight, drifting 75 to 100 feet offshore in a pattern parallel to the ridgeline like an orange-skinned osprey looking for something to eat.
On the edge of the ridge above the beach stands Hobie Alter, a grin on his weathered face, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, a two-channel radio transmitter in his hands. He is dressed in his business clothes: a flowered Hawaiian sport shirt, baggy denim pants, old sneakers and wraparound sunglasses. With the exception of his right thumb, deftly working the control stick of the transmitter, he is motionless. He is in rigid communion with his glider, the Hobie Hawk.
The Hawk, weighing only 30 ounces without its radio-control equipment, which consists of two tiny servo units mounted in the cockpit and joined to the rudder and elevator by thin control rods, is the latest creation by Alter, now 41, the maverick designer who personally revolutionized the sport of surfing in the 1950s and who builds more catamarans today than anyone else in the world. Along the way Hobie has become a millionaire, but that has changed neither his hell-raising life-style nor his compulsive dusk-to-dawn work habits. Although he is chairman of the board of the Coast Catamaran Corp., he has no office at its 15-acre headquarters and plant in Irvine, preferring—in the style of the Wright brothers' bicycle shop—to work in a large cluttered room over his garage. For relaxation, give him some old friends, a case of beer and either a dirt bike, a catamaran or a model glider. He bought his one and only business suit in 1958, and to call him either "Mr. Alter" or "Hobart," his given name, is as appropriate as calling Henry Kissinger "Hank."
"To really fly one of these sailplanes right," says Hobie, "you have to get your mind inside the plane. You have to feel yourself up there with it and anticipate what it'll do as the air currents change. Here, give it a try." He hands over the transmitter, and for a moment I feel as if I have been turned into a block of Jell-O. With hardly any effort on my part I can send $300 worth of high-density Styrofoam, cross-linked polyethylene, ABS plastic and some rather sophisticated electronic sensory gear into the Pacific. "Remember," Hobie says, "move the stick right to turn the plane right, left to turn left, push it forward for down and pull back for up. That's all there is to it. Just don't overcontrol it. If you turn too tight, the plane will go into a spin."
February 10, 1975
Gingerly I push the stick to the right. As the plane begins to turn, Hobie tells me to let off on the stick. "Just blip it a little bit. Make your turns nice and slow at first," he says. "There's plenty of lift out there so the plane will free-fly without your doing much of anything." I tap the spring-loaded stick two or three times with my index finger as though flicking the ashes from a cigarette, and the glider swings in a wide right-hand arc over the ocean. I try the same thing again, only this time to the left, then back again to the right and, despite my earlier skepticism about the enjoyment quotient of a model airplane for an adult, I'm hooked: a glider junkie in less than two minutes.
As the plane's wings bob in the unstable air my stomach jumps and my knees tremble. With my finger I seem to control this noiseless creature, yet, like a launched falcon, the plane retains a control of its own—it is an eerie man-made reproduction of a bird of prey.
My last dealings with a model airplane were at the age of 13 when the two thin pieces of wire linking me to my authentic scale version of a P-51 Mustang snapped and, with a noise like a chain saw being swallowed whole by some great beast, the plane was reduced to a set of Pick Up Sticks in a nearby elm tree. The Hobie Hawk is different. Like everything Hobie Alter has designed, it uses no fuel, has no smell and is so functionally sleek that it seems to be in motion even when it is still. Its only sound is the shriek of the wind rushing by the upswept wings during a high-speed dive.
My aeronautic reverie is interrupted when the glider, without warning, noses up into a stall. Instead of allowing it to level off with just a gentle push on the control stick, I panic and jam the stick forward. For a moment the sailplane hangs motionless, then hurtles toward the water like a bag of cement. Frantically I pull back on the stick. The plane performs one marvelous loop, a second even more impressive than the first and continues its Kamikaze journey toward the sea. For the first time I hear Hobie's childish giggle, a strange sound coming from a man with Lee Marvin-James Coburn tough-guy looks. Calmly he takes the transmitter from my busy hands and the glider flattens out 20 feet above the ocean, where it circles, waiting to rise on another updraft. I had allowed the plane to get too low, and while high-altitude corrections are simple, flying a Hobie Hawk below 50 feet is about as easy as moving a large old dog out of the sun.
