By Martin (Marty) Olsen
Bells Beach is the most famous surfing beach in Australia. A world famous surfing destination, Bells Beach has been holding surfing competitions since 1961 and over more than half a century. It has built a reputation as the location of the oldest surfing carnival in the world. The surrounding area comprises a high concentration of quality surfing spots from Southside to Steps Reef including Centreside, Bells (Rincon, The Bowl) and Winki Pop (Uppers and Lowers). Swells from the southern ocean slow and steepen over the reef-strewn shallows along this coast to form consistent, surfable waves and the surrounding environment provides excellent viewing from a natural amphitheater.
Bells Beach is a small bay situated between two headlands. Its fame is a result of the swells pushing in from the Southern Ocean, which produce outstanding surf. The consistency for which the beach is famed arises, in part, from the fact that the bottom is not very sandy and hence is not prone to the shifting sand bars, which would create great variability. Combined with spring tides and a strong nor’ westerly winds the waves can reach five metres, although three to four is the average. The name was originally Bell’s Beach because in the 1840s the first family to take up farming in the district were named Bell.
Easter is the time for the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. As the Rip Curl website points out: “Bells Beach is renowned for booming swells and the natural amphitheatre, where red clay cliffs drop into the powerful Great Southern Ocean, making an atmosphere unmatched anywhere in the world”. The iconic event and Bells Trophy is one of the most sought after titles on surfing’s ASP World Championship tour and holds a proud place in surfing folklore.
The Rip Curl Pro boasts an Honour Roll of Champions includes so many of the great surfing legends such as: Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Kelly Slater, Taj Burrow, Andy Irons, Sunny Garcia, Shane Dorian, Mark Occhilupo, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Tom Carroll, Cheyne Horan, Mark Richards, Simon Anderson, Jeff Hakman and Michael Peterson.
Only the world’s best win the Rip Curl Pro. “‘No kook has ever won at Bells,’ Hawaiian surfer Shane Dorian declared after ringing the coveted bell trophy in 1999, and no kook ever will.” Check out http://www.ripcurl.com.au/?aboutbells for dates and comprehensive information.
My first sojourn to this mystical destination was in 1970 when I moved to live in Melbourne for a few months. Working in a surf shop in the city selling George Rice surfboards gave me the local knowledge and gossip I needed to seek out the many great surf spots along the Victorian coastline. Naturally, Bells held the mystical reputation, which attracted me immediately, and was the first destination of my many surf trips out of Melbourne. It was my first time surfing in colder water as I had always lived and surfed in Queensland. It seemed so cumbersome and tiring to wear a full wetsuit and sure took time to adjust to. However, this legendary coastline lived up to its reputation delivering consistent waves and certainly the biggest waves I had ever surfed at this time in my surfing life.
In 1957 that a handful of members of the Torquay Surf Lifesaving Club followed the dirt track out of town, trekked through the bush and first rode waves at Bells Beach. When lightweight Malibu-style boards arrived, they made the trip a lot easier. Early surfers at Bells included Peter Troy, Joe Sweeney, “China” Gilbert and George “Ming” Smith, who won the first contest held at Bells in 1961, collecting a one-pound ($2) prize, making this the first modern professional event.
In 1960, surfing legend Joe Sweeney upgraded the old dirt track and extended it down to Bells Beach. The entire project cost 32 pounds and Sweeney charged his mates a pound each for use of the track. The following year the first surfing competition was held, the Bells Beach Easter Rally, which became an annual event. By 1973, this event was included on the World Competitive Tour (WCT) and has since been known as the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. The competition has famously been held over the Easter long weekend to honour tradition.
Thomas Elliott on the Red Bull website talks about the wave itself:
“We all know the science of what makes a wave. What makes Bells Beach so legendary is that the ocean floor provides a perfect contour to harness the big Southern Ocean swells that roll through, turning into long rides with a wavering lip that’s begging to be hit with turn after turn. When the conditions are just right, the wave at Bells can start all the way out at Rincon and break right through Outside Bells into The Bowl. While the wave may look perfect from the headland, it is a technical wave that requires power and practice to make sure those turns really link up.”
“Bells waves are walls that rarely barrel like other key stops on the tour. This means that for the surfers to score big points they need to showcase all of their rail-surfing talent, wave selection alone won’t be enough to get you through. There’s no easy 10 tubes rolling through to save anyone lagging in their heat.”
“But don’t think that wave selection isn’t still key. Bells is as notorious for the lulls between sets as it is for waves. You don’t want to paddle for the first one only to be caught on the inside by the rest, it’s not a fun way to spend your day.”
No matter what sort of future directions surfing takes Bells Beach will always remain as one of the greatest legendary surfing locations of the world!
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