The Secret History of The Endless Summer, the Most Influential Surf Movie Ever

The original poster for The Endless SummerEXPAND
The original poster for The Endless Summer

The morning of the perfect wave, Mike Hynson says he woke up early on an isolated cape in South Africa and smoked a bowl of marijuana out of a wooden pipe. Hynson and his companions had rolled up to a small village in the middle of the night, five guys crammed in a van with just two seats. The driver was a South African named Terence who captured animals for zoos. Terence liked to toss snakes in the back of the van. He was the only one who thought that was funny.

Hynson saw a little wave ripple across a distant cove, and he thought it might be something worth checking out. He’d been traveling with fellow surfer Robert August and filmmaker Bruce Brown around the world in search of waves, and so far they’d found squat. Sure, they’d paddled out in Senegal and Ghana, but those waves were nothing like the ones back home in Southern California. Hynson smoked a few cigarettes and waited for August and Brown to wake up.

Around 10 or 11, Hynson’s companions finally emerged from their huts. The three sat on the beach, looking out at the Indian Ocean. Only a few weeks into their trip, they were already getting on one another’s nerves. The main road from Cape Town to Durban wound along the coast about 10 miles inland, and they’d taken just about every bumpy trail on the map that veered toward the water, often peering off a cliff before turning around and bouncing back inland again.

Hynson was fed up with August and Brown, but dealing with a couple of squares was still better than facing all the Vietnam draft board notices piling up at home.

He kept seeing little ripples in a cove that curved behind them, but every time he nudged Brown, the waves were gone. Brown started to wonder if Hynson was just messing with him. Finally Hynson grabbed his white, red and blue 10-foot-long surfboard, said, “Fuck you and your fucking movie,” and marched down the beach alone.

That’s when he saw the waves again. Four of them. Perfect. Coming through in a clean set.

Surfers generally are careful about entering foreign waters. There are sharks, rocks, the unknown. But Hynson couldn’t contain his excitement.

“As soon as I hit the water and paddled out, it was so magical,” he says. Another little set came through, and Hynson let the first wave pass, then the second. The third was his. He paddled and popped up. “And I kept going and going. I was just standing there. And then I realized I’d better kick out of this wave — I’m going to need a taxi to come back.”

Hynson sat on his board and looked back down the beach. August and Brown were running toward him. Brown was dragging his equipment, and August’s board carved a trench in the sand as he pulled it along. Brown set up his camera, and August paddled out to join Hynson.

For 45 minutes they surfed wave after wave. To exhaustion. August vomited in the water from the excitement.

Later that day, Brown would film them marching across nearby sand dunes, pretending that’s how they came upon the magical point break for the first time. The next day they’d go back and the waves would be so flat they’d barely recognize the spot. But that wouldn’t matter. Brown got the footage he needed to make the entire trip worthwhile. The Endless Summer would feature shots from beaches around the globe, including Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii, but it was those waves at Cape St. Francis that made the flick.

The Endless SummerEXPAND
The Endless Summer

After the movie was edited, Hynson and Brown toured around the United States in a bus in the summer of 1964, screening the documentary in high school auditoriums and Lions Clubs. The film originally didn’t even have audio, and Brown would play surf records and narrate the action live. Every time those shots from Cape St. Francis came on the screen, Hynson would feel exhilarated all over again. He’d ridden the perfect wave, a point break ripper all to himself.

“That sequence, coming over the sand dunes and finding that offshore, fun-feeling wave, just floored so many surfers and so many people,” says surf photographer Craig Peterson, who first saw the movie as a teenager.

Before The Endless Summer, independent surf films featured shots of Hawaii, maybe Malibu, with very little action on dry land. Brown’s flick was a crossover hit, with Hynson and August spending about half their screentime out of the water. They discovered breathtaking waves, but they also interacted with local kids in Ghana and got chased by wild animals in South Africa. They were on an epic journey.

A generation later, a little boy in Australia would see the movie for the first time and feel an overwhelming need to travel. “It was like a ball in my gut,” says Jess Ponting, who grew up to become the founder of the Center for Surf Research in San Diego. “I lusted after going and surfing these perfect waves in amazing places.”

