A cold June morning at Bells Beach, and the corduroy swell is rolling in. A few dirty cumulus clouds shuffle south towards Antarctica, but otherwise the sky is cobalt blue. Standing on the clifftop, at the eastern end of the bay, you could lean back and watch the whole world curve.
There’s no wind today, which might explain the 9:00am Thursday crowd. Conditions are close to perfect. Utes and station wagons are lined up in the early morning light, drive-in movie-style; hoodied figures slouch behind steering wheels, sipping service station coffee.
Aside from the crunch of feet on packed sand and the occasional sandpaper-y rasp of wax, all you can hear is the ocean. Below, 12 tiny figures are bobbing out in the Bowl.
At best count, there are 10,685 beaches in Australia, but for plenty of serious surfers, Bells Beach looms over all of them. This is saltwater Mecca. Big Kahuna. The point break from Point Break. A wave steeped in surfing legend, local folklore and the ghosts of sessions past.
“No kook has ever won at Bells,” Hawaiian surfer Shane Dorian said in 1999. And he’s right. Statistically speaking, Bells Beach is a king and queen-maker. Ever since Doug 'Claw' Warbrick and Brian Singer launched the Rip Curl Pro here in 1973, this little cove on Victoria’s wind-battered coast, 9,000 kilometres from Oahu’s Waimea Bay – the fabled birthplace of big wave surfing – has seen a disproportionate number of prodigies, freaks and World Champions. It’s the longest running professional surfing competition on the planet.
Bells is a tricky wave. It's proven, over and over again, you have to be very good to win here.
Mick Fanning basically bookended his career at Bells. After winning the Rip Curl Pro as an 18-year-old wild card in 2001, he rang the famous trophy (a bell) three more times (in 2012, 2014 and 2015). It was only a final round 15.66 from Brazilian Italo Ferreira that spoiled the fairy-tale retirement party in 2018.
“It’s a different place, Bells,” Fanning says, “You’re in this colosseum-style arena. And when you’re out there, looking up at those cliffs, you can feel thousands of years of history. There are stories embedded in that bay.”
Gary Dunne, from the Australian National Surfing Museum in Torquay, knows a thing or two about those stories. He’s watched many of them play out in real-time: the newly-crowned champions, the wiped-out aspirations, and all the assorted madness along the way.
As far as Dunne's concerned, Bells has been the proving ground for the greats. “When you look at the history of pro surfing, the Rip Curl Pro is the only competition that’s helped decide the World Champion every year since 1976,” he says. “The list of Bells champions corresponds pretty closely to the list of all-time great surfers.”
Every town has someone like Dunne. Inside his head is the entire chronicle of Surf Coast history, neatly alphabetised on mental index cards. The unofficial keeper of the waves. He’s a former editor of Australia’s oldest monthly surf magazine, Tracks, as well as an ex-talent scout for Rip Curl. For almost two decades, it was his job to stand on wind-scoured beaches in Morocco, Brazil and Indonesia and watch carefully for the next Kelly Slater or Lisa Andersen.
Dunne starts rattling off names. Mark Richards, Kelly Slater, Lisa Andersen, Steph Gilmore and Fanning have won the event four times each. Nat Young, Michael Peterson, Sunny Garcia, Joel Parkinson, Margo Oberg, Layne Beachley, Pauline Menczer and Carissa Moore have all won three.
In the ‘80s, it was America’s golden child, Tom Curren, duking it out with Aussie goofies like Tom Carroll, Damien Hardman and ‘Raging Bull’ Mark Occhilupo. Then there’s Barton Lynch, Martin Potter, Andy Irons and John ‘John John’ Florence. Between 1964 and 1976, local Gail Couper won the Easter competition 10 times: a record that will probably never be beaten. “Bells is a tricky wave,” Dunne says. “The event has proven, over and over again, you have to be very good to win here.”
The twin histories of Bells Beach and Torquay are joined at the ankle.
A hunched loaf of golden limestone that sags towards the western edge of the bay, the iconic Bells headland hosted the Wadawurrung people for tens of thousands of years as they hunted for crayfish and abalone. Bells was an Indigenous meeting place, a trading site, and you can still see evidence of shell middens nearby, bleached and scattered beyond the tideline.
Wadawurrung people called the sea ‘Korraiyn’. Saltwater became a sacred part of their culture, and that soul-connection to Bells has made it through millennia intact.