"You have to watch the glider every minute," says Hobie as he brings it into the wind for a soft landing in some grass. "The range of these transmitters is two miles, and when the plane gets out of sight there's no way in the world you can control it. A guy up in Aspen who bought one from me spent three days hunting in the mountains for his." The orange Hobie Hawk rests on the ground between us. Beneath the tinted plastic canopy are the radio-control servo units, lending the glider the sinister aspect of a miniature U-2 spy plane. The surfaces of wing, fuselage and rudder flow together to create a symmetry that reflects the thousands of hours Hobie spent building models until he perfected this sailplane.
"In a way," he says, "the glider is like the surfboard or the catamaran. But instead of the water's flow, it makes you aware of the movement of air. You watch birds and the way they pick up thermals and soar. Tomorrow we'll go out with my friend the Colonel and try to get the glider up in a thermal with some hawks. Now that's real fun." Hobie's eyes widen as they do whenever he is excited or wants to stress an important point. The Colonel, I am told, is a fanatical model builder who considers ridge soaring to be child's play. He concentrates on thermal soaring—maneuvering the sailplane into warm rising air where, with skillful handling, it can glide for hours.
Hobie Alter's romance with the wind began when he was five. His grammar school in Ontario, Calif. conducted a kite-building contest for all students, kindergarten through sixth grade, with prizes awarded for design and performance. Hobie won first place in both categories. By the time he was seven he was building stick-and-tissue-paper model airplanes of a complexity to make grown men throw away their X-Acto knives and start collecting beer mugs. In Ontario and at his parents' summer house in Laguna Beach, where he stayed as often and as long as he could near the sea and windswept cliffs, he worked on one project after another, related more often than not to his passion for the currents of the water and the sky.
Most of all Hobie loved to have fun, and since he lived then as he does today in the land where enjoyment is the leitmotiv, he arrived at a simple but brilliant solution to a problem that has plagued men for centuries. Imbued with the spirit of hard labor, endowed with the soul of a creative dreamer and blessed with a child's capacity to enjoy himself, Hobie Alter would design and produce playthings that brought him closer to the natural elements he loved, and he would do it better than anyone else because he would work harder and longer. From up and down the coast kindred spirits flocked to wherever he happened to be creating—a cellar, an old boat-house or his front yard—somehow knowing that this wild man who worked day and night for weeks on end, living alone on the beach in a room under his folks' house at an age when other kids still played Monopoly with the baby-sitter, was up to his ears in pleasure.
More than 25 years later the situation remains the same. Wayne Schafer, a real-estate broker and championship-caliber sailor who lives near Hobie along the same strip of Capistrano Beach, sums it up: "There's a group of guys, all around 40 years old, living in this part of Southern California, who are primarily interested in having fun. For years we've surfed together, sailed together, ridden dirt bikes and skied. We look to Hobie as our leader. We figure if he's doing it, then it must be fun."
In 1954, against the advice of almost everyone, Hobie Alter opened what is believed to be the world's first surfboard shop. All his surfing buddies told him he'd sell a couple of hundred boards up and down the coast and then go broke. Martha McManus, a jolly, robust old woman who lives several houses down the beach from Hobie, recalls the time quite well: "Nobody gave Hobie a thousand-to-one chance, but when my husband, who would sooner swim to Hawaii than part with a dollar, bought one of Hobie's boards, I said to myself, 'Well, by God, the kid's gonna make it.' "
For three years Hobie built boards from balsa wood with a fiber-glass covering, but then one day he heard about a light, strong substance called polyurethane foam. Convinced it would make a better surfboard, Hobie closed down his shop and with a friend named Grubby Clark worked nonstop to develop the proper foam mixture. "For weeks and weeks we worked and we slept, and once in a while we ate a greasy hamburger and drank some beer," Hobie recollects. "It was the only time in my life I was really scared, because I'd closed my business to do it. A couple of times we blew out the side of the mold. The night we finally got the right mix for the foam blank I got an ulcer. But really, I think I got it from the hamburgers rather than the fear."