The idea of the perfect wave wasn’t even part of the surfing lexicon before The Endless Summer, and the faraway, friendly nirvana presented by the movie created a template for marketing what would become a $130 billion global surf industry.

The Endless Summer planted an adventure seed in millions of young people’s minds,” Ponting says. The impact of the resulting journeys wasn’t always positive. “It was those of us that were out having our minds enriched that dropped the ball when it came to our impact on those places.”

Fifty years after the film was released nationwide, the perfect wave still inspires surfers to take off across the globe. Their footprints might wash away from the sand, but their treks have changed the world forever.

The Endless Summer is ultimately a movie about avoiding crowds.

Talk to old-timers in Malibu and they’ll blame Gidget, the 1959 film starring Sandra Dee, for hipping everyone in the Valley to one of Southern California’s most consistent point breaks. But Gidget was the product of a surf scene that was already booming. Even then, Malibu was so full of surfers that many of the movie’s iconic scenes were filmed farther up the Pacific Coast Highway at Leo Carrillo State Park. That spunky teen surfer, later portrayed on the small screen by Sally Field, would keep the momentum going.

When Bruce Brown first started paddling out in the mid-1950s, surfers numbered in the hundreds. By the time he released his first major film, 1958’s Slippery When Wet, the numbers were surging into the thousands. This boom brought out the crowds to his films, or at least enough people to fill high school auditoriums and event halls, but it definitely didn’t make for good surfing.

The most perfect wave in the world is no fun if five other people are on it.

Brown hatched the idea for a trip to South Africa, and then learned from his travel agent that it would actually cost $50 less to fly around the world than to return the same way they’d come. Thus The Endless Summer was born, a circumnavigating search for warm water and empty waves. (The irony is that waves are generally better in colder months, but The Endless Winter sounds more like a Soviet prison than a surf adventure.)

Brown decided he would take the first two surfers who could finance their own flights, and his two knights soon appeared, ready for the quest: brown-haired Robert August, a goofy footer, and blond Mike Hynson, a regular. On camera they were presented as two halves of wholesomeness, but they were very different guys. August had just graduated from high school, as class president, and put his plans for college on hold after his family and teachers advised him not to miss the trip of a lifetime. Hynson was a few years older and already slipping into the countercultural revolution. He’d been busted stealing surfboards from famed shaper Hobie Alter, though Alter forgave him and loaned him money for the flight. One of Hynson’s big reasons for taking the trip, besides the chance for fame, was to avoid the Vietnam draft. The two surfers’ paths would diverge even more in the years following the movie.

Mike Hynson, 50 years after The Endless Summer, in San Diego
Mike Hynson, 50 years after The Endless Summer, in San Diego
Photo by Ryan Orange

The guys loaded up their boards and equipment at LAX, wearing business suits, and headed for Senegal, where they caught some very warm waves all to themselves, then to Ghana, where they taught some local kids how to surf. Brown was playing to white audiences, and 50 years later this whole segment has a decidedly neocolonialist feel, especially when a scene is inserted that was shot later in Orange County — and makes it look like August and Hynson were surprised in the bush by a local chieftain, who was actually promoter R. Paul Allen in blackface.

It wasn’t till South Africa that the surfing got good. After catching some crowded waves near Cape Town, the trio hitched a ride with animal lover Terence Bullen and his son, who were driving across the country to Durban and agreed to take on three passengers in exchange for gas money.

Bouncing down dirt roads in the back of a van, they happened upon Cape St. Francis, and Brown knew he had the footage he needed. He’d been shipping film back to the States for editing along the way, but those shots of Hynson and August were far too valuable to risk in the mail, so they carried the canisters for the rest of the trip through India, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii.

During the layover in Bombay, which didn’t make the film, Hynson walked through customs in a suit with the canisters strapped to his chest, while August and Brown lumbered around the airport with everything else. They’d heard Indian customs officers were confiscating cameras from foreigners to prevent filming at holy sites, and they weren’t taking any chances. As Hynson sat on the plane, sweating, waiting for the other two to board, he realized how much of a rush smuggling could be. That feeling would get him in trouble in later years.

