"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.