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the inertia
(Friday) 5.2.14

CLASSICS: Robert August

“I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.” – James Salter, Burning the Days

CLASSICS is a series that provides insight, life advice, and general words of wisdom from surfing’s most respected individuals.

Robert August, as happy in the shaping bay as anywhere. Photo: Kristen Brown

Robert August, as happy in the shaping bay as anywhere. Photo: Kristen Brown

Robert August’s stoke is audible. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s been all over the world, surfed some of the most remote places, blazed trails where there weren’t any and came back with an encyclopedia’s worth of stories and wisdom. He speaks with an excitement and enthusiasm for storytelling usually found in people a fraction of his age (68), and it seems the decades of traveling, adventuring, surfing and doing exactly what he loves have kept him young at heart, which made our phone call a colorful and enjoyable 40 minutes.

It’s funny talking to Robert August. The conversation feels like a more relatable version of a history class I took in school. Where, in school, I read from a textbook and listened to professors pontificate on the things they’ve been taught, here I was listening to someone with first-hand experience. The difference was profound. From the origins of surfing in the US and Australia to how the route of Endless Summer was conceived, he explained everything and each step along the way. He loves telling stories, and he has plenty to tell.

These are the highlights from our conversation.


“When he was a kid, Duke Kahanamoku came over, brought some surfboards and competed in swimming pools and then, a few years later, Duke was in the Olympics and he came back with a bunch of big boards. That’s kinda how the surfing thing started in California. Four years later, the Olympics were in Sydney, Australia, and he did the same thing – took a bunch of boards on a big ol’ ship. He spread the aloha spirit and the sport of surfing.”

“I grew up right on the beach in Seal Beach, California, and surfed every day of my life starting at six years old. When I was 14, I was as good as anyone. I was in Bruce Brown’s movies – all of his movies – before Endless Summer. We drove to Florida, went to Mexico, went to Hawaii in the really early days. Y’know, in 1960, 1959. Then he had this idea to go to Cape Town because he had heard there were some guys learning to make boards and surf down there. So he decided to make this big trip. He really believed you could spend your whole life in summertime by crossing the equator.”

“When I went during the Korean Conflict, a whole bunch of the guys who got drafted were stationed in Hawaii. One of them was my brother-in-law. A lot of the guys – Bruce Brown and John Severson included – were in the military, and they pretty much pioneered the North Shore. That’s in the mid-fifties. There were a whole bunch of guys on giant pieces of wood, including me, trying to ride waves on the North Shore.”

“It was terrifying trying to ride the North Shore on these things. The board I had in the Endless Summer was 10’4″ and 45 pounds with a giant fin and it was really difficult to ride. We were just trying to survive the drop and not get killed by the white water.”

“Pat Curren, Tommy’s dad, made the first innovations that I saw that were shorter with the narrow tail. I remember Pat Curren saying, ‘Dynamite comes in small packages.’”

“Our goal was just to go to Cape Town and back, but at the time, there was not much air travel. No direct flights across the Atlantic to Johannesburg. We had to go to Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria to get to Johannesburg. We had no idea how to find the beach, talk to anybody, or anything. In each one of those countries, we had to find transportation, get a map, and ‘which way is it to the other towns?’ That was one of the best parts of the movie.”

“We said ‘sure, why not go to Australia? We’ll end up in Hawaii somehow.’ So we went to Kenya to Arabia to Yemen to India to Singapore and Jakarta to get to Perth, Australia. In all those places, we tried to find the ocean, a wave, or something. We went to a lot of countries that aren’t in the film. It was quite an adventure as I was just 18.”

“Senegal was a french colony so they didn’t speak any english. It was the African dialect or french. We had pictures of waves and people looked at the surfboards and went, ‘what the heck is that?’ So, one way or another, with communication and a map, we found a beach in Senegal and surfed great waves. I’m surprised more people don’t go there.”

“That’s the fun part of surfing – going somewhere you’ve never been before.”

“I was at Surf Expo in 1989, and a guy came to the booth but he had developed this place in Tamarindo. There were some fishermen from Florida there and they had brought their boats down to the northwest coast of Costa Rica. They had some knowledge of surfing and had found Witches Rock and Ollie’s Point and all the great surf spots that are up here. He said, ‘Why don’t you guys come down here and do some filming? Let people know about Costa Rica.’ I can remember thinking, ‘Jeez, I don’t know anyone who’s been there to surf. If we don’t get any surf, it could be a bust.’ He went, ‘Well, think about it. We got great waves, great fishin’, cold beer and we got lots of pussy.’ Anyway, he went through the Department of Tourism and pitched us, and they flew a bunch of guys down here to go surfing. As a result, Bruce and Dana Brown made Endless Summer 2 which started here in Costa Rica.”

“It was my birthday, I got kinda drunk and bought some property. Seemed like the thing to do. I ended up building a house and I’ve had the house here for years and I’ve lived here for three.”

68 years old and still ripping. Photo: Mayan Koren

68 years young and still ripping. Photo: Mayan Koren

“If you surf the same wave every day, it’s still fun and it’s great exercise. But the adventuresome spirit of ‘Where we goin’, how are we getting there, do we have a car, what’s the water temperature, what are the people like, what are we gonna have to eat? It’s all still fun.”

“When I graduated from high school, I had perfect grades, I was Student Body President at Huntington Beach High School and I was poised to be a dentist – ready to go to university. The first time Bruce approached me about this project [Endless Summer], I said, ‘Shoot, no. I’m getting ready to go to university.” He showed me a map of everywhere he wanted to go. Everyone told me, ‘You can always go to school. No one gets the opportunity to have an education like this.’ Right then, I called Bruce and said, ‘I’m ready, man.’”

“We were gone for seven months. In that time, the scope of my whole life changed.”

“Not too long ago, I met a couple ladies down here in Costa Rica that wanted to talk to me seriously. They had seen the film [Endless Summer] in the movie theater when it came out, and they said, ‘My God, it just made us think. We could travel. There’s an airport not too far from here, and if we save our money, we can go somewhere. We didn’t surf, we didn’t have a surfboard, but it just made us aware we didn’t have to say in this little town our whole lives like everybody else did.’ And they did. They saved their money, ended up in Europe, one taught english in Spain, and the other one married a guy in France. They said, ‘If we hadn’t seen that movie, we’d probably still be in that town.’ That’s the spirit of adventure.”

“It’s too bad there’s not more love in the world today. All these people killing each other for religious reasons and greed. Seems it’s a lack of love.”

Editor’s Note: This Saturday, May 3, catch the 50th anniversary of Endless Summer in Huntington Beach. Robert August, Bruce Brown, Mike Hynson and more will be in attendance. More info here.

Read past editions of CLASSICS featuring Gerry Lopez, Doc Paskowitz and Shaun Tomson.


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