It isn’t often that a stroke of luck changes your lifestyle. It’s even rarer for it to change your future career. But Bill Unger knows the feeling.
Unger was born near Philadelphia and moved to Florida with his mother in 1977 when he was 12 years old. Almost immediately, the young boy fell in love with the area’s surf culture. He was already an avid skateboarder, and surfing seemed like a natural next step. But sadly, it was out of reach since he couldn’t afford to buy a surfboard.
A couple of years later, he hit the proverbial jackpot when he attended the 1979 Van, Surf & Skate Expo (VSSE) in West Palm Beach. The event, a weeklong showcase for surf, skateboard, music, and vintage van life, drew thousands of attendees annually. “My mom gave me five dollars to last the day, and after spending three dollars on a hamburger and a Coke and another dollar on stickers, I had one dollar left,” Unger recalls of the event that was held annually between 1977 and 1981. “As I was leaving, this guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey kid, do you want to win a surfboard?’ They were holding a raffle. I put my final dollar into a big fishbowl and, lo and behold, I won the surfboard.”
That board was the start of a lifelong passion, as it gave Unger the opportunity to surf his way through high school, ultimately traveling to places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and up and down the California and Florida coasts.
Everything came full circle in 2019 when Unger decided to pause his career in project management and relaunch VSSE as a modern-day festival for skateboard, surf, and van enthusiasts. “[The original event] was an extreme sports festival before anyone knew the term ‘extreme sports,’” says Unger. “But when you were involved in that as a surfer and a skater, you instantly knew it was where you belonged. A lot of why I decided to bring back this event was to continue that essence.”
COVID put the newly reinstated event on hold for two years, but this month it returns—and it’s moving to Jupiter. On November 5, the VSSE will take place at The Plaza Down Under on the Riverwalk, under the Indiantown Bridge near Harbourside Place. With the help of local sponsors (like title sponsor Ocean Magic Surf Shop), Unger is hopeful that he has found the expo’s forever home in one of his favorite surf communities. “I want to plant this here correctly and water it correctly to make it an event Jupiter can be really proud of for years to come,” he says.
There is a lot in store at this year’s expo, including a half-pipe skate performance area, a surfboard shaping booth, a surf fashion show, live music from reggae band Drifting Roots, and a vintage van exhibit with Sprinter vans, VW buses, and more. Most importantly, Unger wants local surfers and skaters to have the same amazing experience he had at the original event.
“I want to give something to today’s youth while honoring what we had in the past,” he says, noting he plans to host trick competitions and games at this year’s expo. He will also be raffling off not one but two surfboards. Guests over 15 can win a board donated by a local surf shop, and kids 15 and younger will have the chance to win a custom board shaped by 17-year-old Jupiter resident Stryker Hawk (@strykerhawksurfboards).
“Getting that surfboard at 14 years old opened the world to me,” says Unger. “You become bonded to that first board for life if you really fall in love with the sport.”
Whether you already have a surfboard or skateboard or just like to listen to music and chill, VSSE promises to evoke today’s van life culture for anyone who values the free-spirit idea of just hitting the road. Says Unger: “That has become a vibrant aspect of the event because it embodies the nomadic spirit of beach life—the ability to just throw your board in your van and disappear. To just get in the water and enjoy what you do.”
The Van, Surf & Skate Expo, Saturday, November 5, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; The Plaza Down Under on the Riverwalk, Jupiter; $25/adults, $15/ages 12-17, free/children under 12