• When, in recent times, ACCIONA formed a partnership with Surfing Australia to deliver Feeling Swell, a program to encourage and support the great Australian sport of surfing, they didn’t realise they had, on their staff, a prominent surfing identity. Especially one working in land-locked Melbourne.

But building sites are full of characters, and you never know who’s going to bob up. Sit down at the pub with a bunch of workers in hi- vis gear and boots after knock-off time and you’re likely to hear a few ripping life stories. They are often free spirits – characters who work (flat out) when they need to, before heading off here and there, wherever the winds (or the surf) takes them, to spend their hard- earned on the next adventure.

Steve Rowe (Rowie), who is working on the tunnel joining Arden Street, North Melbourne to the St Kilda station, is a classic example. He’s from the Gold Coast.

There’s not a lot of surf at the South Kensington worksite at the moment. Just hard yakka. The TBMs (Tunnel Boring Machines) never stop. Rowie’s part of the crew who add the Bentonite to give stability to the diaphragm walls of the tunnel. He’s too busy to think of the beautiful beaches of the Gold Coast and northern News South Wales. But he’ll have his day again.

“I haven’t had a surf for a while,” Rowie notes. “Six days on. Pretty busy. And when I do get that day off, I’m on my bike, pedalling around Melbourne. How good is this place? So much happening. So many people. So many cultures.”

The ocean, and especially the surf, has always attracted these free spirits and then it breathes more freedom into them. Surfing becomes a way of life – a literally fantastic way of life, with its physical, emotional and spiritual components. We all know someone besotted by the ocean and its waves and, yes, sometimes those people are working away unobtrusively on building sites.

Rowie’s always had the beach. Growing up in Cronulla in Sydney’s south, he was forever in the surf. But then life looked like taking a major turn. After years of saving their hard-earned, his family cobbled enough cash together to buy their first pub – in Mudgee, in country New South Wales.

“That’s out in the sticks,” Rowie points out, “and I had to make a choice. I was pretty young but I couldn’t get Cronulla out of me. So I decided to stay. I just knocked about. Slept on couches, and surfed. Don’t know how it happened, but it just did.”

Stories were filtering down to Sydney from Up North, where the surfing scene was strong. He had to check it out. He and some mates strapped the boards onto a ’66 Vee-Dub and headed up the Pacific Highway. The Beetle had seen better days. They had to absolutely gun it approaching hills and then let it roll down. (“There’s a lot of hills between Sydney and the Gold Coast.”) It could only be clutch-started but it got them to the Queensland border where they discovered the paradise which was, and still is, Kirra and Coolangatta. There wasn’t much there: a few shacks and miles of unspoilt beaches. And some very happy surfers. Other than Queenslanders, not too many knew about the place in 1976. Those who did had few cares. He never went back to Sydney. “It was beautiful. All the way along that coast, especially from Burleigh Heads to Brunswick Heads – what a beer garden in that Brunswick Heads pub! Some secret beaches that I shouldn’t tell you about – like Iluka, just north of Yamba.”

Competition surfing was starting to take off. Although he dabbled in those events, he was more into free-surfing. But he was often out in the water with “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Michael & Tommy Peterson, and Peter Townend.

He wasn’t too connected with the world and those mainstream entities that kept it functioning. Again, he somehow got by. But he did get involved in the local surfriders and boardriders clubs, especially at Snapper Rocks.

He had a great life, but eventually he had to temper it. “I’ve lived my life in reverse,” he laughs. “I was retired in my 20s. Only started working in my 30s. Barman. Painter. Landscaper. And here I am in the construction industry.”

He’s even been a writer. He felt such a connection to the culture of southern Gold Coast and northern New South Wales that for years he wanted to put together a book about it. The project gathered momentum and, along with an endless chain of people who dedicated their time, knowledge and support, he wrote and published Beyond the green room: a history of Gold Coast surfrider clubs - 1963-2002.

Of course surfing will never leave him, even though these days construction work has brought him to the metropolis of Melbourne. “I love the ocean,” he says. “I love the connection surfing gives you to the ocean. It brings you to life; makes you feel alive, really alive. It’s just a great feeling; a deep feeling.”

That’s the feeling Surfing Australia and ACCIONA want more people to experience – the love of the ocean and the experience of getting up on a board and feeling the energy of a wave. They want to make surfing more inclusive, and want to involve more women and girls. An important element of the partnership is in supporting The Australian Boardriders Battle, and they want to make people aware of the recycling programs that help keep Australian beaches and the ocean clean.


This article was written by regular columnist, John Harms.