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.