While the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contribution to surf culture has been hugely overlooked – Indigenous surfer Robbie Page, for example, took out Hawaii’s Pipeline Masters in 1988, and Russ Maloney, nicknamed ‘Black Slater’, is widely regarded as one of the most freakish natural talents Australia ever produced – Rip Curl has tried to honour Bells’ heritage, partnering with community groups like the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-Operative.
Every year, the event begins with a traditional Welcome to Country, and ends with a Wadawurrung local presenting the winner’s trophy. And thanks to Surfing Victoria, the Rip Curl-sponsored Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles (AIST) returned in 2012 after a 15-year hiatus, drawing Indigenous surfers from all over the country.
“Bells is such a culturally significant place for the Wadawurrung people,” says Surf Victoria’s Jordie Campbell, one of the AIST’s organisers. “In some ways, Bells Beach and the Rip Curl Pro pioneered the involvement of Indigenous cultures in sporting events. You know, we’ve had the Welcome to Country there for 12 or 13 years, the Bells winners all get their faces painted, and now you’re starting to see that flow through to other events. I actually had someone from Tennis Australia ring me the other day and ask how they could do something similar at the Australian Open.”
Surfing made its way to Australian shores via Hawaii, thanks to Duke Kahanamoku, the godfather of modern surfing, who visited New South Wales in the summer of 1914/15.
Six years later, says Dunne, a couple of Victorians began riding ‘stand-up’ boards at Lorne and Anglesea – small seaside towns, west of Bells. But it wasn’t until the late ‘40s and ‘50s, after World War II, that Torquay really became known as a wave-riding destination.
It’s not your everyday 'hot dog' wave.
At that time, as was the case all over Australia, most surfers were also surf lifesavers: tall, athletic specimens, lugging around gigantic, 16-foot planks of marine plywood. “Most of them were strong, good swimmers,” Dunne says, “because you basically had to be.”
There was no ‘surf culture’ to speak of, apart from a vague nautical machismo. As polyurethane boards became more common in the 1950s, surfing became a recreational pastime, rather than a career. Locals started venturing further afield, exploring hitherto unridden waves.
Named after a 19th-century Scottish pastoralist by the name of William Bell – who certainly didn't surf – the question of who actually did surf Bells first is “shrouded in mystery”, according to Dunne. But there are definitely stories about brave groms paddling the six kilometres from Torquay to Bells in the late 1940s. By the mid-1950s, a number of locals were bashing their way through the clifftop scrub to ride the early morning swells. “Think about that,” Dunne says. “The mentality of it. No jet skis, big, heavy surfboards, without leg ropes or wetsuits, paddling all the way from Torquay. You’ve got to admire those surfers for their fortitude.”
It has to be said, despite a certain elemental magic, Bells is not what anyone would consider a ‘nice’ beach. The Beach Boys never crooned over this lonely spit of coastline.
The waves are beefy walls of freezing water, pushed north by concentrated cells of low pressure and wild Antarctic storms. As they travel, they gain momentum and weight, but precious little warmth. The first thing they hit after several thousand kilometres of open ocean is Bells’ crescent-shaped reef, which refracts the wave, bending and forcing the energy upwards, towards the headland. The apex, where the water builds, humps up and, finally, breaks: a textbook righthander.
Unlike Byron Bay’s mellow cerulean, or the cartoonish turquoise of the Gold Coast, the water at Bells is usually slate grey, deep and menacing. Ocean temperatures hover between 13°C and 18°C. Surf washes into the bay and skids out over ‘The Button’, an evil-looking shelf of underwater rock, sticking out from the eastern point.
One of Torquay’s best riders, John Pawson, drowned here in 1984. “You do not want to be washed across The Button into Winki Pop,” says local surfer Steve Robertson. “You get caught in that zone, when the surf is big, and you have to be a real waterman to get yourself out.”
It’s hard to imagine, looking down from the clifftop carpark, that this wild place at the bottom of the world fundamentally changed surfing forever.
It probably began in 1960, when local character Joe Sweeney bulldozed the first muddy track through the hinterland scrub to Bells. Sweeney, who also designed the iconic Bells trophy, charged other surfers one pound each to cover the costs. Bells Beach was now technically open to vehicles, although the path itself was rutted and bumpy and prone to erosion.
In 1962, locals hosted the first official Bells Beach surfing competition, which became the Easter Classic. Throughout the ‘60s, the Classic grew in stature, drawing surfers from all over the country. Every Easter, wild-eyed wave junkies from Perth, Sydney, Coolangatta and Brisbane piled into station wagons, drove across Australia and converged on Torquay.