After they got back to the States, Brown edited the footage together and started showing the movie in small venues, just as he had his others. All it took was a few screenings to reveal that he had something entirely different this time around. He had a hit.

“It was unbelievably popular from the very beginning,” Brown says. “Santa Monica Civic [Auditorium], I think it holds like 2,500 people, we sold it out for a week straight. And we went back several months later and did it again. So that inspired us to think we could get this in theaters, and I wouldn’t have to drive to Pasadena every other night to show it in an auditorium.”

Rather than heading back out to make another movie, Brown decided to really market this one. August went off to college, but Brown and Hynson and some other surfers piled into a big bus and drove across the country. They filled up smaller venues, but they were still renting their own spaces and lacked the distribution it would take to really get the movie out there.

By 1966 Brown still hadn’t found a distributor, and he was told the movie would never play 10 minutes from the coast. So he rented a theater in Wichita, Kansas, the farthest away from the beach he could imagine. Thanks to the hustle of promoter Allen, he sold out a two-week run in the middle of a freak snowstorm. The marquee with “The Endless Summer” in block letters was covered in ice, but that didn’t stop Middle America from coming out.

The big distributors still weren’t convinced, so Brown blew up the print from 16mm to 35mm and rented a theater in New York City. “We got a lot of publicity,” he says. “We were too dumb to know, but I guess it was highly unusual that a couple California kids would come in and rent a theater in the Big Apple and show their movie.”

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In the words of The New York Times’ Robert Alden: “With the kind of courage — some might say foolhardiness — required to become a surfer, Mr. Brown opened his film at Kips Bay Theater, without the auspices of a professional distributor or even a press agent. He’s just crazy enough to become quite comfortably rich.”

Glowing reviews followed, including praise from The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, and the bigwigs finally started calling. They all wanted to toss some bikini-clad girls on the poster and figure out a way to work in a love interest, but Brown and Allen wouldn’t have it. This was not Beach Blanket Bingo. Cinema 5 agreed to work with them on their terms, and the film was distributed nationally, then internationally.

Several years later South African surfers would see the film and become inspired to explore their own coastline.

You rarely hear a surfer talk about “a perfect wave.” It’s almost always “the perfect wave,” an archetypal glassy curl with a little bit of spray in the air. The perfect wave is long, consistent and definitely not full of bros.

For Hynson, there was only one perfect wave, and he caught it.

“No one else has been able to do that,” he says. “I climbed Mount Everest.”

For most surfers, there are many perfect waves, and that list often includes the one they just rode.

Imagine you’re picking up a child and spinning her around. What will she say as soon as you put her down? “Again! Again!” Most adults lose that feeling, that endless “Again!” But not surfers. They want to ride the perfect wave over and over.

“I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here,” Brown narrates over the Cape St. Francis footage. “But until this day, no one had ever ridden one. Think of the thousands of waves that went to waste, and the waves that are going to waste right now at Cape St. Francis.”

In The Endless Summer, the crew discovered "the perfect wave" in South Africa.EXPAND
In The Endless Summer, the crew discovered "the perfect wave" in South Africa.

Seeing Hynson and August paddle out again and again inspired countless surfers to pack their bags and venture outside their home breaks.

“Through the ’50s and early ’60s, surfers thought the surf in California was somewhat unique,” says Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer’s Journal and a contemporary of the Endless Summer crew. “It didn’t occur to us that all the other coastal stretches on the globe had rideable waves. We thought it was a unique aspect of the waves in California, which was kind of a ridiculous thought.”

The movie was a huge influence on Craig Peterson and Kevin Naughton, two Orange County surfers who took off a decade after the movie’s release and published dispatches in Surfer magazine that helped cement the surf trip as an integral part of the culture.

