86-year-old Walter Hoffman’s eyes gleam with stoke and levity—he’s been surfing since 1945. A big wave pioneer, a beachwear industrialist, the president of Hoffman California Fabrics, I met with him in his Mission Viejo office, where he was surrounded by vibrant textiles and mid-century surf ephemera. Walter’s father launched the business in 1924. The surfwear industry was essentially built from Hoffman fabrics. Walter took the helm in 1959 and has been here ever since. On his desk there are family photos. And what a family! Walter’s the younger brother to the late Flippy Hoffman, who was also a big wave pioneer. He’s the stepfather to two-time world champion Joyce Hoffman. He’s the grandfather to surf rebels Christian and Nathan Fletcher. Does Walter still get in the water? Read on.
What was it like surfing in the ‘40s?
Well, you knew everybody at the beach. In fact you knew everybody from Rincon south. San Onofre was the big deal then—there were a lot of surfers there.
And then you went to Hawaii?
I went into the service, in the Navy. 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.
Those were the days when surfing was a holistic thing, you went diving, you used the ocean to feed you.
Oh yeah, we went diving all the time. 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.
When you think back on your prime surfing days is there a single wave that stands out?
One wave stands out, at Maili Point. It was way out to sea, Cloudbreak is probably over a half a mile out. It was breaking, a bunch of us went out there, and nobody caught a wave. And then one wave came, it was so big, your eye just closed out from here to here, it was so far out there I just couldn’t believe it. And George Downing was next to me, and a few others, and no leashes, right? And we all got off our boards and waited for this thing to come and we dove under, I probably dove fifteen feet but that was nothing. And came up, and we all had to swim in a long way. One guy almost drowned in the shorebreak.
Your father was in the textiles business. Did you always know you’d be working in that field?
Well, I got out of the service, I stayed there in Hawaii, I had an offer to do the catamaran deal in Waikiki and I passed on that. Then I came back here and I wanted to go back to Hawaii. 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. So I got to go back and forth three or four times a year. I still do.
Did you have any idea that the surf industry would blow up like it has?
I never really thought about it. But no, the answer would be no on that.
What’s a typical day at work for you like these days?
I come in and listen to all the stuff that the kids are doing, and just let them do what they want to do, ‘cause they’re better off than I am with what’s going on.
You still getting in the water?
Yeah. When it’s warm. Or if I go to Hawaii I’ll go surfing at Waikiki.
What have you learned from all your decades in the surf?
Be courteous in the water. Enjoy the water; enjoy the freedom. I just love the ocean, being in the water. I have to be in the water once a day, even if it’s the pool.