The journey became known as The Pilgrimage and, in 1967, Bells hosted the national surf championships for the first time. One by one, American surfers started hearing about this mysterious point break in Australia. The legend grew, and so did the Easter crowds.
It was around this time, the mid-1960s, that two local surfers, Doug 'Claw' Warbrick and Brian Singer, started a little Torquay brand called Rip Curl.
Rip Curl’s story could fill a book (and it has), but here are the cliffnotes: in 1967, Doug and Brian started manufacturing their own surfboards. In 1969, mostly due to Torquay’s blood-curdling Antarctic swells, they began making dedicated surf wetsuits – a surprisingly rare item at the time.
By 1973, the brand had exploded so quickly that Rip Curl officially took over the Easter Bells Classic, turning it into Australia’s first professional comp, The Rip Curl Pro. Coincidentally, 1973 was also the year Bells Beach became a protected surfing reserve – the first of its kind in the world.
Today, Rip Curl is one of the biggest surf brands in history, worth approximately $350 million. Along with spin-off company Quiksilver, another Torquay success story, and the Gold Coast-based Billabong, Warbrick and Singer revolutionised and commercialised global surf culture, torpedoing the big Californian labels in the process. “Torquay would still be a backwater if it wasn’t for Claw and Brian,” says ‘60s surf legend, Bob McTavish. “They saw the future of surfing and ran with it.”
Like boxing fans idly pitting Ali against Tyson, old surfers love to debate the best moments at Bells. Was it 1982, when baby-faced Aussie prodigy Mark Richards won his fourth Rip Curl Pro? Or maybe 2006, when Mark Occhilupo smashed a 9.9 to knockout Andy Irons in 10-foot surf? Or how about 2010, when a 38-year-old Kelly Slater paddled out with a broken foot, only to win in the final round with a gravity-defying, 360° alley-oop (“I just sort of threw a Hail Mary, to be honest with you,” Slater said afterwards.)
Then there are the campfire stories, which always resurface after a few beers: Joe Engel winning in 1983 after bunking down in the Torquay Lifesaving Club; Nick Wood, the youngest ever Bells winner at 16, who blitzed past the world’s best in 1987; Matt Wilkinson’s legendary 2016 after-party, which ran-up a $5,000 drinks tab.
Then, of course, there’s Easter Saturday 1981. The “fateful, massive day,” as former champ Barton Lynch describes it, when Aussie Simon Anderson kicked out into howling green truck-sized surf on a board that would change everything people knew about riding waves.
I still remember the first time I saw it. All the Indigenous history, the way those cliffs change colour throughout the day. There’s this aura around Bells that’s really hard to explain.
Bells ’81 was sort of a watershed moment for world surfing. Before Anderson, surfboards had evolved from 1940s single-keel fins to sleek, twin-finned models (thanks largely to Australian, Mark Richards, who rode twins to four consecutive world titles, from 1979 to 1982).
Anderson thought the design could be improved further, so he added a third fin, the ‘Thruster’, which allowed surfers to carve and slalom and grip the wave like they never could before.
Anderson and his Thruster surfed circles around everyone that day, showing a glimpse of the sport’s flashy, attacking potential. The pro tour never looked back. “The twin fin was fast, but you’d release that speed very quickly,” says Anderson. “That’s the dimension the Thruster gave to surfing, the ability to flow through the turns with speed.”
“Forty years later, and nobody’s come up with a better board design,” agrees Gary Dunne. “Surfing is actually quite conservative like that. Board design doesn’t have what you’d call ‘proper science’ behind it – it’s really been surfers’ trial and error, seeing what works.”
Although Bells Beach has arguably witnessed more surfing history than anywhere outside Hawaii, there’s a small but vocal group of pros who insist the actual wave – not to put too fine a point on things – isn’t much good.
“The early surfers in Torquay were a proud bunch,” Dunne says, “so they decided Bells was a great wave. But if you ask any pro surfer, they’ll say there are many, many point breaks better than this one.”
Taj Burrow, who won at Bells in 2007, agrees. “Err, it’s just ah, the history,” he hedged, when prodded once by a journalist, “and it’s a pretty good little venue to watch the action ‘cause everyone’s perched on a cliff. I mean it’s not the world’s greatest wave.” Derek Reilly was more blunt when writing for Beach Grit: “Is this the best use of the world’s best surfers’ phenomenal skills? To grimly tag a wind-eaten four-foot pain in the ass?”
