If you’re looking for a lesson in the good life, look no further than Robert August. The Seal Beach native grew up surfing, was president of the student body at Huntington High School and planned to go on to university and become a dentist. His well-manicured plans were interrupted when Bruce Brown approached him to star in The Endless Summer, the first great surfing film, taking him on a seven-month world tour of uncharted breaks. The rest, as they say, is history. August went on to launch an eponymous line of surfboards, which he still shapes today. We caught up with him at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, to talk about parenting, lamb chops and the difference between monkeys and people.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Make sure she comes before you do. Those are words to live by. You can’t go wrong with that…These days, life is short, you know? You better have some fun; you better be able to laugh and have a good time. If not you may as well be like the monkeys up in the trees: you just eat food, go to sleep and make some more monkeys. That’s what separates us, I think: humor, having fun and goofing around. The spirit of surfing has been that way. You go somewhere, get some waves hopefully, meet people, travel, experience different foods, culture — and hopefully have some fun.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. One of the most challenging and hardest things I’ve ever done is parenting. I refer to it as the agony and the ecstasy. It’s the greatest thing you could ever do, and it could drive you out of your mind. I’ve got a 45-year-old son, grandkids, and I’ve got a 13-year-old — and she drives me out of my mind on a regular basis. It’s also such a wonderful thing to see her grow and develop, ride waves and play basketball, interact with her friends. As far as something challenging in life, that’s a big one.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I got a cool little gig here in Costa Rica, Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. I teach a lesson once a week. Everyone can come in and watch, I give a lecture about how we make the product, the materials, I let people participate. I give a lecture once a week about the history of surfing, the evolution of surf boards, interact with people from all over the world. It’s fun, I really enjoy it.
These days, life is short, you know? You better have some fun; you better be able to laugh and have a good time. If not you may as well be like the monkeys up in the trees: you just eat food, go to sleep and make some more monkeys.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Well, big influences in my life have been my mom and dad. I was lucky kid. We camped out in Mexico when I was young, and they took me to Hawaii when I was eight years old, which was 1953. There was really not much going only; there wasn’t even LA Airport, so we had to fly to San Francisco to get on a propeller plane and fly 16 hours to Hawaii. I had such an amazing childhood, which sculpted who I am today. I appreciate my teachers and my education, I enjoyed school, and so that was a big part of growing up and molding who I am today. When I did The Endless Summer and decided I wasn’t going to be a dentist, I got involved in the business of surfing, creating surfboards, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done my whole life.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. People magazine, anything I can get that’s in English.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I have a really small penis. Just kidding. There’s nothing strange about me. Pretty basic human. I’m not a religious person. I just kind of live by the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. If there’s a moment of reckoning I think I’ll be alright. I don’t think I’ll burn in hell.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. I think I’d have a glass of red wine and some small loin lamb chops. The lamb chops used to be my reward from my mom. If I did something really good I’d come home and that’d be my meal. I loved it. I was elected student body president in high school. I never said anything to my mom and dad because I didn’t want them to get jittery about it, but I did win. I came home from school and said, “Mom, guess what, I was elected student body president today”, and she said, “Oh yeah, right”, and walked away. Same thing with my dad, “Get out of here.” So the next day it was in the newspaper and when I got home at night mom had the small loin lamb chops and my dad had got me a new set of golf clubs.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A. I don’t think I’d have to make any huge changes. I never went to prison, never did drugs. I watched the drug scene when I was young and guys were going to prison for having the stuff and I was like, are you crazy? I was into girls and beer. I was in heaven, man. I didn’t want to mess with anything like that.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. Well, pretty much what people see. As a traveler, for having fun, interacting with people, and taking chances on adventures. Being in the surfboard business, sometimes I’m completely broke and sometimes things are going great. You take a chance. It’s what you like. When my son was growing up, sometimes he’d go, my god, if you’d been a dentist we wouldn’t be so poor right now. The surfboard business goes with the economy. We’re surviving now, but we’re not making much money.
Q. If you could ride one surfboard, what would it be?
A. Well the ultimate surfboard, that’s what I do for other people all the time. The board I’d have for myself would have to be one I could ride in small waves, big waves, be comfortable. It would probably be something about 9 feet, medium width, medium thickness — because you want to paddle good and be maneuverable. It can’t be giant; if it’s too small you’d have trouble catching waves. We refer to it as a “What I Ride” because it’s what I ride, that style of board. I could ride a good size wave on it, put three fins on if the waves are gonna be big. For everyday surfing I just want one fin back there — that would be it.
Q. What was it like to shoot The Endless Summer?
A. Bruce [Brown] had the idea to travel around the world and make this the greatest surfing movie ever. He called me and asked if I was interested and I said, not really, I’m getting ready to graduate from high school. I was prepared to go to university, with aspirations of being a dentist. Then I saw a map of all the places he planned on going, talked to my mom and dad and they all said, you’re crazy, go, this is the best education you’ll get. We were gone for seven months. We went to Kenya, Arabia, India, Yemen, Singapore, Jakarta, on the way to Australia. And then we continued on around the world: Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, back to Hawaii and back to California. Seven months later I had seen a lot for an 18-year-old kid.
Q. How’d you shoot the film?
A. There was no film crew. The whole process of filming was simple. It was a 16mm, one camera which you cranked manually. You’d get 45 seconds on one shot and the camera would stop and you’d crank it up again. We had a suitcase of full of film — 100-foot reels of 16mm film — one camera, one tripod, and our suitcases with a little bit of clothes. One thing Bruce Brown did that was impressive: he built a plexiglass housing for that 16mm camera. If you watch the movie you’ll see some water shots in there and you can see me surfing. It had suction cups. You’d put it on the front, make sure it’s cranked up, and when you feel like you’re going to catch a wave, reach up and turn it on and then surf. Back then it was really groundbreaking what he did.
Q. What was the highlight of the trip?
A. The highlight was finding that beautiful surf spot in South Africa. We traveled from Cape Town to Durban and explored that whole coast line. During that trip we stumbled on that Cape St. Francis wave that was every surfer’s dream. Nobody had ever been there, so it’s just you and another guy out getting these perfect dream waves. That was the highlight and certainly something I’ll never forget.
GP videographer Sung Han met Robert August on his way to film the final installment of The Road to La Ruta. For more on August’s line of boards, go to robertaugust.com.