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Remembering Hobie Alter, the Surfing Visionary Who Invented a Sport and a Culture

Alter, who passed away on Saturday at age 80, was a self-taught engineer who invented the polyurethane foam surfboard.
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The father of the modern surfing industry -- who vowed, at the beginning of his career, to make a living without ever having to wear hard-soled shoes -- died peacefully at his California home on Saturday at the age of 80.

Hobie Alter is credited with inventing the polyurethane foam surfboard -- and therein, ushering in the internationally competitive sport and inimitable culture we know today.

“By making people a toy and giving them a game to play with it, he was able to realize his dream,” reads an obituary message on Alter’s website.

Though surfing is believed to have been a part of Polynesian culture for centuries, boards were typically constructed from wood before Alter, a self-taught engineer, caught an entrepreneurial wave while tooling around in his garage one day.

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The use of foam boards democratized the sport by making riding waves faster and easier for all -- and Alter’s Dana Point surf shop, the first in Southern California, quickly became the epicenter of a burgeoning community.

Alter’s story shows that addressing an unforeseen need by thinking outside of the box can quite literally change the world.

That his inventions were born of a deep and abiding passion -- Alter was a noted competitive surfer himself -- is a lesson for aspiring innovators to follow their hearts.

And Alter didn’t stop with surfboards. He also leaves in his wake a high-performance catamaran called the “Hobie Cat” that is credited with making sailing accessible to the masses -- beyond the swanky and exclusive yacht clubs of the era.

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Other creations include a remote controlled glider and a surfboard-skateboard hybrid.

However, Alter’s propensity for innovation came at a cost -- both literally and figuratively. "Nobody had ever before given me more money for something than it had cost me to make it," he once told a reporter of his process. " I thought that was pretty keen."

His obsessive work ethic also led to the dissolution of a handful of marriages -- he counted a total of five.

While details are still pending, a surfer’s “Paddle-Out” will be scheduled in front of Alter’s Laguna Beach home to celebrate “where it all began,” his website says.

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