If there were royalty in surfing’s microcosm, the August family would certainly qualify.
Known as “Blackie” throughout the Southern California local scene, Orall W. August was introduced to surfing by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku himself. His son, Robert Alan August would grow up surfing in Seal Beach under his father’s tutelage and balsa shaped longboard. Early in his teenage years, Robert would be appearing in homemade films capturing trips to Mexico and Hawaii. Soon after a local San Clemente lifeguard named Bruce Brown would come up with a daring idea to expand the locales to the far reaches of the world.
Robert was selected by Bruce along with Mike Hynson to be the subject of a film documenting surf footage in areas many of which until then had never seen surfers. Released in 1964, The Endless Summer would propel not only Robert and Mike but surfing itself into the mainstream limelight. Produced for a mere $50,000, the documentary has since grossed over $30 million. In 1966, the film was selected in the top 10 for the year in Newsweek Magazine. Although neither stars were entitled to royalties from the film, the exposure and relationship with Bruce would eventually catapult Robert’s career in the surfing world.
Although Robert’s life would take a few turns before ultimately reaping its rewards. He began his shaping career in 1966 at Jacob’s Surf Shop in Huntington Beach. Through this time, Robert would help out any local shaper that needed work done. By the early 70’s, the shortboard revolution would take hold and a more aggressive style of surfing would displace the soulful longboards Robert grew to love. Disenchanted by the hostility that soon became pervasive in the lineup, Robert, along with many other shapers including Dewey Weber, Bing Copeland, Greg Noll, and Hobie Alter all but abandoned their shaping bays. Subsequently, Robert opened a restaurant in 1971. The short-lived and unprofitable venture forced Robert back into surfing when he launched his first surf shop in Huntington Beach in 1974 – stocked almost entirely of shortboards.
The resurgence of longboarding by the early 90’s was a boon for shapers like Robert. Increasingly, surfers from the 60’s took to the water bringing with them the style of surfing they grew up with. Younger surfers embraced the gracefulness of longboarding and its popularity began to spread. Soon after, Bruce Brown would release a sequel to his documentary featuring Robert “Wingnut” Weaver who arguably embodies the fusion of yester-year’s longboard soul and tomorrow’s technically advanced surfing style. A scene early in the film has Wingnut stopping by Robert’s shop to pick up a custom longboard for their excursion. The red-striped Wingnut model has since been a best seller.
Today, Robert August Surfboards produces 72 boards per week filling orders to places as far flung as the waves he rode in The Endless Summer. Robert’s son, Sam August, also a talented and avid surfer, heads the sales and marketing function of the family business. Tribal Surf had the pleasure of getting to know Robert and Sam to recount some aspects of the family’s ascent in the surfing world and also get some perspective on what the future holds for the August family legacy.
Ulupono Surf (US): I surf Seal Beach basically every weekend without fail. The surf is hardly epic, but everyone there is like family. I apologize for the tangent but I have to ask, what was Seal Beach like back in the day?
Robert August (RA): Seal Beach was home to a few (4-6) surfers at that time … as each town … we usually had gatherings at my house with surfers from up and down the coast … yea nobody out 90% of the time …. we traveled for surf a lot to Santa Cruz, Rincon, Malibu, Trestle, San Diego, Mexico as Seal Beach really only does it on occasions … a great little surf town and a very tight community!
US: You had made a number of surfing documentaries with local filmmakers and several with Bruce before embarking on The Endless Summer. Did you ever think it would become as popular as it did?
RA: Well I knew it was going to be better than the prior films due to our extensive travel and discoveries along the way … it’s the template now of how the surf industry operates … also on TNT/TBS this summer!
US: So you get back with Mike and Bruce having surfed spots no one else has even laid eyes on and … you hit the dentistry books. Dentistry. Really? I think the surfing world owes a debt of gratitude to your dentist for talking you out of that profession.
RA: I was going to school at Long Beach State prior to “the trip” and did some serious soul searching and when I returned I knew I didn’t want to see people in discomfort and agony on a daily basis! Instead, I wanted to enjoy every day and make surfboards for people’s luxury and enjoyment …
US: You established yourself as a shaper only to see longboarding get displaced by an aggressive shortboard mentality that took surfing by storm. Notwithstanding the punk attitudes that no doubt tarnished the lifestyle, would you say in hindsight that shortboarding brought with it benefits as well?
