If Huntington Beach, Calif., is Surf City, as some insist, then
Robert August is its local hero. Surfers of an advanced age will
remember him as the dark-haired costar of The Endless Summer,
the 1966 documentary film that introduced wipeouts and nose
rides to the world. "He's one of the surviving gurus of the
soul-surfing era of the 1960s," says Steve Pezman, editor and
publisher of The Surfer's Journal. "He epitomizes the days when
surfers honored the sport's Polynesian roots and danced with the
waves instead of using them as skateboard ramps."
These days August can be found at a Huntington Beach warehouse
where he manufactures a modern version of the classic 10-foot
longboard, or at his unassuming surf shop across from a surf
museum that exhibits vintage bikinis and Jan & Dean albums.
August's store has some historic offerings of its own: Walls are
chockablock with snapshots of half-forgotten afternoons when
swells crested to epic proportions. There is also a portrait of
surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku and a flier that promotes one
type of Robert August Precision Surfboard as "the favorite of
the O.J. Simpson defense team" and another as the "perfect board
for bald-headed guys with potbellies and attitudes."
Unlike the bikini-and-sunglasses emporiums that crowd Huntington
Beach's main drag, August's store is a true surfer's shop,
scented with the tangy aroma of surf wax. No beachwear upstages
the boards, a colorful collection as varied as neckties in a
closet, with eye-pleasing lines and gleaming coats of resin.
"The heritage of the sport is anchored in those longboards,"
says Pezman. "There's a spiritual connection to the early days
of surfing, when everyone emulated the manly, chest-out body
language of Hawaiian surfing."
Not the least of the shop's attractions is August himself, a
handsome 50-year-old who extends casual greetings to
wet-suit-clad customers. Tan and trim, he could almost pass as
an older brother of the teenagers who gawk at his wares. To
them, a Robert August longboard is a Stradivarius.
Time has not diminished August's passion for the sport. "God, I
can't wait to get out there when there's a swell," he says. "Why
am I so excited after 40 years? It's infectious. The golf course
is a constant. You can go down the same ski slope over and over.
But when you paddle out in the waves, you're always adjusting.
You never know what's going to come up."
August was surfing long before Frankie met Annette. He learned
from his father, a lifeguard and welder known up and down the
Southern California coast as Blackie. Blackie rode his first
waves on a redwood board in 1927 after Kahanamoku, an Olympic
swimmer from Hawaii, popularized surfing on the mainland.
When Robert was seven, Blackie made him a little red balsa
surfboard to use in the waves that crashed in front of their
house on Seal Beach. "I was out in the surf every morning before
first light," Robert recalls. "One night I discovered that the
board had a ding. I thought I was going to die. I couldn't
understand why my father wouldn't fix it right then. It seemed
unthinkable to wait even a day."
By the time he was a teenager, Robert had become the Joe
DiMaggio of surfing: a graceful presence with an instinctive
sense for the flow of a wave. He would stroll the length of the
board with defiant ease. Soon a San Clemente lifeguard named
Bruce Brown cast him in some homemade 16-millimeter surf
movies--among them Barefoot Adventure and Surfing Hollow
Days--that Brown would narrate in rented auditoriums over a
sound track of twangy guitar riffs.
August hid his surfing exploits from track coaches and teachers
at Huntington Beach High, where he made the honor roll all four
years and was president of the student body as a senior.
"Surfing was something you weren't supposed to be doing," he
says. "A lot of people ditched school to go surfing. I never
did. It was embarrassing to be associated with those Moondoggie
and Gidget movies and that horrible Beach Boys music. That was
all an unfortunate image that somebody concocted."
Besides, August considered surfing no more than a diversion. He
was intent on going to college and starting a career in
dentistry. In fact, August was so diligent that at first he
declined Brown's invitation to co-star in The Endless Summer, a
16-millimeter documentary that would follow two surfers on a
round-the-world search for the perfect wave.
"I said 'No way' because I was going to college," August says,
"but Bruce had the itinerary all worked out on a map of the
world. I agreed to discuss it with my parents and teachers.
Everyone said, 'You're out of your mind if you don't go.'" So in
1963 August joined Brown and surfer Mike Hynson on a three-month
odyssey that included stops in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand,
Tahiti, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.
"What every surfer dreams of finding is a small wave with
perfect shape--what we call a perfect wave," Brown said in his
narration. "The odds of finding that are 10 million to one." The
intrepid surfers fulfilled their dream one month into the trip
at a point on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast called Cape St.
Francis. After lugging camera gear and 35-pound boards across
three miles of sand dunes under a scorching sun, the men came
upon endless rows of glassy tubes breaking in immaculate
succession off an unattended beach. August vomited in the water
that day from excitement and exhaustion. One of his rides was so
long--several hundred yards--that Brown ran out of film before
it was over.
Hollywood dismissed Brown's homemade travelogue as too esoteric
for mainstream release. To prove that a picturesque surf epic
could, in fact, appeal to the landlocked, Brown showed the movie
in a rented theater in Wichita, Kans., during a freak November
blizzard, and it sold out for two straight weeks, surpassing the
theater's attendance for the enormously popular My Fair Lady.
Undaunted by the skepticism of distributors, Brown booked the
film into the Kips Bay Theater in New York City, guaranteed the
owners a profit and paid for the promotion himself. The response
exceeded his wildest hopes. The Endless Summer's hypnotic beauty
and exotic beach scenes proved irresistible to New Yorkers who
knew about surfing only from magazines and beach-blanket movies.
