Sean Doherty: Bells Is As Bells Was

18 Apr 2019 2 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Dunbar

Photo: WSL/Dunbar


Day 1 of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach

So here we are, at Bells, but not. 

Day one at Bells dawned and the site workers were busy uncoiling hundreds of metres of cabling, the event already on the move from Bells, up the hill to the back-up venue of Winkipop. Looking at the forecast it may not return to its spiritual/commercial home of the event, just as it did up on the Gold Coast. On the Gold Coast, the move on from Snapper to the back-up venue of Duranbah actually revitalised the whole event, although for a while there the move was on shaky ground. The night before the Gold Coast event started someone hooked up the broadcast cable between Snapper and D-Bah to the tow bar of their car and simply drove away with it… either in symbolical protest against the event or maybe simply to acquire three kilometres of copper wiring. We can’t be sure.

That won’t happen here at Bells. Sport is religion to these Victorians, and the only thing that will stop the broadcast here will be an unseasonably dank forecast. It’s been pumping on the reg down here since February, a swell-a-week, dial-em-up, right up until the arrival of the carnival. Since then it’s been hotter than Delhi, the house is thrumming with the sound of blowflies, and the only waves available have been two hours away down at the old back-up venue of Johanna. Most have indulged.

I ran into Garth Tarlow in the supermarket this morning, and he’s been up and down the Great Ocean Road for a week, surfing his brains out alongside Jordy Smith. He couldn’t believe his luck… or ours. “I don’t know how you guys get anything done here, seriously.” He was standing next to the avocado stand, the millennial fruit-of-choice already marked up to three bucks fifty in anticipation of the Easter hordes descending. Jordy went straight for them. “But I suppose it’s so damn expensive to live here you just got to work.”

I was surprised – considering the waves that aren’t coming – that they didn’t run this morning. They walked away from what, on paper anyway, was the best looking day of the waiting period to wait for the low tide. WSL Tour Manager Renato Hickel and his amazing head of orange-blond hair laughed as he walked past, “And if we don’t run we’re fucked!” 

They eventually called it on at lunchtime. It was two-out-of-10 Winkipop but may prove to be the best day of the waiting period. “Hmmm, grim,” harrumphed Claw Warbrick when I asked him what he was seeing in the forecast. Historically this event has been on a burner, and the WSL have never had to deal with the prospect of Bells being grey and shitty. 

Claw was equally pessimistic about what could very well be Kelly Slater’s final year on tour. “Hmmm, probably needed to do it a few years ago,” he offered as Kelly fell on a closeout air reverse that was bread and butter for him even just a few years ago. Someone yesterday posted footage from his win here back in 2006, in pulsing eight-foot surf on the coldest day anyone can ever remember here, sleeting, the temp down in single figures but Kelly burning up like a re-entering space craft. It was incredible surfing. Twenty-yard bottom turns from behind the section, before mirroring the same 20-yard turn at the top. It would win Bells today.

I looked out as he tried to drive into weak, chest-high Winki, trying to keep up with Filipe Toledo without looking like a 47-year-old trying to keep up with Filipe Toledo. For a moment he was in danger of being relegated to the sudden death round again, two from two, this time by Ginger Menace, Xavier Huxtable, exactly 30 years his junior. Kelly found his wave and surfed on. 

Out of the water he’s been in good form. I had him on the phone for a couple of hours last week, and you kinda sensed he’d be happy simply with a bit of flow in his heats, that he didn’t need to tear holes in the fabric of space time anymore, but you sensed more than anything that he is determined, no matter what happens, to enjoy what is likely to be his last full year on tour. He’s just watched Mick and Joel go out on a wave of public adoration, and it’s crystallised his own exit from the stage. He spent four hours last night at Torquay Bowling Club, in front of a full room of piss-sucking surf fans for an Ain’t That Swell live podcast, made jokes with Occy, took the piss, drank beers, took a tequila shot and hung with punters in the car park, shooting the breeze. This was all after 36 holes of golf. In the water he seems to have detached a little from the binary W/L metric and started looking for wins in his own surfing. But don’t think he wasn’t up all night watching Tiger’s win the other night and thought to himself at 3am as Tiger donned the green jacket, that at some point this year he wants one last moment… it’s just a matter of what that moment is. 

I can’t see it happening at Bells. I’m actually struggling to see Bells even run, and when it does it might not even look like Bells. There is some east wind in the forecast, el diablo, but it might reinvent the oldest event on tour. High tide Rincon, east wind cheese breeze, and Filipe Toledo? The WSL have never seen Bells like this. Bells is as Bells was. They’ve had five great years of waves. They looked out at it this morning, half becalmed, and it looked completely foreign to them. At the moment there’s a Hail Mary day taking shape on the very last day of the forecast, but between now and then is anyone’s guess. We ran nine heats today at Winkipop and the dominant performances came exclusively from goofies – Callinan, Medina, and trials winner Jacob Willcox. It will be a strange old running of the Bell and who knows when it will even run again. 

Meanwhile the nightwalkers are out on the street in Jan Juc. There’s a pile of red wine spew sitting on the ground outside my front fence looking a Pollock painting from the bogan colonies.

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