Pat O’Connell teaching a grom how to surf. ©Hurley
Zuri Irvin contributed to this story.
In many ways, filmmaker Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer movies impacted the sport of surfing similar to what the Gidget and Beach Party movies did in the 1960’s. Brown’s films opened doors and endless possibilities of the imagination for millions of surfers worldwide.
28 years after his original The Endless Summer was released in 1966 to wide fanfare among surfers and non-surfers alike, thus reaching a legacy so profound it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry due to being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, Brown produced a sequel that rivaled the original in quality and popularity.
Following the footsteps of Mike Hynson and Robert August, the surfers starring in the original film as they traveled the world seeking perfect waves and harmonious environments while endlessly pursuing the summer season, Brown sought two new surfers to visit the same surf breaks frequented in the original film to showcase not just how amazing the waves are, but to reveal how the featured locales, and the sport of surfing itself, changed in the time between the release of each film.
The two surfers who starred in The Endless Summer II were Santa Cruz longboarder Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Chicago native Pat O’Connell, who moved to Southern California at the age of 12 and became the first surfer in The Endless Summer series to surf with a shortboard. A short time later, his family relocated to Dana Point, where O’Connell put his stamp on surfing by dominating his home surf break of Salt Creek.
O’Connell would begin a successful competitive surfing career catapulting with competing on the ASP World Tour for 12 years and being inducted in 2009 into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame at Huntington Beach. While his competitive career was wildly successful, it was the fateful decision by Brown to select him as one of the two surfers in the sequel to his iconic surf film that would cement O’Connell’s status as one of the most popular surfers in the world.
I caught up with O’Connell to talk about his role as the Marketing Manager for Hurley, how Brown selected him for The Endless Summer II, his experience filming the movie, how much fun he had starring in the wildly popular Drive Thru series, retiring on his own terms, and what’s next for one of the happiest surfers in the world, Pat O’Connell.
Pat O’Connell. ©Hurley
Cyrus: I think the year was 1993, maybe ‘94. I was 15 or 16-years-old. I’m visiting my cousin in San Diego, and he’s playing this movie on his TV. The Endless Summer II. I see this movie, and at that moment I decided to be a surfer.
I get the feeling a lot of people are in the same boat as me. It was one of the most influential movies ever, especially when it comes to surfing. Then Pat O’Connell went on to have a fantastic, competitive career and starred in not just one of my favorite movies, but one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Drive Thru. You’re one of my favorite all-time surfers. Pat, how are you doing?
Pat: I’m doing great! That was a nice introduction, thanks man! (Laughs)
Cyrus: Thank you. What would be your plans this morning if you weren’t doing this interview?
Pat: I’d be home in Dana Point, just looking around and seeing where to go surf. It looks like the buoys are out pretty substantially, so that’s a good thing. I’ll probably put my board up and grab my bike and go ride down to Trestles.
Cyrus: I’ve heard that Salt Creek is your main break and that when you’re there, you’re the king of that domain. Is that true? Is that where you’re normally at?
Pat: (Laughs) You know what? In days past I would have said more so, but it’s been a while. Too much at work and I’ve been pretty much buckling down there. I’ve been getting out on the weekends and, if possible, in the early mornings but it hasn’t been super great in the early mornings. I found other things to do. I’m sure there’s another guy out there saying that he’s the King of the Creek.
Cyrus: Maybe. Then you’d just go out there and remind them who’s boss and slap them around like you should. What is an ‘every day’ like for Pat O’Connell these days?
Pat: It really changes. Right now, John John Florence is actually staying with us. He’s been really, really great. He’s got a team of people that he comes to see every day and it’s been interesting to watch the dedication. So I’m kind of working with him a little bit to make sure that’s on track. Really, my day-to-day is just overseeing and making sure we’re on point with the marketing program. Specifically athletes, you know? So there is a lot of stuff going on. We have 10 men on the World Tour. We have two on the women’s side.
