Truth and Lies At Cape St. Francis

The lie is handmaiden to the truth

The Cape St. Francis sequence in Endless Summer is surf moviemaking’s perfect sphere. Our Pythagorean ideal. Nothing to be added. Nothing subtracted. I knew this right down to my not-yet-descended testes when I watched Endless Summer in a Santa Monica movie theater in 1967. I know it today, having run the footage through Final Cut Pro a hundred times to make the heretical clip you see above. “It the most suitable for rendering the unity, infinity, uniformity and righteousness of God,” 16th-century design savant Andrea Palladio said of the Cape St. Francis sequence—or Venetian architecture, I forget which.

Perfection. The wave. The day. The surfers. The edit. The shivery little chamber orchestra melody as Bruce Brown and crew mule-train their way over the dunes, dropping into midtempo soft rock gorgeousness as everybody cops their first look at the peeling Cape St. Francis surf. Then Mike Hynson in trim. That first wave. White trunks, white board, white teeth. One day I will watch that ride and there will be a halo floating above Mike Hynson’s slicked back hair, and on that day I will pour the whisky down the kitchen sink, give my worldly possessions to charity, and devote whatever is left of my life to good works.

It shames me to think that 20 or so years ago I fussily pointed out that Brown played fast and loose with the Cape St. Francis particulars. But I walked that one back, pronto. Or most of the way back. Here’s how I played it in History of Surfing:

Endless Summer features real surfers traveling to real locations, and it couldn’t be described as anything but a documentary. Except Bruce Brown didn’t really care about documenting, in any real sense, his four-month trip around the world. He didn’t care about documenting the sport in general, for that matter. What he wanted to do—what he did flawlessly—was present the look and feel of surfing in its best moments. Endless Summer was an impressionist work. Brown was craftsman enough to arrange, conceal, accent, and outright invent as required.

The untruths were mostly small and thrown in for dramatic effect, like the overstated 50-50 odds that a surfer on the wrong side of Durban’s netted beaches would be killed by a shark. Some of the inventions were longer and more elaborate, including the discovery of Cape St. Francis. In the film, Brown, Hynson and August cross miles of sun-blasted dunes to finally stand gaping, along with the audience, before a heavenly vista of empty, sparkling-blue, right-breaking point surf. Brown, narrating, tells us that they’d started the day not expecting to find any surf. “We didn’t even know if we’d find the water.” But here it was, Brown continued, and he estimated that the Cape St. Francis surf was probably this good 300 days a year.

In truth, the group began their stay on the Cape by checking into a beachfront hostel. The following morning, Hynson noticed a likely-looking break a mile or so to the south, walked up by himself, started riding, and was soon joined by the others. Ninety minutes later, the wave shut down. And that was it for their visit. With nothing to surf the next day, they all spent two or three hours marching up and down the dunes for the camera; Brown had determined overnight that he needed an ex post facto opening sequence to set up their wave score. The remark about Cape St. Francis surf being good 300 days a year—Brown pulled that out of thin air a few months later, while writing the voice-over.

An interesting thing happened when Hynson finally came forth with the real Cape St. Francis story in 1993. Nobody cared. The waves themselves were real, if nowhere near as consistent as Brown claimed, and beachfront (at the time, anyway) really was made up of dunes. But it wasn’t that. Every surfer, at some rare and transcendent moment, will unexpectedly find the perfect wave—even if it’s just a fluke afternoon at their local shorebreak. In the editing room, Brown arranged events to highlight a universally shared surfing dream. A dream that occasionally comes true. It wasn’t deceit. It was a gift.