What you have to understand about Bells is that it’s not the wave. It was never about the wave. It was the event.
It’s true that Bells isn’t always going off. It’s a notoriously elusive wave, fickle and temperamental like a moody teenager. Swells have to squeeze along two precise vectors to generate anything remotely surfable: either between Point Addis and King Island (from 227° SW to 196° SSW is the sweet spot) or directly south, along the narrow channel between King Island and Tasmania.
When conditions are right, Bells can be a world-class beast. During the 2019 Rip Curl Pro, four-storey swells were recorded in open water off the coast; Australian Owen Wright’s board snapped in half, and even two-time World Champion, John John Florence, who grew up riding monster barrels on the north shore of Hawaii, described kicking past The Button as “scary”. Other years, Bells has been so flat that organisers have had to move the Easter competition down the coast, either to Johanna (2007) or Cape Woolamai (2005).
Three-time ASP champ Fanning admits Bells does take some getting used to. “It’s not your everyday hot dog wave,” he says. “It’s more of an open face. A big, wide canvas. And because it’s not crazy steep, it’s harder to surf. You need to know how to hold a rail longer.”
And forget the world – many believe Bells isn’t even the best wave in Victoria. That honour often goes to its next-door neighbour, Winki Pop: a wickedly fast reef break that peels off the eastern headland in long, curling sets. A lot of pros, including Red Bull’s own Julian Wilson, like to warm-up at Winki Pop before the main Bells event. “I’m a Winki fan,” says Bob McTavish. “It’s long and hollow, much hollower than Bells. There’s a lot more down the line, more wind-up speed, so you can really test boards there. Bells has a fattishness on the main bowl. You’re always hunting for steepness.”
Winki looks the better wave this morning: glassy, big and smooth. It was down there, at Winki Pop in ‘67, with the Easter Bells Classic raging around the corner, that Bob McTavish floated quietly on some of the first ‘shortboards’ ever made.
“Where was I during the 1967 photos at Bells? Well I was at Winki, thank you very much,” McTavish says, as if he’s been answering the question for years. “I was on an anti-competition bender that year. I was a peace, love and happiness dude. I took two small boards with me, and they were the first boards of the shortboard revolution.”
This was another important Aussie contribution to world surfing. In the mid-1960s, while Hawaiians and beach-punk Californians were cruising on phallic, 10-foot guns, taking a very straight line through the wave, Australian surfers like McTavish began experimenting with shorter surfboards, sometimes literally sawing the ends off, shaving them down to seven or eight feet, and then attacking the lip with kamikaze energy.
It marked another evolutionary turning point for the sport, like the Jurassic Period suddenly lurching into the Cretaceous. By 1970, surfing had emerged from its groovy, dope-fuelled slumber: it was agile, aggressive and full of exciting possibilities.
“Australians added the vertical dimension,” McTavish says. “We brought the sport up to the lip, barrel hunting, staying close around the curl. The shortboard allowed us to use the full face of the wave.” Like the Thruster in ’81, McTavish’s antics at Winki Pop have taken on apocryphal surf legend status. “What you have to understand about Bells,” he says, “is that it’s not the wave. It was never about the wave. It was the event.”
Most touring pros, even the ones who think Bells’ point break is overrated, agree with this sentiment. There’s just something about Torquay’s annual Easter competition, they say. “A kind of presence”, as Jordie Campbell puts it. The Rip Curl Pro feels special, unique.
Different from Hawaii’s Pipeline, different from Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, different from the thick, grinding barrels of Mavericks in California. “It was like this gathering of the tribe,” Bob says. “You wanted to be there. You had to be there at Easter. All your mates were there, and shapers and designers, and the best surfers from Hawaii and California. Bells became the place to be.”
Fanning agrees. “You get a buzz just pulling into the carpark,” he says, winding time back to that wildcard weekend in 2001. “I still remember the first time I saw it. All the Indigenous history, the way those cliffs change colour throughout the day. There’s this aura around Bells that’s really hard to explain.”
You can kind of feel that aura, up here on the bluff, as the morning sun warms up the limestone. Everything’s quiet. A bristlebird flaps between the twisted Moonah trees. A young surfer jogs down the clifftop path, board under one arm. He dives into the shallows and begins stroking out slowly towards the Bowl. A wall of saltwater surges towards him, bearing down fast, and the last thing you see is two feet, kicking down beneath the waves.