The film seemed to capture the youthful energy of the Kennedy
era. It showed, for example, August and Hynson giving surfing
lessons to a giggling throng of Ghanaian kids at a time when
young Americans were joining the Peace Corps. The New York Times
called the movie "an original...optimistic work." After breaking
attendance records in its Manhattan run, The Endless Summer
opened across the country. So far it has grossed more than $30
million worldwide. Although August made nothing on the proceeds,
Brown did eventually reimburse him for his airfare.
The Endless Summer not only changed the sport of surfing forever
but also changed its young protagonists. Hynson returned to San
Diego a celebrity and eventually fell into a sad spiral of
foolhardy business ventures, drug abuse and jail sentences. He
now makes surfboards in LaJolla. August enrolled at Long Beach
State, but his original ambitions had ceased to appeal to him.
"My mind was just wandering," August says. "After visiting all
those countries, I was thinking on a different scale. I talked
to my dentist, who was a surfer. He told me he would rather do
anything than go to his office each morning. I had never really
thought about actually getting into somebody's mouth and digging
around. I began to think that what I really was, was a surfer."
August dropped out of college after his freshman year to manage
a Hermosa Beach surf shop and participate on the competition
circuit. "Sponsors gave us free surfboards and trips to Hawaii,
but we never liked those contests," he says. "Surfing is
subjective. Everyone surfs differently. It's misguided to
compete; it's like holding an art competition."
August focused instead on teaching himself to shape his own line
of surfboards. In 1967 he sculpted the first of the 32,000
boards that bear his signature. Most, of course, were
longboards--classic round-nosed beauties ranging from 10 to 12
feet, like the 10-footer he navigated in The Endless Summer.
Over the years his reputation has continuously improved. "If you
look down the rail of a Robert August board, you do not see a
blemish," says Scott Hulet, editor of Longboard Magazine. "They
are incredibly pure, the work of an artist who's shaped tens of
thousands of boards."
In the late '60s, longboards fell from fashion as younger
surfers demanded successively shorter, stubbier boards--"butt
wigglers"--on which to thrash and shred the waves. Along with
the aggressive new style came a combative attitude, drugs and
punk posturing. In Southern California a dark side of surfing
replaced the original beach bonhomie.
A disenchanted August questioned his commitment. "There have
been times when it was tough," he concedes. "About 20 years ago
I got tired of [shaping boards] for a while and opened a
restaurant. I hated it. Get 'em drunk so they spend money; then
get 'em to stop drinking so they'll leave. Thankfully, it was
short-lived. I'm never going to make much money shaping
surfboards, but at least I enjoy going to work in the morning.
Make a guy a new surfboard, and he's the happiest guy in the
world. I still get excited."
What keeps August's interest is the constant challenge of
applying lighter, stronger materials to the classic form. Like
all great craftsmen, he discards the outdated without
sentimentality. "My surfing was not too bad in those old movies,
considering how heavy the boards were," he says. "Those old
dogs, they were miserable. Of course, at the time, we thought
they were cool, high-tech stuff. I probably surf as well now as
I ever have because the boards are so much lighter."
August has seen the classic longboard (in his updated version)
stage a vigorous comeback in recent years as baby boomers, no
longer so distracted by families and jobs, return to the surf.
"There's a graying populace just waiting to get back in the
surf," says Hulet. "A lot of these gentlemen surfed in the
1960s, then became fed up with the helter-skelter gymnastics as
board lengths shrank. The irony is that younger surfers are also
discovering the soulful, gliding, graceful style of longboard
surfers like Robert August."
In the last three years longboard sales in the U.S. have increased fivefold, and August is racing to meet the surging demand. His staff of 12 now produces 72 boards a week, ranging in price from $300 to $700. With orders pouring in from such far-flung surfing outposts as Germany and Japan, August plans to double his production this fall, when he moves into larger quarters a few blocks from his current plant.
Last year August made an appearance in Brown's The Endless
Summer II, which features a new pair of Californian surfers--Pat
O'Connell and Robert (Wingnut) Weaver--who plan their own
circumnavigation of the world after watching the original
Endless Summer on TV "for the 100th time," according to Brown's
narration. After a trip to an automatic teller machine, they
stop by August's shop to pick up Wingnut's custom-made
longboard. Today, the red-striped Wingnut model is a best-seller.
"For a while, surfers were wearing black T-shirts with skulls
and blood coming out of the eyes," August says. "They had gotten
away from the mood of riding a wave. When you're surfing, you go
only about 10 miles an hour. Bruce's movie got back to what
people go to the beach for: having fun. You go surfing with
friends on a beautiful day and tease each other about falling
off a wave."
August accompanied the two younger surfers to Tamarindo, on the
Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where he is building a house on a
jungle hillside overlooking the surf. With its warm water and
friendly residents, Costa Rica has the unspoiled beach
atmosphere August found 30 years ago in California and Hawaii.
"I surf my brains out down there," he says. "Then I come back to
California and work."
It isn't all work, of course. When a respectable swell batters
the Huntington Beach pier, Robert paddles out with his
27-year-old son, Sam (whose injury-plagued minor league pitching
career was put on hold this year), or with the guys from his
shop. "I'm given legend status for a little while," Robert says.
"Then I'm just another guy in the lineup."
Freelance writer Michael Cannell has covered indoor sailing and
outdoor solar-car racing for SI.