For whom the Bells toll
FOR THE pilgrim, Bells Beach has always been about suffering.
Simon Anderson made his first trip in 1971, just before the era of pro-surfing arrived. "I was 17, a ding fixer at Shane Surfboards in Sydney, and was representing NSW in the juniors," the surfboard designer says. "I'd heard stories about Bells from older guys at Narrabeen: corduroy to the horizon, muddy car parks, all that.
"Nobody had any room for me in their cars, so I had to get a train from Sydney to Geelong via Melbourne, then a taxi to Bells. I had nowhere in particular to go, so I got the taxi driver to drop me in the car park at Bells. I just stood there with one board and a bag, in the mud, and the surf was one foot with four guys out.
"Ted Spencer (a well-known surfer of the day) came in and he gave me a lift back to Torquay … I stood outside the pub and eventually board maker Geoff McCoy drove by. He stopped reluctantly, like you do at a car accident, like 'damn, I suppose I've gotta do the right thing', and took me to his team house at Jan Juc."
Anderson won the juniors and thus began a complex relationship with one of Australia's most famous and temperamental surf spots. Last night Anderson was expected back again, along with some of the world's most legendary surfers, for a dinner to mark another milestone for the world's longest-running professional contest. This Easter, the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach — 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, on the Great Ocean Road — celebrates its 35th championship since the first professional Bells Easter event back in 1973, when Rip Curl joined up with jeans maker Amco to present a then-colossal $5000 prize pool.
Among those gathering this weekend at the Sands hotel in Torquay are Jeff Hakman, from Hawaii, the first non-Australian Bells winner, in 1976; Tom Curren, from California, who sealed his first world championship in a Bells semi-final in 1986; today's Aussie heroes, such as Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning; and, of course, the champ of champs, from Florida, Kelly Slater.
The question though — for a remote, windy stretch of beach with a notoriously unpredictable swell — is why do they keep coming? The Bells area has bred many good surfers, and one bona fide legend in Wayne Lynch, but it's never been rich in ground-breaking surfing talent. Since the Bells pro debut in 1973, the event has never been won by a Victorian surfer. Bells winners come from places such as Sydney, Newcastle, the Gold Coast or overseas — from the warm, crowded waters where you can surf all day in playful waves and develop the fast-twitch reactive skills that make a champion.
By comparison, Bells Beach, with its cold waters, slippery red mud cliffs, wicked weather and lack of sheer surfing numbers, seems almost another world. Yet its distance is part of what makes it. In the 1940s, the local Torquay surfers had to hack a path to Bells through the coastal scrub with a commandeered bulldozer. Through its early years, the beach's remoteness from the nation's surfing population centres made it into a pilgrimage spot: for most young Aussie surfers, the first of its kind. The drive to Bells from Sydney was an initiation comprising bad meat pies, cold midnight hours near Albury and the long trip down into Victoria's flat glacial plain, to a kind of coast they'd never seen.
"It was definitely an adventure," says four-time Bells champion Mark Richards. "It was such a totally different feeling, driving past Geelong and into the scrubby land near Bells, and over the hill to see the swells lining up out to sea. It was a highlight, like going to Indonesia or somewhere is now."
But Bells Beach surf never comes easily. Swells show up late, early, or not at all. This can mean long drives out to Johanna Beach, past Cape Otway on the west coast, which can pay off in perfect surf or nightmare weather changes. Last year the swell showed at Bells — but with rain and winds cold enough to bring on hypothermia among the finalists.
Over the years, Anderson and his mates would rent a house up on Darian Road in Torquay, light a fire, and wait out the evil south-west gales, sometimes for weeks. "You're subject to the gods of the elements at any surf spot, but Bells more so than most," he says. "If you go enough times, you'll get good waves, but you've usually got to pay your dues in the process."
Every well-known surfer knows the feeling of paying dues at Bells. The 1973 event is legendary for a few reasons, one being the winner, Michael Peterson. The brilliant yet shy Peterson won the first of his three Bells titles that year, a win that tormented him so much he actually hid in the bushes behind Bells Beach rather than attend the victory ceremony.