“We never thought surf travel would become such a big thing, because it was hard,” Peterson says. “It was hard traveling with one board only. And you didn’t know when the swells were going to come up. We never envisioned that it would become what it is today, with surf travel packages and resorts.”

According to the World Surf League, there are now 35 million surfers across the globe. The Center for Surf Research just wrapped up a poll of 3,000 surfers and found that two-thirds had traveled internationally for waves in the past five years.

Peterson and Naughton were originally blasted by fellow surfers for blowing up secret spots, but later they were flown in by developers to write about places. The secret was out, and surfers looking to avoid crowds at home can now expect to find slightly smaller crowds on foreign beaches. Call it the irony of colonization, or just another version of gentrification.

Brown’s documentary, as well as its 1994 sequel, had such an impact on surf culture that when his son, Dana, decided to make another surf travel movie, Step Into Liquid, surfers didn’t even seem to mind publicizing their hidden spots.

James Fulbright and a few buddies had discovered waves in a very un-picturesque location: the Houston Ship Channel, in the wake of giant oil tankers. It was their secret, and they had no plans to share it until Dana Brown asked them to be in Step Into Liquid.

“It’d be like you’re a movie star wannabe, and right out of the box Martin Scorsese gives you a call,” Fulbright says. “We discussed it a lot. Should we do this? Shouldn’t we do this? And we all came to the conclusion that if we’re going to do it with anybody, it would be the Browns. These guys are the best. They’re just about fun, the good side of surfing — not the chest-pounding arrogance.”

Tanker surfing still hasn’t taken off, but Cape St. Francis, the location of Hynson’s perfect wave, is barely even rideable anymore. For starters, Brown had exaggerated how often it’s good, and on top of that, all the development that sprang up around the spot in the years after The Endless Summer has taken over the sand dunes. That sand was incredibly important for maintaining the wave’s shape. It blew off the beach into the water and helped smooth over the rocky bottom.

No more sand, no more waves.

The most famous clip in all of The Endless Summer, of Mike Hynson, ecstatic, riding the perfect wave at Cape St. Francis, is actually footage from two different waves spliced together. Brown played fast and loose with some of his narration, and a few out-of-water scenes were shot back in Southern California. He also messed with the timeline a little and made it seem as if the surfers crossed those sand dunes, not knowing where they were exactly, to find the perfect wave.

The Endless Summer wasn’t a documentary in the purest sense, but myths often have more power than facts.

“The world these surfers travel through is a world that seems to be completely uncomplicated by the reality of politics,” says Scott Laderman, author of Empire in Waves, a critical look at the sport’s global impact. “It’s as if they’re just traveling through this fantasy world of waves and animals and beautiful landscapes and seascapes.”

Laderman, an L.A. native, watched the film dozens of times as a kid, thinking, “I’ve got to get over to South Africa.”

Beyond a quick joke during the Durban sequences — “Sharks and porpoises have yet to integrate in South Africa” — there is no mention of the country’s vicious apartheid policies.

August attributes the movie’s success to its complete avoidance of politics. John F. Kennedy was shot while they were away on the trip, and by the time the movie was released nationally, the Vietnam War was escalating. The film’s simple themes were a respite from the complicated cultural revolution happening back home.

This avoidance of politics set the template for many surf trips to follow. In Indonesia, surfers were flown in to help publicize the country’s beaches, right at the time when the Suharto regime came into power and massacred at least half a million people.

“You look at the magazine articles, you look at the surf films,” Laderman says, “and it’s virtually impossible to find any acknowledgement of Indonesia as what Amnesty International called an Asian gulag.” What you do see are uncrowded waves and pristine beaches, and the influx of more and more surfers brought more and more hard currency into the country.

Surfers aren’t necessarily worse than other tourists when it comes to not caring about local politics, but they are often part of tourism’s first wave. If artists are the vanguard of gentrification in run-down city centers, surfers are the christeners of foreign beaches.

Thanks to The Endless Summer, entire towns exist where there was nothing before. And the impact of that isn’t always positive.

