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- By Jock Serong, a novelist and freelance journalist who writes in the surfing, travel and literary media. He was the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly and is senior writer at Surfing World magazine. His most recent novel is Preservation, based on the true story of the Sydney Cove shipwreck.
We all need to balance our lives and find a way to let go of work: for these hardy souls, the sea is the key.
ACCIONA recently unveiled a major partnership with Surfing Australia that includes a program called Feeling Swell, aimed at grassroots participation, healthy lifestyles and getting more women and girls in the water. Why surfing? Well, we went deep undercover to find out, and discovered a not-so-secret society within our ranks: the sandy-footed devotees who build their lives around the waves.
Xabier (Xabi) Campo has been with ACCIONA for twelve years now, and is Commercial Director on the North East Link (NEL) tender, making sure the bid prepared for the state is good in terms of its risk profile, pricing and planning, and that all the technical pieces come together. Xabi is from the Basque Country in the north of Spain, and his journey into senior management ranks, and into surfing, is quite an involved one.
Xabi studied for six years back in Spain and in the US to obtain a Masters of Science in Civil Engineering. He started his working life onsite on a road construction project, before moving into Business Development, helping to open new businesses and expand existing ones in North America and the Middle East for ACCIONA. More recently, his focus has been on tenders in Australia and New Zealand. He describes his ascent within ACCIONA as “working my way up, working hard through a series of senior positions and mergers and acquisitions within the company here in Australia. There’s not so many of us around who have experienced the construction business in various parts of the world.”
Every working day at ACCIONA starts with Xabi’s twenty-minute commute from Prahran on his pushbike. It’s mostly paths, but there’s enough involvement with morning traffic on the roads to engage the extreme sportsman within him. “I’m not really a cyclist – not on weekends,” he says. “But I love extreme sports: skating, snowboarding, surfing, motorbiking…whatever I can find.”
Xabi started surfing in his early twenties, while he was studying in the north of Spain. But the surfing scene there, despite its close proximity to the southern French beaches like Hossegor, was fairly incipient at that time. It was a move down onto the coast from inland that got him into it: a friend suggested that if he loved snowboarding and skateboarding, then this surfing thing was going to captivate him. It did, and although he found it hard at first, he’s never stopped since.
When Xabi arrived in Australia seven years ago, he suddenly found that surfing was everywhere, ingrained in the culture. He learned to drive distances to get his fix, from his “favourite” Great Ocean Road, to Gunnamatta on the Mornington Peninsula and Woolamai on Phillip Island. Which way he turned the car depended on which way the wind was blowing.
It was mostly weekends, but he has a group of mates so dedicated to the cause that they’d get up at 4:30 in the morning and hammer down the coast for a wave before work, arriving slightly late, and slightly salty, in Port Melbourne. That kind of madness has dropped off a little since a few of the mates have become fathers, but Xabi is not averse to occasionally using daylight savings to race down the coast after work to catch the last of the light.
Holidays, of course, are geared around surfing – happily Xabi’s partner is a longboarder and she’s all for selecting destinations on the basis of waves.
Xabi thinks there are subtle links between his surfing and working lives. Surfing is a culture for him, more than a sport. “I will definitely show it to my kids,” he says. “This is not just a hobby to me – it’s how I want to spend my time.”
He thinks the “unwinding, relaxing and staying fit” that he gets from surfing are great assets in his work. “It teaches me to stay focused, definitely. A path of resilience. Once it’s big out there, I’m not comfortable. Then I’m relying on adrenaline, problem solving. That’s a unique set of skills that you’re somehow carrying into the workplace.”
Myles Chapman is a Senior Design & Testing Engineer for Geotech, looking after geotechnical engineering works onsite at Kensington as part of RIA’s early works on the new Metro Tunnel. He’s the project engineer, and the overall job will be about ten months. It’s a big commitment: he works Monday to Saturday, 7am to 5pm and sometimes out of hours when needed.
Surfing has been a big part of Myles’s life for the past twelve years, but it’s taken a back seat lately. He and his partner have two girls, aged four and two, and they’ve bought a house, so priorities have changed. Whereas in the old days he might have snuck down the coast once a week, it’s been harder lately. “I’m getting severely unfit,” he laughs. “I used to be able to just drop everything and go. But I’ve got a WhatsApp group on my phone, a few mates who still go, and I live through them a bit.”
Myles says he’d normally split his trips between the east and west coasts outside Melbourne, with a bit of a bias towards the beautiful stretch between Bells Beach and Lorne. His partner’s family have a place at Lorne that he can use as a base for trips, and that’s where he’s planning to be this Easter break. “If you compare it to golf or cycling,” he says, “it’s so much more cost-effective. You need a few grand for a bike, and then there’s all the kit that goes along with it. With surfing, you get yourself a board and wetsuit for a few hundred dollars and you’re done.” And he should know – he’s also a cyclist.
He was lucky enough to get a session at the new URBNSURF wave pool a few weeks ago, with a few of the guys from WGC Cranes. They dialled in a peeling righthander, so Myles got to surf on his forehand, and chose the advanced level. He loved the experience. “I’d highly recommend it,” he says. He agrees there was a side of him that was looking at the wave park with technical eyes. “I did think to myself, ‘how did they do that?’ once or twice,” he admits.
He thinks sometimes about whether his girls will have surfing in their lives when they’re older, but for now, the priority is teaching them to swim. Myles has kept an eye on the ACCIONA Feeling Swell program and its focus on getting girls into the waves. “I hope I keep going with my surfing,” he says, “but I also hope my girls take it up and one day they’re a whole lot better at it than I am.”