By 1966 Hobie's dealers around the world were selling 250 boards a week at $130 each, and Hobie was a rich man, but by then he was off on a new project. He had gotten involved in sailing, and decided that he could build a catamaran better than any available at the time. He used his surfing know-how to design a boat without a centerboard that used an asymmetrical hull with one flat surface to prevent sideslipping in the water. Once again Hobie's critics told him he was crazy. He took two of the first boats he built to Hawaii, where they sat, friendless, for six months at the Outrigger Canoe Club. "Who'd want to race a catamaran nobody ever heard of?" the local salts wanted to know. Today the Hawaiian sailors form one of Coast Catamaran's most enthusiastic fleets. Around the world, Hobie sold 8,000 of his catamarans last year.
Twice now, Hobie's successful designs had enhanced his own, his friends' and thousands of others' enjoyment of the water. Still, during the surfboard and catamaran years he would return now and again to the high bluffs over the ocean and the mountains near the coast to fly model gliders and study the birds soaring in the shifting eddies of air. Hobie had been away from gliders for a while when, four years ago, he and some friends put a case of beer in the car and traveled to a nearby model shop. Model sailplanes, they found, had become more controllable with light, precise radio apparatus, but the fragile balsa-wood construction remained.
With his knowledge of resilient plastics Hobie studied the available planes, trying hard to resist the creative impulse to design and build a better one. "At first I said to myself, 'I don't need this. I mean, it's nothing but a lot of work.' But once the bug bit me I was cooked. I knew I could build a better glider."
Overnight the workshop above his garage was filled with dozens of wings, chunks of polyethylene, sheets of diaphanous Mylar and plywood and hundreds of his own drawings. Alter designed by trial and error, not theory, reading no books but choosing instead to test one creation after the other in the wind near Capistrano Beach.
The result—taking three years and $100,000—blended sensuous, natural form with space-age construction: a unique injection-molded ABS plastic tailpiece (tooling for this part alone cost $12,000), a six-layer fiber-glass fuselage blown into a steel mold, wings of routed Styrofoam to save weight and a nose section of a substance so tough it can be beaten with a sledgehammer without breaking. Today, at the shop in San Juan Capistrano where the models are manufactured, rock music blasts over FM radios and long-haired kids run Hobie-built machines that make the parts for orange, white and yellow Hawks. They are sold assembled for $129 or as a kit for $99; the radio gear is extra. Across the street work tooling engineers and corporate wizards who would rather put in a creative 12-hour day in T-shirts and jeans than shuffle papers in a coat and tie for eight.
Two Hobie Hawks, riding a thermal, circle in the clear morning air 1,000 feet above an old helicopter pad at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in San Clemente. On the ground, Colonel Bob Thacker (U.S. Air Force, retired), a model-airplane aficionado, expounds on his compulsion to reposition the wings of the plane he bought from Hobie. "No serious self-respecting modeler would buy a plane and fly it as is," he says. "Besides, if I can't change the design a little bit, there's no sex in it, if you know what I mean." The Colonel, a short, spare man with twinkling green eyes, dressed in his model-competition uniform of white sneakers, a white shirt with a one-inch collar, a black tie with a knot the size of a quarter and a straw boater, looks more like an escapee from a vaudeville road show than an ex-military man. He and Hobie have launched their gliders into the thermal using a "hi-start"—100 feet of surgical tubing joined to 300 feet of 40-pound-test monofilament fishing line. The line is stretched taut between a stake in the ground and the glider's tow hook; the pilot lets go of the plane and, like a paper clip coming off a rubber band in geometry class, the sailplane wings away to become airborne.
