Hobie Cat has "Made In California" stamped all over it. As much as the Beach Boys or Malibu movies, the combination of people and products that resulted in what today is called the Hobie Cat Company could have occurred only in southern California. From the early beginnings at Hobie Surfboards in the `5Os, through the formation of Coast Catamaran in 1967, and the myriad transformations of ownership, the company has remained true to its initial commitment of providing fun activity open to all.
Long-time Hobie associate Wayne Schafer still recalls the day Hobie Alter came down to his Poche Beach house on Capistrano Beach one afternoon during the middle of the week. "To see Hobie on a workday was unusual to begin with." Wayne reveals. But there indeed was Hobie Alter, in T-shirt and shorts (dressing up never suited him, then or now), carrying a calliper and measuring tape, with a pencil behind his ear. "I'm going to design us this boat we've always talked about," Hobie declared.
And he did. The days of drawing pictures in the sand were over. The days of building a real life catamaran had begun.
The meeting ended; the two businessmen left. A few days later Art returned alone. "Do you still think you could build that boat?" he wanted to know. Hobie and Art put $5000 apiece into a bank account, determined that non-sailor Art would run the business end and Hobie would run the manufacturing end of the new venture, and the work began in a Quonset hut (formerly home to Hobie's motorcycles) in an alley behind a hardware store near Capistrano Beach. The shop was conveniently close to Wayne Schafer's home, where Hobie and his first employee, Sandy Banks, would test their prototype 14-footers.
At first they used a competitor's boat as a trial horse, but soon advanced far beyond the competition. Shaping two different hulls on each boat, sailing the boats, trading them and sailing again, comparing features all the while, resulted in the refined product called the Hobie Cat 14. By the following summer, six boats were ready to race. Hobie, Sandy, Wayne and three companions held their first regatta on July 4th, 1968. Unfortunately for this momentous occasion, someone neglected to invite the wind.
Hobie and Art travelled to boat dealers, who were painfully unimpressed with the cats So they went to boat shows instead, selling directly to the public. The first trade show was less than earth-shattering. (Finally a boat dealer came up and said, "I'll take your boat." "How many - nine?" Hobie asked hopefully. "No, one.")
Actually, most of the early customers and eventual dealers came from the buying public, not the boat industry. Hobie and crew hit on the idea of the decade when they traded surfing movie producer Dick Barrymore and Bill Amberg a couple cats in return for a 20-minute movie showing the guys on the beach designing a boat in the sand, then building it and finally sailing it and having a great time. Ordinary people who had never been on a boat came to the boat shows, saw the movie and were conquered by the Cat.
By 1969, sailors were asking for a bigger boat. Hobie set to work. Soon after, Phil Edwards, who had returned from Hawaii, joined Hobie and the project. The result was the Hobie 16, an instant hit and still the most popular Hobie Cat and perhaps sailboat, today. In fact asserts Hobie, "in its third year of production, the 16 outsold all other classes put together. There probably hasn't been a one-month period since the 16 came out that any boat ever has outsold it." Hobie still believes the 16 is the ideal boat, an all-around craft easy enough for one sailor to handle but perfect for a guy and gal to sail on together. Over 100,000 Hobie 16s have graced the waters, from America to Australia, and just about everywhere in-between.
The company began to structure the races into classes, starting a regatta department manned by Keith Fuller. Soon the organisation was off and sailing ... across the country and around the world. The first two Nationals, held in 1970 and 1971, took place in California, but the races soon branched out. The first World Championship held n Hawaii was soon a smashingly fun success, they took it to Tahiti the next year.
Hobie Alter, although always approachable whenever he found the time to attend an event or meet with the pubic, was getting so busy with the production end of the company his friends and employees became very active in the racing and organisational activities. "Clinics, lectures, races, whatever we did, the fun was contagious" Wayne enthuses.
It also was good business. To keep up with the growth now quickening its pace, the company underwent some phases of maturation. After Hobie and Art sold 10 percent of the partnership and later some other shares privately, Art suggested they go public. Coast Catamaran began trading on the National over-the-counter market in 1971, In retrospect, Hobie sees that as "one of the biggest mistakes." He and Art each retained 26 percent of the company, which they moved to a huge facility in Irvine and adulterated, in a way with crafts other than cats. "We should have stayed at making what we were good at," Hobie now feels. Also, as a public company, the business life became increasingly more complicated and increasingly less fun. Coleman Company. Inc came calling with an interest in purchasing Coast Catamaran. After three attempts, the transaction was consummated in 1976.
Once Coleman began paying the bills the company was put on the move, helped along by a dynamic end likeable president, Doug Campbell. The dealer organisation was formalised and exciting new boats were introduced, The company prospered, undergoing an expansion move in 1979 to Oceanside, California (home of the Hobie Cat Company today, which leases the building from Coleman).
In 1982 Coleman purchased Vagabond Sailboats, which became a division of Coast Catamaran under the direction of Ron Holder, former Vagabond president. What became known as the Hobie (originally, Vagabond; currently, Hobie One) line of mononulls soon was being produced at the Hobie Cat production facilities in San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside (later wholly in Oceanside when the San Juan Capistrano mould facility closed in 1987 and joined the rest of the family down the coast).
The growth continued. For safety's sake, the company introduced the COMPTlP® retrofit program in an effort to diminish the danger of mast contact with an overhead power line. Amid the introduction of new Hobie water toys - the Hobie Power Skiff and Alpha Sailboards (the company is the exclusive U.S. distributor for Alpha) in 1984, the Holder 14 monohull (now updated end re-released as the Hobie One-14) in 1986 - the company was garnering world-wide recognition.
Shortly before Tony Wilson purchased Coast Catamaran from Coleman in January 1989, changing the name back to its roots of the Hobie Cat Company, the Hobie 21 was selected as 1988 "Boat of the Year" by SAILING WORLD magazine. Also in 1988, skipper Jeff MacInnis and crew Mike Beedell completed a long, cold journey, becoming the first to cross the Northwest Passage in a solely wind-powered boat. Their craft? A Hobie 18 Magnum, of course.
In Spring 1989 Hobie Cat Company sponsored a Hobie 21 in the fast and famous Newport to Ensenada race. At the end of the gruelling, 130-mile ocean race, against big cats such as America's Cup challenger Dennis Conner's "Stars and Stripes" (whose design team had included notable Hobie Cat experts), the smallest of them all turned out to be one of the fastest of them all, capturing an unofficial sixth-place finish out of more than 500 boats. The sailors? Hobie Alter's son, Jeff, and Tony Wilson's son, John.
Soon after the Tony Wilson purchase, the Boat that started it all, the Hobie 14, was inducted into SMALL BOAT JOURNAL's "Hall of Fame." The spunky little charmer was chosen for being "just what a boat should be: fast, simple and a whole lot of fun." Come to think of it, isn't that exactly how the company began?