(A handful of months ago, I was approached by a wonderful editor of the famed Lonely Planet guidebook series to contribute to their brand new Epic Surf Breaks of the World. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan was also contributing and I the deep need to show him up, which I no doubt did with the following entry for Bells. Enjoy.)
The public perception of “surf towns” is that they are warm, palm tree-fringed, laidback and perpetually sunbathed but one of the most iconic surf towns on earth challenges Detroit, Cleveland and Manchester, England for sheer, blue-collar, grit. Clouds hover low most days. Bitter cold winds pierce in the winter. Hard-working men and women rise early and head off to factory jobs producing, marketing and selling rubber wetsuits, shearling boots, t-shirts, hats, trunks, sunglasses, tide deciphering wristwatches and beer opening sandals.
Yes, Torquay, Victoria, Australia is home of the mighty surf industry. Brands like Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Piping Hot were founded here but not by accident. Not because Torquay is a population center or transportation hub. No, Torquay has gloomy weather, very few souls, only one way in and another out but it has Bells, one of the most iconic waves in the whole wide world.
Now, I am not a blue-collar man, myself, but have woven that self into Torquay’s fabric through both will and accident. Bells’ most famous son, the surfboard shaper Maurice Cole, once called me a ‘complete and total fuckwit. Narcissistic, selfish, impersonal, weak and low…’. And I was banned from the most historically important surf contest on earth, the Rip Curl Bells Beach Pro which has taken place every Easter weekend since 1962, because of a particular dust-up with an Australian surf star.
Before my banning, though, I drove the short 6 kilometers from Torquay Hotel Motel, just as the sun came up, to Bells, parked and gazed at the wave breaking at the bottom of a strong wooden staircase that hugs a stark limestone cliff at the rugged bottom of Australia.
Bells holds plenty of size, working most properly when vicious Southern Open winter storms push undiluted energy toward Australia’s rugged bottom. It will regularly be gifted six to eight foot swells and it is not uncommon to see fifteen foot pulses. These are the days that separate the bold from the timid or intelligent and the timid or intelligent stand on the cliff, watching art meet carnage, wiggling their toes in shearling boots. The wave isn’t known for its barrel, and rarely does, but its racetrack face, wide, steep and strong is a gift. There are three main sections, Little Rincon, to the south, Outside Bells, which needs proper energy to break and The Bowl, the most photographed and famous of the three which hurtles toward the beach begging for thigh burning roundhouse cutbacks and rail burying bottom turns.
While there is some debate as to where the wave got its name, certain historians claim it is named after William Bell, a sailor who lived there in the 1840s; others insist it is named after John Calvert Bell, a rancher whose cattle grazed the headland, there is no doubting its majesty. Standing on the cliffs, gazing out It is similar to visiting Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca for the faithful. A must see, must surf experience that will undoubtedly lead to some deep metaphysical understanding.
I was about to suit up and head down to surf when a surf brand security guard told me to move along. The Rip Curls Bells Beach Pro trials were set to begin soon and I wasn’t allowed to watch them, much less surf.
I sighed, deeply, and pushed off, thinking about walking the trail from Point Danger to Point Impossible just northeast from Bells. It’s a gorgeous walk beside Cypress trees, emerald grass meadows, magpies cackling as the sun goes down and nude Australians enjoying their Lucky Country’s bounty, even in the cold winter. Point Impossible is a nudist beach. But I didn’t feel like walking so returned to town for a drink and a reassessment.
In truth, my banning gave me a unique opportunity to explore the surrounding environs and I feel closer to the region’s truth than any local or at least better able to translate it. The Bells old-timer is a nasty mess, anyhow. One of those cold climate grouchy types who mumble inaudibly in order to conserve energy and make no doubt about it, Torquay is a very cold town, especially when Bells is working. Cold, grey and damp but not without charm. The town center is cute in a classically Australian sort of way. Semi-modern with a main thoroughfare that turns into the Great Ocean Road lined with multiple cavernous Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Piping Hot stores alongside Ghanda, Super Duper, ChemTrail and other brands founded in Torquay.
The fact that the surf industry has been faltering for years, like the auto industry in Detroit, the train industry in Cleveland and the steel industry in Manchester, gives the town an extra poetic dash. It’s got heart. Real heart and economic depression mixes with the pokies, or slot machines, pubs, meat pies and pints of Victoria Bitter to create a tableau missing from the gilded tech metropolises of the future.
Getting banned is also how I discovered Winkipop. The great four-time world champion Mark Richards once called Bells a ‘dud’ and ‘the most overrated wave in the world’ but he loved Winkipop. Everybody loves Winkipop. It may sound like one of the Telletubbies but Winkipop, just a short paddle east from Bells, is a hollow right that speeds along a section reef and provides high-performance thrills as valuable, or important, as any. It doesn’t hold the size that Bells can but size ain’t everything.
I surfed Winkipop later that day I wasn’t allowed to watch, or surf, Bells, and have also surfed Bells on many occasions. I only had one board, my standard squash tail, but wish I had two. A high performance shortboard for Winkipop and a longer, more classically drawn thruster for Bells. The sort that Maurice Cole shaped for Tom Curren when he showed what was possible on that canvas.
I imagined I was Tom Curren on a Maurice Cole anyhow and wondered if he would ever forgive me for being a complete and total fuckwit, narcissistic, selfish, impersonal, weak and low and shape me a board that would allow me to become art too.
A boy can dream.
(Buy Finnegan’s entry here)