When August was hanging out at a surf expo in Florida in the early 1990s, he met a Texas businessman who encouraged him to visit a new resort he was building in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. August was skeptical, saying that such trips cost a lot of money. So the businessman convinced a Costa Rican tourism board to chip in, and next thing you know August was surfing killer waves.

In The Endless Summer II, two younger surfers journeyed to Costa Rica with August not long after that trip. Brown mentioned that August had bought property down there, and the whole sequence — uncrowded waves, easy living — opened the floodgates to travelers. Tamarindo soon grew from a little fishing town to a surfing mecca.

By 2008, testing revealed that fecal coliform bacteria levels along the beach were 24,000 times higher than what would be considered safe for swimming in the United States — the result of sewage from all those extra tourists. Eventually it was cleaned up, but Tamarindo still has trouble shaking its reputation as being part of a “ruta de mierda.”

“You’re on a surf trip and you’re scoring good waves, and you don’t think about the stuff you leave behind,” says University of Southern California professor Peter Westwick, who’s written extensively about the sport. “But all of that stuff has to go somewhere, and sometimes it’s right back in the ocean.”

The Endless Summer opens with shots of Hynson and August, silhouetted in warm, orange sunlight, and a big part of the movie’s appeal lies in its two main characters — no matter that Brown provides all the narration and the two surfers never speak. The Endless Summer is a buddy movie, a road-trip movie, an epic quest by two heroes in search of glory. The story of someone traveling the world solo suggests lonely contemplation, while a group doing the same feels like a rolling party. But with a pair of protagonists, you’ve got the makings of a deep friendship: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.

Brown played up the shared adventures of his charismatic duo, but Hynson and August weren’t great friends before the trip, and their paths diverged after it.

The Endless SummerEXPAND
The Endless Summer

Three years after they returned, the film finally took off. Brown was getting great press and being called the surfing millionaire. He had put up $50,000 of his own money for promotion, and that investment was finally paying off. The film eventually earned $30 million.

Hynson went to a Hollywood lawyer, who told him he was owed millions. Even though the lawyer told Hynson not to talk to Brown, he picked up August and they both drove up to Santa Barbara to confront the director. Brown offered them each $5,000 cash, a new car and help with starting a business. August took the offer, but Hynson declined on principle. He tells L.A. Weekly he was dealing drugs at the time and had $15,000 in the trunk of his car, so he didn’t really need the cash. He later tried unsuccessfully to sue Brown and August.

Hynson wound up hanging with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a hippie mafia based in Orange County whose members preached the gospel of LSD and dealt tons of drugs. His experience smuggling film through Indian customs came in handy when the Brotherhood used him to hollow out surfboards to get hash out of New Delhi. His highs included marriage to model Melinda Merryweather and palling around with Jimi Hendrix. Among the lows, he went to jail several times on drug-related charges.

Hynson now lives in Encinitas, and he has a line of surfboards and clothing. He speaks to Brown and August only when they’re brought together for an event. Their memories vary when recalling that perfect wave and the voyage surrounding it; for instance, the other two swear Hynson never brought any marijuana to South Africa.

“We were together 24 hours a day,” August says. “There was no weed anywhere.”

After they all got back from the trip, August went to college, with plans for dental school, but he says an encounter with his own dentist changed his life forever. He’d scheduled an appointment to ask for career advice, and the dentist told him, “I hate it. People hate going to the dentist. It’s awful. I create pain all day long, and the worst part is, I’m a bill collector.”

This was around the time The Endless Summer was playing in almost every theater in America, and the dentist told him, “You know when I’m happiest? When I’m in a surf shop. Everybody is so happy. They’re getting a board or they’re going somewhere.”

These days, when he’s not hanging out in Costa Rica, August can be found shaping boards down at his shop in Westminster. People still drop by to tell him the movie changed their lives, often in ways that have nothing to do with surfing. The search for the perfect wave is a metaphor with many meanings.

Brown has heard it too. “I’ve had people come up and go, ‘You know, that movie changed my life.’ And I’d say, ‘You started surfing?’ And the reply was, ‘No, no, I became a disc jockey in Waco, Texas.’ ”

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