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.
November 6, 1978
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.
Late Friday night, the boats were jammed together on the beach, moonlight twinkling from their 28-foot aluminum masts, which stood like trees in an orchard. The halyards, encouraged by a tropical Gulf breeze, were clanking rhythmically against the masts, and it sounded almost as if the cats were talking to one another. "The night before a race," said one skipper, "you fall asleep with the clanking in your subconscious, secure that you have wind. If the clanking stops in the middle of the night, you miss it and you wake up. You listen again and, if you still can't hear it, you go back to sleep anticipating bad news in the morning."
But the news was all good when the sailors awoke on Saturday. The halyards were clanking wildly, either in delight over the 25-knot winds or in fright over the roiling seas they were about to face.
Saturday morning's point leader was 23-year-old Russ Eddington, a college student ("well, it's only a part-time deal") and native Texan who has been sailing off Padre Island for 10 years. But Eddington and crewman Billy Smith didn't make the start of the first race. An aluminum corner casting cracked; they heard it snap just as they were sailing toward the starting line. They wheeled back for shore and frantically lashed the casting with line, but didn't make it back out in time for the start.
It may have been the luckiest thing that happened to them all day. Out on the course, several of the cats were capsizing in the rugged seas. There were also collisions. One of the crack-ups disabled two boats—one with a hole in its fiberglass hull, the other with a snapped bridle, the wire that supports the mast. As that boat wobbled to shore with mast atilt, Eddington noticed that it was the very boat he had drawn for that afternoon's final race. Repair would be possible, he figured, but it was a portent of the day for him.
Hobie Cats were rocking and pitching, now and then rising far up on one hull and teetering there for breathless seconds. On one downwind leg, parallel to shore, a few boats got caught in the four-foot waves and were carried like surfboards toward the beach.
The second-place boat, skippered by a South African painting contractor named Mick Whitehead and crewed by his 13-year-old son Colin, returned to shore midway through the race with a frayed mainsheet that made control of the mainsail difficult. "When we tacked, I almost capsized," Whitehead said, "so there was no point in carrying on."
The final race was delayed 2½ hours to wait for a squall to ease up. The sailors used the time to repair their boats. Then 13 teams pulled out, complaining that the weather was too severe, and their beached cats were quickly cannibalized to replace broken parts on the boats of those still enthusiastic enough to take part in the final grueling two-hour race.
Despite their misadventures that morning, Eddington and Whitehead were still first and second in the standings. And both were optimistic. "Billy and I really like wind, and I know these waters," said Eddington. "This is our kind of weather here," said Whitehead.
And then the weather got worse, with winds gusting to 40 knots. When the race got going at least eight boats capsized, and three of those lost their masts and mainsails forever to the Gulf of Mexico where they turtied. At the finish, near dusk on a day that had looked like dusk since dawn, the Whiteheads were the 16-foot world champions. They had finished third in the final race, Eddington and Smith seventeenth. Neither boat had capsized, but all four of the sailors had been knocked overboard by waves at least once.
"It was just too rough for us," Eddington conceded. "We couldn't get the boat to go fast." "The waves were so high they were hammering down on us," said Smith. "I don't think they should have held the race."
"I've never been so wooky in all my life," said Whitehead. "I told Colin once I wasn't sure if I could make it. We're exhausted."
And how did Colin, the 102-pound schoolboy, feel?
"I wouldn't say it was the roughest I've ever seen," he said. "Father and I have raced in rough seas and worse weather. Actually, I'm rather used to seas like this."
In the end, it was left to the aforementioned Dana Point resident to assess the situation. "We got a great idea for our next world championship," he said. "We're going to hold it at Dana Point, where there's no wind and the surf is nothing but a chop. That will get 'em. We'll smoke those South Africans then."
Actually, there will probably be a 14-year-old South African boy rather used to seas like that.