Sean Doherty: Echoes of Bells
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
Finals Day at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach
Driving out of Bells yesterday I was already processing the gravity of what we’d just seen.
The Southern Ocean, well she was angry yesterday and the 984 low conjured from the sub polar latitudes had revived a season that until yesterday had never really got going. It gave everyone plenty to think about, and I had an hour to think about it while stuck in two miles of traffic on the only road out of here. I pondered what the performances of Gabby and John really meant in the Cosmodemonic scheme of the season, just as a dickhead P-plater in a ’96 HSV burned up the wrong side of the road, locked it up, and tried to jam his car in front of mine before a car came the other way.
We decompressed over dinner last night at the Italian restaurant in town, where they were lined up out the door. We got seated on a table next to Tom Curren, who was holding court on a table of six middle-aged crew who I didn’t recognise and who didn’t look very surfy. Tom was effusive in all the ways he isn’t around the contest. They seemed to be discussing all sorts of geopolitical issues, Tom holding court for 30 minutes. They must have been old friends. Then he simply got up, said good night and walked off. It was only then that I realised he didn’t even know them! He’d just pulled up the only free seat in the house and had dinner with a table of strangers.
Tom Curren was the first person I ran into this morning down at the contest, looking out over the groomed echoes of yesterday’s swell. It was firing. “I’m excited,” he said, not very excitedly. The first heat was delayed five minutes when the last freesurfers couldn’t be dislodged from the Bells Bowl in time. Fines were threatened, right up until the point when the final guilty surfer washed up on the beach… Occy. He’s still got unpaid fines from ’84. They didn’t bother.
Yesterday was man against ocean, woman against ocean, but with the quelling of the seas today, the waves were merely the wallpaper to some human drama, and when it comes to human drama on tour it begins and ends with Kelly Slater.
This will be Kelly’s final Bells. He didn’t say so but didn’t need to. He’s hanging on in the hope his phone rings and the US Olympic team calls, and he feels publicly calling a final year might prevent that phone call from happening. But he’s just watched Mick and Joel go out in style, and this feels like his time to do the same, his time to go out right. Despite having won it four times, Bells has been tough love for him, and if he doesn’t have to I can’t see him coming back. Like Bodhi never came back. But, you know, never say never and all that. It’s why he’s still here on finals day at 47. I didn’t see what he paddled out on this morning, it looked small again, but he persevered with his strategy from yesterday of sitting up the reef and coming from deep. He lost, but it didn’t come down to his surfing, it came down to him catching a crook inside wave, with a set stacked up out to Centreside. He didn’t lose the heat, it just finished with him behind. He got barrelled out the back at Rincon 30 seconds after the siren sounded. His post-heat interview was interesting. I couldn’t tell whether it was the face-peeling cold or some bottled emotion, but I looked at his face and he reminded me of Tom Hanks, I just couldn’t tell what movie.John versus Gabby was the real final. These two had slayed the Kraken yesterday. They’d fed off the energy. The swell had been tamed today and it was a matter of how much they’d come back to the field when the waves didn’t push back. John and Gabby came down to one exchange. Medina’s wave was bigger and on the back ledge and moved down the reef in four modular slabs. The first he navigated with a high speed, freefalling floater. The replay showed both feet gone yet he was always landing it. He drove past the next one, lightly whipped the third, but for his closing turn he smacked the left coming back at him. John’s wave was on the reef but almost died under his feet as he took off. It came to life on the inside, and three back-to-back down carve pocket turns bled seamlessly into each other, but then he went and fell at the end. The judges had to make a call. Gabby started and finished well, John’s was all in the middle. They went with John and the combo and the exchange decided the heat. Gabby seemed cool with it. His mum was in tears.
It was the next heat however that raised the ambient temp in the judges booth. Jordy and Italo, both still leaking saltwater after a ritual flogging yesterday afternoon, probably sensed this was a Bells there for the taking as the form guys cannibalised. They pushed hard on the Bowl, a little too hard in Italo’s case. Italo was dropped off by the ski just as the set of the heat rolled through. He had no priority but it was right there! Jordy was inside and about to wear it on the head. Italo went, but to his surprise looked around to see Jordy boogie boarding in his inside. Italo kicked out, Jordy stood up. There was silence in the judges booth. A fly walked across the window. Nobody spoke. Was that…? The coaches picked it up first. “Was that the old crossover rule?” Five minutes later a photocopy of the rulebook was produced and there it was. The old crossover rule. Italo had been nowhere near Jordy but had crossed his line at right angles. The key phrase they then debated was “in the process of catching a wave”. Was Jordy on his guts in the process of catching a wave? Well, yep. This all took five minutes and both Italo or Jordy were happy to let it slide. No foul. The rulebook won, Italo lost a wave and that was it. Italo was toast. Had Jordy orchestrated it? You won’t get a straight answer here, but the read was that he badly wanted to keep Italo off that wave but hadn’t set out to ping him with the interference. Pete Mel defended the call on the broadcast. He told me crew on his feed were tearing him several new assholes as a result. It’s a great truism; surfers don’t like rulebooks.
Another aside was that while reading the WSL rulebook I discovered they now have a death clause and itemise it into during competition and out of competition. While it covered death on the Winki Button, which we could have seen yesterday, the clause however doesn’t include coaches who might throw themselves off the Bells cliffs when their surfer falls on the wave of the heat and costs himself a fairytale spot in the Bells final. Dog Marsh watched on as his boy, Ryan Callinan, the last goofy and the last Australian in the event, fell on a wave that had nine written all over it. The nine would have put him in the final instead of Phil Toledo.
I’m happy Courtney Conlogue won the women’s final. Yesterday she was the first surfer who changed the whole feel of the day when she started throwing big turns at the Bells shorebreak. That and she’s unsponsored right now, probably as a result of continually being referred to as an “athlete” in the commentary. Surf companies don’t tend to like that. I really don’t think Courtney cares, well, especially right now. She’s been a surfer more than anybody over the past two days. Malia Manuel looked set to finally secure a breakthrough win with an eight, until Courtney caught a wave, surfed twice as hard with an extra two turns. It wasn’t a perfect 10, it was a two-points-better-than-an-eight 10. It won the final for Courtney.
The men’s final between John and Phil was free of fireworks. John, as he’d done all event, was happy to play the ball and not the man. I don’t think he really even knew what Phil Toledo was up to but realised halfway through a slow final he probably needed to do something, especially when Phil lit one up all the way to the beach. The score, read out as a six, seemed a point light. I looked quizzically at my comrade when it dropped and he concurred. John’s following wave, a seven, seemed a point heavy. The judges kept dining out on John’s close-out turn, which he’d hit 99 times from a hundred. That turn was something. It didn’t have the subtle seismic variety of what he did at Margies two years back, but this was surfing moving forward. But by this stage after two days of judging big, moving water, the crew upstairs had been viscerally imprinted and maybe just wanted to make sure the right surfer won.
John was the right surfer. A week ago he’d turned up to a local paddle out against the Great Australian Bight being turned into an oil company picnic. The locals on the beach today were only going for one guy, and that trophy needed his name on it. John, for his part, seemed slightly more excited than Tom Curren.
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