Before the original X Games and Mavericks Challenge, a 12-year-old boy wanted nothing more than to learn to surf. His single mother could not afford a board for her child. One Sunday evening, the boy went to a cutting-edge surf expo in West Palm Beach where he won a surfboard.
Bill Unger remembers this experience at the 1979 Van, Surf and Skate Expo as one that opened the world to him. In 1970s and 1980s South Florida, the state lacked the name recognition of the California surf scene, which Unger recognized from an early age. But this event brought the surf community of the Sunshine State together in a way that has stayed with Unger for nearly 40 years.
After a successful four years, the expo attempted to widen its audience. It became the Summer Sports Expo in 1981, but the heart of surf culture and the laid back beach lifestyle was lost in the process. This marked the end of the expo in its traditional form and left the up-in-coming surf community disunified.
This past weekend, Unger brought the classic expo back to West Palm Beach. After living in Los Angeles, California, and spending nearly 12 years actively involved in the surf and skate community, Unger returned to West Palm Beach to revitalize a defining moment of his childhood.
At the Surfing Florida Museum in the Warehouse District, Unger, the vendors, sponsors and participants reintroduced the classic, carefree beach lifestyle to younger generations of Palm Beach County.
“We want to honor the core of skateboarding, surfing and the nomadic and beach lifestyle,” Unger said.
The idea driving this rebirth of the expo of 1970s and 1980s Florida is about bringing the past into the future. Unger hopes to have the nostalgic element propel the expo into future generations.
“This event was always forward-thinking,” Unger said. “We don’t want to trap it in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
The event is a place for the younger local surf and skate community to come together.
Unger aspires to have the next generation of surfers and skaters take over the expo and make it their own. At the next expo, organizers plan to start a college advisory board where the young generation can speak on current issues in the surf and skate world and discuss ways to stay ahead of the curve.
“The VSSE was the X Games before the X Games,” Unger said. “It created a community of similar people.”
Many locals from older and younger generations rode into the Warehouse District for a chance to participate. Gypsy Life Surf Shop, Nomad Surf Shop, and dozens of other surf and skate culture shops hosted booths at the event. Three local bands, Space Coast Ghost, Spread the Dub and Rogue Theory, serenaded the attendees with beachy tunes as they watched skaters roll up and down the street.
Two-time X Games Minneapolis champion Alex Sorgente attended the expo to display his skills and share his journey from Lake Worth. He was a local boarder who received national fame and recognition. The big-name star of the skateboarding world was a unique addition to the lineup of events at the expo.
Young kids were amazed by the halfpipe performances, intrigued by the boards and vans spread throughout the event space and clearly excited about the expo. A young boy and girl also won a surfboard that Unger created to symbolize his journey into the surf world.
“We truly saw the community come together,” Unger said following the event. “We were blessed to get a great vibe.”
At the conclusion of the first rebirthed Van, Surf and Skate Expo, Unger was excited about the success of the event. The expo and its organizers plan a next phase to further create a community of the nomadic beach lifestyle. In addition to surf lessons, the goal is to introduce mentorship and training programs for lost crafts including van customization and surfboard shaping.
“The past is all about encouraging,” Unger said.
By Maddie Coggins