Pat: We’ve got regional people that are helping. A kid named Brandon Guilmette, who is here in Huntington Beach, is kind of handling day-to-day with all those guys. He does an unbelievable job of making those guys feel super special. Making sure everyone is on point, and making sure they have a smile on their face. (Laughs)
Cyrus: You’re the head of marketing for Hurley, which is arguably the number one surf brand. Among many of the heavy hitters you have in your lineup is John John Florence, who is not just the future but the present of surfing. He’s been staying with you while training?
Pat: Yeah, so it’s been fun. I pull a lot on past experiences but I am really learning a lot because what these guys are going through, in some ways, is similar. But, it is different. There’s a lot more money in the sport. There’s more attention than there’s ever been. The guys are truly athletes. I think the transition from decades – you know, the 80’s side kind of went at it one way. With our generation, we took it, and you see with Kelly (Slater) still doing it, a little more professionally. With these guys, it’s really, “Eat, sleep, and drink.”
Cyrus: Who better than Pat O’Connell to help out all these guys on tour? That must be so good for these guys. Are you heading up the tour notes and all the videos? Is that a little bit of what you’re doing?
Pat: Yeah. So basically, with all these guys, we decided we had to find a way. Peter King actually does that for us. We have all these guys on tour. How do you bring some attention to these great stories? The whole hope was getting a little bit of the stuff behind the scenes, because obviously when you watch webcasts or a produced television show, you see that the guy can surf well. But how did he get there? What did he do? What was the day-to-day? I think those are the stories we’re trying to focus in on.
Pat O’Connell. ©Hurley
Cyrus: Early in your career, you were talking about the 80’s and that’s when you got your name out there and you started competing. Your huge breakthrough without question was a role that even to this day is still talked about, and the movie is a timeless classic. I’m talking about The Endless Summer II. And you were the star of this film, which is a sequel to a cult classic. If I’m not mistaken, I believe both the original and this film are in the Smithsonian as a part of the American Film Institute. How did you get this role? Explain the whole story of you being the star of The Endless Summer II.
Pat: Cool, thanks. It was pretty random, actually. As you would, if you could imagine back in that day, Bruce (Brown) had gone with his group and said they wanted to make this movie. They had gone to the magazines and basically found a hit list. They found the top 10 names and started going through them. I was on those lists, and at the same time, a real good friend of mine who surfs out at Salt Creek, a guy named Gary DiPella, was a great friend of Bruce and also one of the attorneys who was putting together the documents to make the movie.
As time would have it, I didn’t have a cell phone. There were no cell phones back then anyways. (Laughs) I didn’t have an answering machine. Getting a hold of me was close to impossible. Plus, that’s what my friends would do. They would call and say that they were someone that they weren’t. (Laughs) So the first time he did get a hold of me, I hung up on him. I thought it was a friend taking a piece out of me.
After repeated attempts, I finally believed that it was him and I drove up and met with him at Hollister Ranch. From there, it just went really quick. We were going to Costa Rica. I don’t think it ever really sunk in until I was literally at Costa Rica with the film crew and realized, “Holy cow, this is like a serious operation here!”
Cyrus: What do you think put you on that list of 10 surfers that they wanted? What were their criteria?
Pat: Well, I was young. I think they wanted someone who could be on camera, but they also wanted someone who was the young up-and-coming surfer. I was able to take the time. It was funny because Kelly (Slater) said, “Hey, I got this job to do The Endless Summer,” and I had just met with Bruce. So I was thinking, “Oh, great. Kelly’s going to take this job.”
And how oblivious I was to the whole thing was funny. Two weeks later I had to drive up to a contest at Pismo Beach. And in my car were Shane Dorian, Ross Williams, and Todd Chesser. Bruce calls and says, “Hey would you mind stopping by? We want to do a little test.” I said, “Great.”
So, obviously those other three names were on the list. I’m so stupid that I brought my competition. (Laughs) All of those guys surf good, if not better than I do. I left that contest scratching my head thinking, “Am I the dumbest person in the world? I just gave away my dream job.” (Laughs)
But yeah, I think they wanted someone who had the time and wasn’t going to be distracted by competing and stuff. At that time, it was right when the ASP broke for having trials and qualifying the top 44. I had the back half of the tour that year. That was the first year Kelly qualified. Kelly finished in the last spot, 44th. I think it was 1992. It was a whole new world and I would’ve either jumped on the tour with everyone else or had this amazing opportunity. I’m really lucky I got it, because I wasn’t ready to go on tour. I still felt I was probably a few years too young, and I use that when I talk to kids about what they want to do. You look right now and the World Tour is definitely very young. Typically I think the age of qualifying is 22 to 23. When kids are kind of questioning it, I tell them they have such a long time to do this thing. It’s funny. I go back to those experiences and realize you don’t need to rush.