Back then, surfers were not permitted to wear leg ropes and there were no jet skis to ferry surfers back to the line-up. Peter Drouyn, from the Gold Coast, famously lost his board and had to swim more than a kilometre past the neighbouring Winkipop reef break to retrieve it. He then scaled the cliff, convinced a couple who were cuddling in the back of a Kombi to drive him back to Bells and paddled out for the closing moments of his heat. The late Joe Engel, the 1983 winner, managed his victory despite having stayed in the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club bunk house with no heating and just an electric kettle for company. Four years ago, Kelly Slater and his close friend Shane Dorian arrived at Johanna with jaws agape and bits of kangaroo fur clinging to a smashed rental car's front end.
Mark Richards hated the famous car park mud. "I was never 100 per cent confident in my traction on the board, and once you stepped in that mud, no matter how hard you rubbed your feet clean in the sand, they still slipped off as soon as you stood up," he says. "I was cheering the day they tarred that car park."
Part of Bells' renown is also owed to its surf business community. If most of Australia's best surfers, surfboard designs and surfing techniques were spawned in Sydney or the Gold Coast, almost all its smart business heads thrived in a colder climate. The Sydney and Gold Coast crew got the glory, but the Torquay boys got the bucks. Chief among them, at least as far as Bells Beach goes, is Doug "Claw" Warbrick, Rip Curl co-founder and driving force behind the event since 1973. Warbrick is always there at his event's finish, making sure the winner gets to ring the famous event trophy — a brass bell suspended within a wooden framework. Warbrick's savvy marketing sense has led his company to push Bells' reputation even in pro surfing's modern era, these days of terrifying tropical wonderland surf breaks such as Teahupo'o in Tahiti. In 2000, faced with such dramatic competition, he had to argue hard for Bells to retain its status with the Association of Surfing Professionals as a Prime Wave Location on tour. He was vindicated in 2001, when two spectacular days of sunny big surf arrived for the finals.
"In the beginning, I think it was just us recognising that pro surfing would become a reality, a part of the surfing culture," he says. "We'd heard the talk about it and we were the first in Australia to move to a legitimate platform with the contest at Bells. I think that was pivotal."
Despite the growth of Torquay's surf business empire, Mark Richards says, Bells never felt like a corporate event. "It had and has a shitload of soul. You never felt like you were there just to promote Rip Curl. Plus it's got the only trophy that matters — the only contest trophy everyone wants to win. Once you've got a Bell on your mantelpiece, you don't need anything else."
Underneath it all, underpinning the mystique, are the waves. When it really lights up, good surf at Bells is nothing like that of Australia's east coast breaks. Its flat, sloping reef lifts up Southern Ocean swells in sets of four or five broad waves at a time, often broken by long, vaguely disturbing lulls. Bells, like Hawaii, is about the space between waves, and the decisions a surfer makes in that space. Which way to paddle for position, and when? Do I catch the first or third wave of the set? There aren't the deep tubes of Tahiti or of Queensland's Snapper Rocks, which means no easy, obvious 10-out-of-10 barrel rides. Every good wave score at Bells is earned through technique, timing and persistence.
In 1981 Simon Anderson drove himself to Bells in his EH Holden, his boards in the seat next to him. He then spent a week surfing the local spots, Bells, Winkipop and Bird Rock, to fine-tune his surfing on a new board that would revolutionise surfboard design. Riding his invention, a three-finned creation he named the "Thruster", Anderson then dominated the biggest, cleanest day of Bells surf in all those 35 years.
"Well, it was definitely the cleanest," he says, with typical understatement.
In a nice piece of symmetry, Slater, last year's winner, took out the final riding one of Anderson's hand-shaped boards. Perhaps it's really those moments of connection, between surfers past and present, that make Bells worth the pilgrimage.
-- Nick Carroll is a surfer and writer who has been surfing at Bells at Easter since 1977.