Walter Hoffman, surf industry pioneer and big-wave surfer, dies at 92

Walter Hoffman, surf industry pioneer and big-wave surfer, dies at 92

Walter Hoffman, an early-era big wave charger and board builder who helped kick-start the surf clothing industry, died Tuesday, July 9, at age 92.

“Surfing has lost one of its true pioneers as Walter Hoffman has gracefully kicked out. A surfboard builder, big-wave innovator, titan of the surf industry and committed family man, his legacy will live on in countless ways,” wrote Jake Howard, editor-in-chief of Surfer Magazine, in a tribute following news of Hoffman’s passing.  

Hoffman and brother Phillip, who went by “Flippy,” spent their younger years in the Los Angeles area, sons of Rube Hoffman, who started California Fabrics in 1924.

By the ’40s, the family was spending summers in Laguna Beach, where the teenage brothers enjoyed the laid-back beach lifestyle – surfing big redwood boards, diving for abalone and having bonfires on the sand after long, cold ocean sessions, before the days of wetsuits.

Dick Metz, a longtime friend and founder of the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center, first met the Hoffmans during those years when he was a lifeguard for Laguna Beach.

Walter Hoffman joined the Navy during the Korean War and because of his water skills, was sent to Hawaii to be a lifeguard at Pearl Harbor, Metz said.

That’s where a group of surfers, including Hoffman and the likes of Buzzy Trent and George Downing, lived together, spending summers in Waikiki and winters on the North Shore, becoming pioneers of big-wave surfing.

“There weren’t shapers like now, there weren’t shops,” Metz said. “Everybody would make their own board or if you didn’t like doing it, you’d get a guy like Walter to.”

Hoffman was one of the early-era board makers, using balsa wood and other materials, long before fiberglass and foam were introduced to the craft. In 2021, Hoffman was inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach for his early boards that helped pave the path for big-wave surfing.

Hoffman and brother Flippy were also inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in 2006 for their contribution to the surf culture — namely their impact on surfwear.

Following his time in Hawaii, Hoffman learned the fabric business and bought a home on Beach Road in Dana Point in the ’50s. The brothers took the train from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles to help, and eventually take over, the family operations.

It was a time when surf innovation was thriving, with regular gatherings of the era’s innovators meeting every Wednesday at the empty lot next to Hoffman’s beachfront home, kicking around ideas after long days surfing — what emerged were creations such as Hobie Alter’s small sailing catamaran and the foam blanks for making surfboards.

The group, dubbed the “Dana Point Mafia,” revolutionized surf culture into what we know today, Metz said.

“All of that happened on the beach. Go surf, have a beer and talk about foam surfboards, all of that,” he said. “Walter was an integral part of that for 60, 70 years.”

Their father’s company, later renamed Hoffman California Fabrics, International, was already a big player in the textile industry, but his sons, with a love for the Hawaiian islands and surfing, would bring “their own special vision and talents” to the company.

Hoffman California Fabrics pioneered the Hawaiian-infused aesthetic of California surf clothing and became the primary textile provider to the surf wear industry, supplying big brands such as Ocean Pacific, Quiksilver, Gotcha, Billabong and O’Neill.

Iconic Dana Point surfer Walter Hoffman with Gerry Lopez on June 21, 2024, during a gathering at Rainbow Sandals in San Clemente. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

“No one had a better life than Walter, his life was in the best of times to be a surfer and he lived every moment of it to the fullest,” said iconic surfer and longtime friend Gerry Lopez. “I’m sure he passed with a smile for all the good waves, good friends and good times he enjoyed.”

Hoffman was also the patriarch of a family tree of surf influencers, including raising step-daughter Joyce Hoffman, a champion women’s surfer who broke barriers in the ’70s, and as grandfather to Christian and Nathan Fletcher, two well-known fixtures in the surf world.

Plans were already in the works for a statue honoring Walter and Flippy Hoffman, who died in 2010, to join Joyce Hoffman’s bronze statue at the Waterman’s Plaza, where a collection of Dana Point icons are honored for their early-era contributions.

Hoffman is survived by children Joyce Hoffman, Dibi Fletcher, Tony Hoffman, Robin Hoffman Haack, their spouses, seven grandchildren and 11 grandchildren. Plans for a memorial are pending.

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