The Surf Industry Says Goodbye To It’s Pioneer and Pater Familias  - Stab Mag

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The Surf Industry Says Goodbye To It’s Pioneer and Pater Familias 

Rest In Power, Walter Hoffman.

news // Jul 10, 2020
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Today, the surfing world said goodbye to a man whose influence and impact cannot be overstated. Walter Hoffman was a big wave pioneer, a board builder, and one of the true patriarchs of surfing culture. His family created the blueprint for the surf industry we see today.

A WWI veteran, Walter’s father Rube cut his teeth before the war in New York’s garment district, and later started Hoffman California Fabrics in Los Angeles in 1924. 

Walter, born in 1931, and his older brother Phillip “Flippy” Hoffman, began exploring the coast of California looking for waves from Malibu to San Clemente in the 1940s.

“San Onofre was the big deal then,” he told Jamie Brisick. “There were a lot of surfers there.” 

Walter joined the Navy, planning to go into the “Under Water Demolition Team” 

“I was going to go into UDT [Underwater Demolition Team] out of San Diego, then there were some places open at the Supply Center at Pearl Harbor. I went, ‘Shit, that’s where I’m going. I can go surfing and everything.‘ So it was a great deal. I went surfing all the time. And I got out and I stayed there for a couple years.”

Stationed in Pearl Harbor throughout World War II, Walter still found plenty of time to get comfortable at Hawaii’s original big wave destination, Makaha, and after the war, learned how to shape surfboards from the balsa wood salvaged from excess military lifeboats after the war had ended in 1945. 

“When there was no surf we’d go diving. And we worked from five till eleven, or whenever we got done. I lived in Waikiki in the summertime and Makaha in the wintertime. It was great. We rode big waves. I wrote a letter and sent some pictures to the guys here in California, my brother and Buzzy Trent and a bunch of guys. And then they all started going over there. That was the first influx of guys really coming from the mainland. In those days it wasn’t getting tubed and all that. We’d catch big waves, and we’d all take off together, we didn’t care. And you swam to shore a lot—there were no leashes.”

After opening the Hawaiian floodgates to California’s early pioneers, Flippy and Walter returned home to take over the family business, but brought with them all of the cultural capital they’d gathered in the islands, with a heavy focus on Polynesian patterns and “aloha” prints. 

My father had a textile business, but mostly in those days it was yarn-dyed cottons and solid-colored goods. To go to Hawaii I had to sell prints, so I was one of the first guys to go to Hawaii to sell prints from the mainland.”

Over the ensuing decades, Hoffman California Fabrics would help to launch the first “surf brands”, supplying them fabrics and prints and financial support, while Walter and Flippy would help shape the hardgoods side of the surf industry, through their relationships with a young Hobie Alter or Gordon “Grubby” Clark, or early “surf media” icons like Surfer Magazine founder John Severson, or Bruce Brown. 

But Walter’s biggest impact might have come through the birth of his daughters. Joyce Hoffman would become the first female world champion, while Dibbi would go on to become one of surfing’s greatest matriarchs, together with her husband Herbie Fletcher helping to revolutionize surf media with their Wave Warriors series, the first VHS surf videos, as well as Astrodeck, the world’s first surfboard traction company and throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early-2000s the greatest surf team ever assembled. 

Walter’s grandchildren, Christian and Nathan Fletcher have together pushed the boundaries of what is possible to do on a surfboard, both above the lip and in the heaviest, scariest waves in the world. 

With Walter’s passing we lose one of surfing’s true originals, and mark the end of one of the most impactful and important surfing lives ever lived. 

When asked what he’d learned from his decades as a surfer, Walter might have nailed the whole spirit of this subculture of ours better than anyone: Enjoy the water; enjoy the freedom.

Head here or here for terrific interviews with Walter. Rest in Power, sir. 

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