Cyrus: Exactly. And if anyone can advise them, it’d be you. Hollister Ranch, is that where Bruce Brown lives? Is that why you guys met there? The mythical Hollister Ranch? How’d you guys end up there?
Pat: He lives on the way up there. He doesn’t live on the ranch, but he has access to the ranch. So, I’ve been up there a handful of times. We never had great waves, but you realize that’s what California was and would still be like outside of the population explosion.
Cyrus: You’re right.
Pat: But I’ve never had great waves there and I hear amazing things.
Cyrus: What was it like working with Wingnut? He’s in Santa Cruz and the guy is so hilarious. He’s among the most animated personalities in surfing.
Pat: Yup, that’s exactly it. He made it easy for me because he is so outgoing. I am typically OK in one-on-one settings, but as it gets larger, I typically shy away. It was really a partnership because you could kind of tell if he was overwhelmed. There’s this funny joke. Halfway through South Africa, I used to carry these huge headphones in a disc player. David Brown says to me one day, “What are you listening to?” And this is halfway through the Africa trip. My batteries had run out, so I didn’t have anything on, but I had my headphones on. (Laughs) And I was so afraid to let him in on my secret. Because, dude, we’d do six to eight hours of driving each day to go do things. He realized, and he kind of smiled and said, “OK, that’s our secret. I won’t tell anyone.” (Laughs) I was like, “Ah, thank you. Thank you.”
To be on, and to be energetic every day, you give a lot. Like any man, we like to hibernate. And there wasn’t a lot of hibernation on those trips. One time when we were in Paris, it was crazy. There was this scene, and I don’t know if it made it in the movie, but I’m driving a car through the city streets in Paris and they say, “We want to get a shot of you guys on the freeway.” Mind you, finding directions and all these things, there are no iPhones with maps.
Cyrus: No GPS.
Pat: It’s crazy. So we’re driving through, and we’re on a freeway. I’ve got a walkie-talkie, and I know they’re on the bridge ahead of me. And they’re like, “OK, we want you to stop in the middle of the freeway and pull out a map to pretend that you’re lost.”
Now, this isn’t a Hollywood film where everyone knows they’re in the movie. It’s literally French traffic and people are trying to get to and from work. And I’m like, “Are you freaking kidding me?” Sure enough, Wingnut’s got his longboard on the front of the car and we’ve got the map out in rush hour traffic!
Cyrus: I bet those people were yelling at you.
Pat: I was so happy I didn’t speak French. (Laughs) I had no idea what they were saying.
Cyrus: I thought the chemistry was great between you guys. In a lot of ways, Bruce Brown’s genius in both of those movies was picking the two perfect surfers. You were a guy that everyone rooted for. You were a guy that made us laugh. The fact that it was a documentary was the most fascinating aspect about it. Was filming the movie similar to what you might see in reality TV today where some of the scenes might have been staged? Or was everything just impromptu and completely on the fly?
Pat: You know, it’s hard to compare doing Drive Thru with that. Endless Summer was way more staged and it had to be because we were using film. Every time you hit the button, it costs a hundred bucks just to turn the camera on. It could have been more, but that was back then, you know? Shooting was expensive. In this day and age with digital red cameras and all that stuff, it can be way more impromptu. There are scenes from a cinematic point of view that you do want to set up, but you are able to let life happen a little bit more and not worry about the cost of burning film. So we definitely had a plan when we’d go places. That’s not to say that it was so scripted that we couldn’t do things. But we really did have to map it out a little bit because we just knew that every time we hit that button it’s an expensive reel.