Toby Herniman is a Pre-Contracts Manager with ACCIONA, working out of our Sydney office. He started his career like a lot of people, onsite, but these days he’s in the office, working on the Sydney Desal project, worth an estimated $800 million.
Toby got his break in construction as a civil engineering graduate in 2004, and did six years in Australia before heading to London for a five-year stint on projects such as Cross Rail, Victoria Station Upgrade and the widening of Blackfriars Bridge. When he returned to Sydney in 2015, he started work with ACCIONA on the Harwood Bridge tender. Toby’s a bridge builder, and the world needs those.
Having grown up on the Central Coast, a hundred kilometres north of Sydney, a surfing childhood was inevitable. But moving around as he grew up has meant that his surfing life has waxed and waned: it took a back seat when he was in London, and again recently when his partner delivered their baby boy. Toby still tries to get out in the waves when he can, even if it’s just for a quick forty minutes “to reset myself.” Living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, in Clovelly, he’s only 800m from the beach, and can be in the water a quick ten minutes after the idea occurred to him.
When he has time out from surfing, as he is now, he finds that his paddle-fitness deteriorates. When a “decent swell” hit the coast recently, he found himself struggling a little. But he’ll get it back: “that’s what I enjoy,” he says. “The health component – it’s a complete mind and body fitness.”
“Like most breaks, when the waves are good, it does get pretty intense in the water here at Bronte and Maroubra, and people do try to hassle for waves. Though Maroubra is nowhere near as rough as it used to be – there are all levels of surfers in the water and all types of people.”
Toby’s hoping his routine will reset itself in the coming years. He missed out on a surf trip with friends when he and his partner found out they were having a baby. He briefly ponders the eternal question of whether the trip remains in credit in his relationship, and decides that it does – his partner is very encouraging of his surfing. “If I can get myself ten days a year somewhere like Sumatra or the Telos, I’m fine.” He recently climbed down the 600 steps on the cliff at Nyang Nyang in Bali, only to get cleaned up by a big set and dragged over the reef. He considers it a highlight: “I remember taking the third one on the head and I looked across and my mate was just laughing at me – what are mates for?”
Toby loves working with people who surf. “The common interest creates an initial bond,” he says. “There are people from all over ACCIONA who surf. Some, who I’m working with on the Desal project, are currently over from Spain and they’ve brought their boards over.” He believes it brings a level of calmness to work and home life. “When I do get in the water, I think I come out a more balanced person. And having a young fella now, I’ll probably get more out of watching him surf than I do out of being there myself.”
Owen Partopour is a Senior Contracts Manager working on our North East Link tender. He is part of the senior commercial team, working alongside the Commercial Director, Xabi Campo. Owen’s path into surfing was a little different to most: he came to Australia from Iran when he was seventeen, and studied for his degree on the Gold Coast. He started surfing straight away: his then girlfriend (now wife) Emily’s dad is an avid big wave surfer, who taught Owen to love that side of the sport. Owen says that Emily always swore, after a childhood of waiting for her father to get out of the water, that she’d never marry a surfer. Funny how life works out.
When Emily got an opportunity to train in her own career at the Epworth Hospital in Geelong, Victoria, Owen made the decision to move south with her. As well as the relationship, he says he had an eye on “the surfing and the wineries.” He’s now a regular at Bells, Cathedral Rock, Jarosite; in fact, breaks all along the Great Ocean Road, a stretch of coast he describes as “some of the best surf in Australia.”
He also likes to camp at Johanna Beach, near Cape Otway, an area renowned for its powerful beach breaks. “I like the surf a bit bigger,” he says, “and I don’t mind the cold. I’m set up for that.” Emily joins him in the surf when it’s warmer - which for a Victorian means when it’s somewhere else - so that’s generally Noosa or Hawaii. They head off to Hawaii as something of a Christmas tradition, to get amongst the winter swells of Oahu’s North Shore. Owen’s father-in-law has introduced him to some of the lesser-known waves along the famous stretch. He mentions some names, but they sound like decoys.
With a background as a chartered civil engineer, Owen’s working life is mostly office-based: at an overall cost of $15.8 billion, NEL is Victoria’s largest-ever road project. It will create more than 10,000 jobs, take 15,000 trucks off local roads and slash travel times for up to 135,000 motorists by connecting the M80 with the Eastern Freeway, linking key growth areas in the north and southeast. The project includes upgrades to the Eastern Freeway, a dedicated Doncaster Busway, more than 25 kilometres of new and upgraded cycling and walking paths, and improvements to community facilities including local sports grounds.
It’s a lot to get your head around. So planning surf trips is important to him: it ensures he’s always balancing the work with looking forward to a period of surfing intensity. “All my annual leave is organised around surfing,” he admits. He’s travelled to the Solomon Islands with uni friends, to a resort called Papatura where there are dugongs in the water and nobody around. “It’s paradise,” he says. “You have to go there.”
At thirty-one, Owen feels he has a long way to go in his surfing life, and plenty of places still unexplored. Having recently moved from Geelong to Richmond, the prospects for early morning dashes down the coast are a little more limited, but you get the sense he’ll find a way. “When you’re working in an office, it’s great to have that meditative side to your life,” he says. “It can be stressful, doing what we do. For some people it’s yoga or running that helps them unwind. Whatever it is, it’s nice to be able to manage the stress in a healthy way. Surfing gives you a fresh perspective, and a positive way of life.”