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Original Issue

Purring along with the cats

Not a bird, not really a plane, a boat with a racy reputation came to the serene waters of Florida's Tampa Bay to show off its gentler side

All it takes is the proper little puff of breeze and a Hobie Cat will stand up on one hull, hiking higher and higher until the sailor is perched six feet above the water. Because they are a romantic bunch, Hobie helmsmen call this maneuver "dancing on the edge," and because they get carried away by it, they occasionally dance up there a touch too long—until the cat slowly rolls sail down into the water. Ker-splash, end of maneuver. Since this new racing class was introduced three years ago the image has grown of Hobie Cats skittering about recklessly over rough, tossing waters.

That notion was repaired last week at the Hobie Cat 14 National Championships. True, an occasional hull rose sparkling from the water, but for the most part there they were: 119 sailors from 22 states, all calmly crisscrossing the unruffled surface of Tampa Bay. And when it was all over, the Hobies, fastest-growing class of any American production model, were at last established as one of the more versatile new boats in the business.

After four days of wafting around the 48 different courses laid out on the bay, the title went to 17-year-old Richard Loufek of Camarillo, Calif., a crafty youth sensible enough to keep both hulls as firmly in the water as possible in the eight-to 10-knot puffs.

This new proof of the more sedate sailing qualities of his catamaran was important to bemuscled, tousled surfboard builder Hobie Alter, who designed the boat and created that original wave-jumping image. Alter's first name is really Hobart, but he figures, with indisputable logic, that no one "would want to buy a boat called a Hobart Cat." Though he is only 38, Alter is steadfastly referred to as "our leader" among the Hobie Cat set, and his name was plastered on every available surface, from jackets to shirts to sails to posters around Apollo Beach.

Alter's success story is purest Americana, West Coast division. Once a knockabout surfer at California's Dana Point, he took to building and selling his own surfboards at a time when they were most in demand, becoming a reluctant tycoon with no time left for surfing. In 1965 he became "so stoked" while sailing with a friend on a 600-pound cat "that I went right home and started building tons of little scale models." By July of 1968 his own first Hobie Cat was ready: 14 feet long and 225 pounds. He sold 100 by that Christmas at $1,000 each. Next season the first national championship was staged in San Diego, and Alter's new firm, Coast Catamaran, grossed $750,000. Sales boomed to $2.8 million in 1970 and this year had hit more than $3 million by September.

Last week, sailing (he finished third in his own invention) and pacing around the beach, watching the affair like a big daddy, Alter outlined his hope for the new image. "This boat sort of started out as a flying surfboard," he said. "I had been sailing it in nine-and 10-foot waves off Dana Point, and the first posters and pictures of the boat showed the thing really taking off from the top of a wave and there was a lot of talk about flying the boat."

The reputation died hard. Nearly every cat owner at Tampa appeared to have been sold by the idea of a flying sailing boat, even folks from such surfless spots as Ohio and Iowa. But big waves aside, there was no doubt about its speed: in August at the Pacific Multihull Association's championship in Los Angeles, a Hobie Cat 14 was clocked officially at 23.2 miles per hour.

"I can drive mine over 15 miles an hour—then catch a wave going the same speed and reach 30 before I take off into midair and just about break the sound barrier," said Daytona entrant Gaulden Reed, a tanned 53-year-old enthusiast. Reed bought his cat two years ago, then sold his marina and retired in what one suspects is a cause-and-effect relationship. He had sailed a bit over the years. "But every boat I tried was so slow that I couldn't get interested," he said. Then Hobie Alter drove by the marina one September day with a dismantled cat lashed atop his car. Reed took one look at the knifelike hulls and growled, "'Lord, I've got to see it go." It was a 45° day, rainy and cold—but they sailed for nearly an hour, enough to convert Reed on the spot. Nowadays, he routinely goes Hobie Catting in the surf, though he warns that "you really have to know surfing to risk it—especially if you get hit sideways."

A lot of the Hobie Cat's speed lies in the lightness of the boat. All up and down the Tampa beach, wiry youngsters were pushing the cats in and out of the water unassisted, a stunt that is all but impossible for most other sailboats. A lot of monohulls have keels, of course, and can't be taken ashore at all; others, and most catamarans, have centerboards to deal with and rudders that are tough to lift free. But without centerboards and with two plastic rudders that swing up automatically when beaching, the Hobie Cats can be pushed about like toys. Afloat in a foot of water, they're ready to fly.

There was not much chance for flying in Tampa's eight-knot breezes, but the competition made the most out of those few extra puffs, knowing that if they did get the boats cater-wompus they were particularly easy to right.

"There is no real danger," said Alter. "The sense of danger is an illusion built into the boat to provide someone with a natural high."

Alter has been on the trail of natural highs all his life, first as a downhill skier, then a surfer and most recently as a motorcyclist. He pointed to his knees, just healing and scarring after a spill from his Husky 360. "Motorcycling is danger enough," he said. "As for flying my own plane, well, that's no illusion, the danger there is real. The only way you can fly is safely—and I don't like that. You can't fool around while flying. If I thought that I could crash and walk away laughing, it would be all right. But in sailing you can clown around a bit and still be safe."

Alter comes on with a world-weary, growly Lee Marvin sort of voice audible all along Apollo Beach. He showed up for the races wearing a pool-hall-type eyeshade with his hair tumbling out the top. Under that he wore wraparound dark glasses and a cigarette in the middle of his mouth and, finally, ragtag bits and pieces of a wet suit: rubber socks, one rubber sleeve and rolled-up pants legs.

For the championship, Alter's Coast Catamaran had crated and shipped 60 of its boats to Tampa for those entries who couldn't ship in their own, and Hobie had looked over the crates and then decided, "I'll take a gold and white one."

"Best kind of sailing," he said, "is when all boats are identical as possible and it's the man who wins or loses." It takes a lot of identical boats to make a class, he allowed, "and that's why we're pushing the one-design regatta theme in American sailing. We've held more than 200 so far in 1971. Two years ago, at the Atlanta Boat Show, a dealer told me, 'Hey, you get a class going and we'll buy.' And I told him, 'You buy and I'll get the class going.' "

Well, the class is going now, and currently there are more Hobie Cats under sail than any of the six official Olympic classes. And anyone can win on a given day. "Last year I sailed in one regatta," Alter rasped, "and all the guys in it were 60 years old. And I came in 11th. In my own boat! I knew the boat, all right, but they knew the local conditions."

At Tampa the range was even wider. Forty-three years separated the oldest and youngest entrant, the latter a 10-year-old girl. Loufek won three of the eight races, each set up for some 4½ miles around varied courses. There was plenty of glory, but even better, some new hardware to mark his triumph. One award, the Hobie Cat Perpetual Trophy, is a brass model of a Hobie Cat. Really a nice-looking, solid little rascal. Seems a shame that he'll never get one hull up on it.