At Drive Thru, the cameras were rolling basically all day and it was only the issue to the guy that had to sit through 900 hours of Donovan (Frankenreiter) partying or something. (Laughs) Actually, no, that was our issue. I’m sorry, that wasn’t their issue. That was our issue. (Laughs) But it was a lot more free-flowing. The cameras, too. Don King and Jack McCoy and Dan Merkel were the camera guys.
Cyrus: Wow! I didn’t know that. Crazy.
Pat: Yeah, and these water houses we had were huge because they’re carrying 35mm cameras. Any shot that they did get was pretty painstakingly hard in the surf. Again, with these cameras that we have today, you can hold them in the palm of your hand. I mean, look at the GoPro. It’s incredible, right? It’s just so much easier.
Cyrus: You did the Hollywood thing. The Endless Summer II was in most people’s opinion, especially surfers, paired with number one the greatest surf film ever. And then you did the Drive Thru series, in which Greg Browning did the filming and directing, and at the core of it was you, Donovan Frankenreiter and Benji Weatherly. You had a huge crew that came on for some, if not all, of the episodes. Including Kalani Robb, who I’ve interviewed many times. Drive Thru, for me, was one of the very few reasons I would watch the now-defunct Fuel TV. It would be on at midnight sometimes and sometimes it would be on at primetime. I’d just be glued and start DVR’ing those shows. I’ve seen pretty much every episode. I had to watch the California series, which was the first, online though. In my opinion, it was what a surf show should be. Do you miss it? It looks like you guys had a lot of fun.
Pat: I do totally miss it. I miss it now because you have to create reasons. Work is busy and we’re having a lot of fun right now, but you have to create reasons to break off and see different things. Otherwise it can get really easy to get stuck in a little pattern and just be at work all the time. So yeah, I do miss it.
I will say, going into the last couple (episodes), I felt that it was probably time that I step aside. (Laughs) Only because I’m very aware of new kids coming up and new opportunities for those kids. So, I kind of always felt like, here’s this guy who’s got a job and who’s got things to do and it’s a great opportunity for someone to be known. So I kind of always felt like OK, unless we do a really big reunion thing, it was probably my last time anyway.
I thought it would have been good for the show to find, like, an Alex Gray who would have taken my place. Someone who would have just been a little more young. The thing is, you can hang onto these things and do them forever. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Cyrus: I don’t understand this need to go young. It’s not like you’re old, for starters, and you guys had a good thing going. Personally, as a viewer, I didn’t get tired of you guys. If you did more, I actually think people would welcome it and get excited. I get where you’re coming from though.
Pat: Thanks! The thing that’s funny is I’ve gone in and met with the Fuel TV guys quite a few times. A good friend, Michael Bloom, has taken that over. I met Michael when he worked at MTV and we did Endless Summer. We did a thing with MTV back then and he was the one who came up with Beach MTV. They did it and he’s a really good guy. He’s there and he said, “Hey, we can try to do this, this and this.” I just think the network was finally making some money working with the MMA stuff, so I think they built something that was cool, but financially it wasn’t making a whole lot of sense.
Cyrus: In my humble opinion, I think Drive Thru is one of the things that was carrying that network, at least on the surfing side of things. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right when you’re show ended, they ditched surfing and went right to MMA. Are you still traveling a lot?
Pat: You know, yeah. I still get to travel quite a bit. As you can imagine, I sit there and look at all my responsibilities that have changed. It’s now kind of looking out for a bunch of things. I recently went to the Gulf Coast. I was there for almost three weeks.
Pat: It was really unbelievable, minus the fact that it rained almost every day. But we did get some waves. I came home early to touch base before some of the really good waves came because John John had hurt himself and he had a concussion. I brought him back and helped him get on the road to recovery. As I look at the year and our brand, we’re going to approach these events and moments like grand plans. We’re picking moments, especially with our athlete roster, that we want to show up and have as Olympic moments. I’ll definitely be on hand for those. I’m actually going to Uruguay and then to Buenos Aries for a couple of days. Our distributor down there is doing an event so I’m going to hang out and ride a couple of waves with those guys. It’s going to be nice to take a break. (Laughs)
Cyrus: When you’re on the road, do you get into the water a bunch?
