Hitting the swells with one of Sydney's most legendary Bondi riders

Hitting the swells with one of Sydney's most legendary Bondi riders

Die-hard surfer and youth worker Tony Spanos is bringing Aussie surf culture to the world. Here's how it all began
“The greatest highs in life are natural highs,” says Tony Spanos, philanthropist and die-hard Bondi surfer.

Gnarly sunrise. South Bondi’s cranking. Southerly swell’s kicking in with a three-foot pulse.

Then, caught by surprise, surfers start paddling further out, as if a pod of dolphins. It’s a five-foot bomb; the day’s biggest. 

And amid the rumbling saltwater, someone’s screaming, yelping like a teenager.

Cutting left and right through the messy break, arms outwards like he’s gliding, looking at everyone he passes and making lots of noise, is 59-year-old philanthropist, youth worker and die-hard surfer Tony Spanos. Smiles all ‘round.

That messy, crowded surf off "Scum Valley" is where Aussie surf culture began. And Spanos, along with scores of local surfers who make up the Bondi Board Riders, have since taken it around the sunburnt country -- all in the name of philanthropy.

They’ve driven a revamped, spray-painted Mercedes Benz bus (aka the "Peace Bus" and "Graffiti Hall of Fame on Wheels") across the island.

They’ve thrown beach parties wherever they’ve landed, rolled into environmental protests and ducked hundreds of kilometers inland -- bringing the beach to indigenous communities that aren’t on a map and otherwise forgotten.

“We set up workshops all over the country,” says Spanos, flicking his saltwater bleached hair back. 

So why promote surf culture? Spanos says he's offering a healthy alternative to the dark, inner city circles many of today's disadvantaged youth get wrapped up in. A sense of community, of spirit, of loving life and the nature around us.

An urban collage of graffiti, hip-hop, activism, beats and beach culture, they’re now planning to take Bondi to Hawaii -- and the world.

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How the traveling surf circus formed

Spanos used to catch the 322 bus from Vaucluse to South Bondi as a kid. Back in the sixties, rival surfing "ramp gangs" dominated the beachscape.

Bondi surf club “In The Nude” soon rose to prominence and promiscuity, but when Bondi Board Riders emerged in the 1980s promising inclusiveness and unity, it gathered steam and -- of the hundreds of surf clubs around Australia -- a reputation.

Spanos was a driving force. He’d inherited some money from his old man’s meatworks, but unlike some people with a buck, he decided to give it back.

Though the Bondi Board Riders 'Peace Bus' continues to rack up travel miles, it parks at South Bondi every month for their regular surf competitions.He first set up a Graffiti Hall of Fame in inner city Sydney -- “47 raids and no drugs or alcohol found” -- and bought the bus for artistic kids to paint.

He moved it to South Bondi in the 1990s and parked near the country’s first legal graffiti wall, adorned on the concrete promenade adjacent the one-kilometer stretch of sand.

The road warrior then racked up some protest miles during some key Australian political issues of the past few decades: Gippsland (Ohms not Bombs), Jabiluka (Dig the Sounds not Uranium), Nimbin (Hemp Olympics) and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, wherever it was pitched.

The bus went missing for a few years, before an indigenous Australian on the New South Wales north coast spotted it, allegedly abandoned in a creek. The irrepressible vehicle was dragged out of the water and towed back to Sydney.

“Then we had a vision,” says Bondi Board Riders president, Beau Sevastos.

“Bondi Board Riders versus the world. We turned the bus into a travelling circus with deejay booths and color to restore it back to its former glory.” 

In addition to her travels, the bus is now spotted every month at South Bondi, providing a musical stage that jams out tunes during surf competitions and hosts free barbies for all.

“It’s all about the kids who have a really fun day. And the waves -- just being in the now and feeling spiritual. Nothing else on the planet comes close to that feeling.”

More on CNN: 4 super swell surf towns (even if you don't surf) 

Developing a surf culture in Bondi

To understand the surf culture of Bondi and Spanos' belief that it can help promote a healthy lifestyle among disadvantaged youth, it's worth looking at the way locals are raised.  

It's mid-morning off South Bondi, but it’s hardly postcard stuff.

Early summer heat has turned late summer rain. The ocean’s been dredged up by a northerly cyclone and a few blue bottle jellyfish are lingering about.

Apart from a couple of unsuspecting swimmers caught in the "backpacker’s rip," there’s not a tourist in sight; they’re sticking to the cafes, or still in bed.

But being any given day, hospitality worker and Bondi Board Rider former champ, Luke Muffet, 36, is paddling his board into the sets. He had his saltwater birth aged two when his old man threw him in and has been surfing since six.

Today, he surfs twice a day and prefers the gentleman’s shift (9-10 a.m.) when the suits leave.

“Surfing just feels right,” Muffet says. “So much of what we do nowadays, being hooked into technology, isn’t natural. But surfing’s pure. Out there are real bonds and real friends -– and we bring that back onto the land.”

It's a culture that starts young. Many begin with lessons from Barney Quinlan, 31, who runs a Surf Squad off Bondi Icebergs, teaching kids (and adults) how to survive in rips and understand the ocean environment.

Bondi Board Riders president Beau Sevastos, right, joins another club member in the swell. “This is Bondi, the most urbanized Australian beach," says Quinlan.

"And there are crossovers. The kids skateboard to swimming lessons, dodging cars. And that’s where the energy of Bondi Board Riders comes from –- from a shared space, a coming together of cultures and a shared love of the ocean.” 

Luke Kennedy’s another true blue local and Bondi Board Rider. He’s also the editor of “Tracks”, a 42-year-old mag that’s the self-proclaimed "Rolling Stone of Oz surfing." 

“Surf culture’s become a bit mainstream, conservative –- much like Bondi itself,” Kennedy says.

“But 30 or 40 guys on a bus that doubles as a rave party venue –- it’s a different bent on life. It recreates that irreverence and fuels counter culture.”

He says of Spanos, “He’s a man who walks with kings and stays in touch with commoners. He came into money and everything he does is with a view to helping people.”

Next, Spanos wants to take Bondi Board Riders offshore. This year he has plans to set up an Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the island of his descent, Cyprus; and he’ll establish a headquarters for Bondi Board Riders in Hawaii.

“It’s a cultural exchange for the kids,” he says. “They won’t have to pay any rent and they can live a little.”

Spanos is now contemplating his legacy. The bus will still be parked on South Bondi every month and the highway beast will still cruise the coast and chug inland.

“It creates visual and sonic waves,” he says.

But in the end, Spanos says it all starts in the swell.

“It’s a meditation that grounds you," he says. "Clears the sinuses, cleans the lungs. It depolarizes and it’s my religion -- the tides chart my bible. The greatest highs in life are natural highs.”

More on CNN: World's 50 best surf spots

Surfing in Bondi

If reading about Spanos and the Bondi Board Riders has inspired you to get out there and hit the 'Scum Valley' swells, you can read more about the group via their website, www.bondiboardriders.com. The next event takes place May 19. 

For Surf Squad lessons by Barney Quinlan, who teaches surf safety and the basics of the local environment with a focus on efficient swimming, call +61 (0)40 369 5295. Or contact him through Bondi Icebergs

Another company offering board lessons on Bondi Beach for all abilities is Lets Go Surfing. Their two-hour beginner course is A$89 (US$92).  

Matt Khoury likes to write. He's been a freelance journalist for a decade
and an editor of five publications -- including CNNGo/CNN Travel's Sydney and Australia section.

Read more about Matt Khoury
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