For about an hour Hobie and the Colonel have been holding an impromptu glider competition, first endurance tests and then precision-landing contests in which a glider must be brought from high altitude to a given spot on the ground in exactly two minutes. Suddenly Hobie spots two hawks, wings outstretched, soaring effortlessly in a thermal just above the ridgeline of a hill a mile away. In less than a minute he maneuvers his glider into the same thermal and the plane quietly joins the two birds. At first the hawks ignore the strange intruder that mimics the pattern of their gyre, but then Hobie lofts his sailplane above them, and the hawks react. Instantly they gain altitude and, with a cry that echoes through the valley, one bares his talons and dives for the glider. But Hobie sends his plane streaking toward the ground, and the furious bird is thwarted. "You can play with those hawks all day," Hobie says as he lands the sailplane, "but they won't let you get above them."
After dropping the Colonel at his house, Hobie aims the van for Ontario and a Thanksgiving dinner at his sister's. "We'll take the long way around through the mountains," he says. "Maybe see some people hang-gliding off the cliffs."
For a man who treats heavy surf and a wild broad ocean with the kind of disdain most people reserve for the bathtub, Alter drives the narrow winding roads of the Santa Ana Mountains with extreme caution. In part this is caused by his constant searching of the sky for soaring birds, sailplanes and hang-gliders while at the same time scouring the roadside for places to fly the Hawk.
As he drives, Hobie also gives a running, encyclopedic account of rock formations, crop yields, animal life and other ways to get to where we're going with a Kerouac-like exuberance. In the middle of a long discourse on the region's dry, hot winds, called Santa Anas, he suddenly wrenches the van's steering wheel 90 degrees to the left and pulls to within three inches of the edge of a cliff hundreds of feet above Lake Elsinore. Before the dust raised by the van's wheels has settled to the ground Hobie has the back doors open and is jamming the glider's wings onto the fuselage. "We got some lift out there," he says, and dashes for the edge of the cliff, the glider in one hand, the transmitter in the other. He flicks the transmitter and receiver on, and hurls the plane off into space.
Within five minutes the small overlook is crammed with bubbling onlookers—two heavy-duty bikers, three female hang-gliders, some campers, four sets of smoochers and an assortment of Thanksgiving Day sightseers—all of them risking a slip into oblivion for a better look at the Hobie Hawk. Not one to pass up an opportunity to petrify the crowd, Hobie, deadpan, brings the glider streaking toward the goggle-eyed spectators, several of whom hit the dirt. The plane does a roll, loops no more than 10 feet from the edge of the cliff and, before anyone has time to blink, catches some lift and hovers hundreds of feet out over the lake. If Hobie had brought a dozen sailplanes with him he would have sold them all.
It is very late Thursday night. We have been talking for hours in the van on the trip back from Ontario and now in the beach house at Capistrano. Hobie pulls the sliding glass door shut against the late-night fog rolling in across the harbor, and suddenly the noise of the surf breaking 50 feet away is muffled. We pull our chairs a little closer to the freestanding fireplace and stare at the snapping coals behind the screen. After what seems like a very long time Hobie speaks, as much to himself as to me. "With the surfboards," he says, "I wasn't sure. With the catamarans I thought 'probably,' but I know the glider'll be a success." "Why?" I ask him. "Is there something about the timing—are people more ready for a glider now than, say, 10 years ago?"
"Nope," Hobie replies, "it's just that plane. I can feel that it's right." Twice before Hobie's instincts have been correct, but who knows? I think about the crowd on the cliff overlooking Lake Elsinore, literally jumping up and down with enthusiasm, but then people in Southern California like excitement. Will thousands of folks in Kansas and Florida and New Jersey rush out to buy a Hobie Hawk for $129 plus radio-control equipment? Whether they do or not, this much is certain: from time to time, somewhere along the Coast Highway between Newport Beach and San Diego, not far from a blue Dodge van, a straight-backed figure wearing sunglasses will stand motionless as a bronze statue and gaze out over the Pacific where an orange bird drifts silently like a dream.