Pat: Yeah, I’m going to surf a lot there. I kind of need it. I went to the doctor and I had this cough for like a month. I jumped on the scale and I realized I need to go surfing again. (Laughs)
Cyrus: With running the Hurley team right now and me being from Northern California, I’ve got to ask the question. What did you think of Nat Young’s performance on the ASP World Tour?
Pat: It was so insane! He’s such a favorite. Maybe not totally in the big media’s eyes because they obviously have their darlings in Kelly (Slater), Parko (Joel Parkinson), or whoever. John John (Florence) and Dane (Reynolds). But anybody that knows Nat, or is a fan of surfing, just absolutely thinks he’s the greatest thing in the world. I can’t say that I’m surprised he’s done so well.
He’s actually on my fantasy surfer team. I did choose him so I can’t say I’m too surprised. But to anybody that goes to an event and is competing at that high a level, and has have never been to that place, to do so well is a testament to how great he is. When you actually dig into it and watch how solid he competes, how smart he is, and how tenacious he is, he’s going to have a solid career.
Cyrus: Nat Young will be a media darling in my opinion. He’s so new on the scene. He’s going to get there soon. He fits the profile. Going back a little bit in your career, once you finished The Endless Summer II you got your competitive career back on track. You’d returned to the ASP World Tour and competed for close to 10 years. And then when you retired, I believe in 2001, you were still a huge name as you still are now. It was almost this amazingly seamless transition from retiring from the world tour right into this head of marketing position with Hurley. And you’re doing this today, so obviously you love the job. What does the job entail? What are the day-to-day operations for the head of marketing at a huge brand like Hurley?
Pat: My job is pretty simple. I work with Bob Hurley, Evan Slater and some other great people. We’re a pretty focused and simple bunch. We love surfing and are fans of the sport. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I left doing the tour and I was tired, if you can believe it. I kept going to these places, and if walking down the path at Bells doesn’t get your heart bumping, you realize you’re probably not doing the right thing. I kind of got to that place.
Pat: Literally. So I told Bob and Jeff Hurley at the time, “Hey, guys. This might be it for me. If there’s something else that I can do, I feel like I have other things that I want to do. I don’t want to be lost at tour and I don’t want to keep doing these things when I don’t know if I’m that into it.”
So that’s how that started. Basically, my plan was building a strategy to stay within the surf circle at Hurley, which was a really great surf-oriented brand. At the same time, we were aligning with a new board short proposition to make really great board shorts and owning that part of the market. We were basically looking at setting up home base. Bob’s from Huntington Beach, so what better place than Surf City with all the retail and everything? That all sort of lined up and made sense.
So it was basically my job, and our job, to create opportunities for us to tell our brand’s story. That came out as being the Hurley Pro, which was the Boost (Mobile Pro). We acquired that from Boost (Mobile). So we had a performance event in California, and then you kind of went up the road a month or so earlier with the US Open (of Surfing), which also came to us through the ING relationship.
So then it was like, “OK, how do we make this bigger and better?” If you remember, the economy was so down. How do we bring the best surfers back to Huntington Beach? How do you give a shot in the arm to the industry?
It was our task to create something. We created an all-star event and it was just basically an excuse to get Kelly (Slater) and Dane (Reynolds) and Parko (Joel Parkinson) and Taj (Burrow) and John John (Florence) and whoever it may be, all to the US Open (of Surfing) again to compete in front of all the masses. That was the goal and it totally worked. It was great! It felt like you knew when you went to Huntington Beach that was going to happen. And so, now we have a great athlete roster and we’re trying to learn how to tell their stories better and to be a better brand so that they’re getting some publicity and products. Just being leaders in the sport and not stopping, just driving the sport through. I do a lot of work with the ASP and I’ve been on the board for five years so I’m really trying to help push and direct. Whenever they have a question, there are much smarter guys than I am.
Cyrus: Personally, I’m really picky when it comes to the ASP World Tour webcast commentators. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I really hope you’re in that booth more often. You’re really good at it. When you’re in there, everyone is happy. There is little to no criticism. Thank you so much, it was an absolute pleasure to conduct this interview with you.
Pat: Thank you. It’s an honor to be able to do this. Talk to you soon.