RA: Wow yea shortboarding is incredible today … BUT the one factor I will point out is that today’s professional WQS/ASP surfer is pretty cookie cutter as contest surfing has groomed surfers today to all surf pretty much alike … the pre aspect of shortboarding was in the 80’s when you could call out who you saw surfing from PCH while the Katin contest was going on .. everyone had their own style, own boards, own look … now it’s a big heard chasing the same results … beautiful to watch but very repetitive …
US: If the resurgence of longboarding marked the paradigm shift in surfing for the 90’s, the infamous closure of Clark Foam was surely the harbinger of change for the turn of the century. How did you feel that affected you specifically and surfing in general?
RA: Really the foam issue was positive … more companies formed pushing the product to a higher quality and better pricing … it’s a better place now as far as foam goes …
US: From what I can tell, you are a very practical shaper. You question whether certain shapes are at all necessary or simply flare. You are focused on what is best for the surfer for whom you are shaping a board.
RA: Hey everyone that surfs needs a little something different … there is your hardcore surfers who chase it year round … they will need to monitor their boards and change out pretty frequently … then the jaded ones who surf only when it’s good and then the real bulk of the business are the seasonal surfers and entry level or parents getting back into it after putting it down for years … this is where stability, flotation, and paddling ability become very critical … catching waves is the most important thing.
US: Given your philosophy, I was surprised that you had embraced Surftech so readily. I believe you were the second shaper to endorse them? What is your take on other emerging technologies that are appear to be slowly displacing conventional polyurethane?
RA: At the time we had no epoxy production … Surftech gave us an opportunity to introduce a line of our boards in Tufflite Epoxy based core … great product, very well done, and made a lot of RA customers very happy … what people forget is it’s the shapers templates and designs and they are brought to the market as a high-end product – not CHEAP … a great partnership that we still embrace today.
US: Sam, you’ve got to be pretty stoked to have someone like Robert as a dad. Can you believe he was the stickler pole vault champion, president of the student body, let me ask my parents for permission to go on an epic once in a lifetime surf trip kinda guy I’m reading about?
Sam August (SA): Dad was a very good student with a lot of athletic ability … he always gave me the opportunity to try all sorts of activities including sports and surfing … a great father in my youth.
US: In all seriousness, no doubt Robert is a role model both for the surfing as his well as his family. Did he get you on a longboard before you could even walk?
SA: I went with dad to a contest in Texas in 1971 and of course their were no waves … the contest was canceled and he pushed me into my first wave and I stood up … age 4 … dad always was so great taking me surfing and fishing throughout Mexico and Hawaii through age 13 then baseball began to flow in my blood!
US: So instead of dentistry, you decided baseball. When will you Augusts learn that surfing is your manifest destiny.
SA: I was always a part of the business when baseball came to an end it was just a natural transition.
US: And what a family business it is. I’m seeing branded clothing, cruisers, skateboards … golf balls. You should consider getting into wine. Oh wait, you already are.
SA: Really simple – stay within our lifestyle of travel and adventure … the beach cruisers with Nirve Skateboards with Powell Peralta … and the wine of course is a part of dad’s lifestyle and surfers around the world.
US: You folks are doing some really great things down in Costa Rica as well. We’ve been meaning to hit up Mal Pais but the Tamarindo charity event sounds even more interesting.
SA: First off, Tamarindo is the spot – make no mistake about it … it’s got so much diversity north and south for surf … the Surf & Turf raises money for the orphans in the area as well as the youth education programs in need … we also donate a portion of the money raised to the local lifegaurds as the tidal movements are pretty radical for the locals and foreign travelers who can’t swim too well … in a third world environment, getting a simple thing like paying lifegaurds is challenging … Surf & Turf is a great week to experience surf, camaraderie, golf, boating, group dinners … and plenty of time to enjoy your own desires. The last one was held July 29 – August 4.
US: Robert and Sam, thank you for taking the time to share your life experiences and allowing us to get to know your family. I hope the August family has a safe and enjoyable holiday season.
RA: Keep surfing, everyone – it’s great for your mind, body, and family!
SA: Surfing will continue to grow – be a part of it! ”Only a Surfer knows the feeling” … I love that saying – it’s so accurate!