Sean Doherty: Who Would Have Won Bells This Easter?

18 Apr 2020 12 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: Corey Wilson/Rip Curl

Photo: Corey Wilson/Rip Curl

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

The 2020 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach... That Wasn't

The Rip Curl Pro didn’t run this year. You know that.

It was the first time since 1546 – the same year the Portuguese sailed past in the Mahogany ship – that the Rip Curl Pro hasn’t been surfed. You’d think that with Bells not running – not to mention a major pandemic doing hot laps of the globe – it would have made for a change of pace around town in Torquay over Easter.

Well, yes and no.

Bells was never going to run. Once the Gold Coast event fell over it was only a matter of time before Bells, the next domino, went with it. With five thousand people sitting on the beach at Bells and an incoming tide, there wouldn’t have been much room for social distancing. Even less room in the back bar of the Torquay pub on Easter Saturday night.

Bells should have been a ghost town. On top of Bells being cancelled, you had the Victorian State Government carrying a big stick, warning Easter holidaymakers to stay at home with the threat of fines. And on top of that again, the forecast across the Easter weekend wasn’t looking great. Easter Saturday and Sunday were forecast to be howling south-west onshore. Tumbleweeds would be rolling through the Winki car park.

It didn’t quite work out that way. At Bells, the Easter Miracle occurred not on Easter Sunday morning, but the following day. Easter Sunday was a mess. Easter Monday dawned clean as a whistle. A light offshore nor-west offshore was blowing. There was no sign of any junk left in the swell. It was ruler-straight 15-second lines stretching from the Bells Bowl across to Winki. The swell direction had notched from west to south, perfect for Bells. It was four-to-six, sunny, blue, and about as good as it gets. Word quickly got out. There was also a strange gravitational pull drawing punters there at Easter despite the bat flu and despite the contest being canned. Half of them seemed to have no idea why they’d driven down. Force of habit.

Instead of tumbleweeds, the car park was full of Toyotas. There was tension. Most of those cars weren’t local. There was a bunch of freelance spot quizzes going down in the car park, asking what the local postcode was. It was a scene being played out all around the Australian coast over Easter, but this was a scene. I drove in and drove straight out. The best line I’ve heard about this whole episode of crew surfing through the lockdown, is that you’re not in traffic, you are traffic. The police water patrol launch was doing hot laps of Bells to let the hundred-plus guys in the water know they were taking the piss. But man, it was too good.

I surfed in the dark before sun-up on Tuesday morning. It was still pumping. Even in the dark the car park was half-full. I looked around the car park with a good mind to word a few of them up, before I remembered my ute still has NSW plates on it.

In the week before Easter, it looked like by cancelling Bells the WSL had artfully dodged a pretty ordinary looking forecast. They’ve ridden their luck in recent years. Bells has been on the hottest of hot streaks. The contest has not missed out on surf for almost a decade now. Living here for most of that time I know how lucky they’ve been to score. The first half of this year’s waiting period however looked like junk. The second half looked a little lifeless.

The reality however turned out to be something else. The Wozzle’s Easter weekend gate takings would’ve taken a hit – the Easter weekend was rubbish – but the waves on Easter Monday and Tuesday would have made it a classic. That got me thinking. If hypothetically the guy in the Wuhan wet market hadn’t eaten bat soup that morning, and Bells had run this year, who would’ve rung the bell?  Let’s work through this…

Okay, you just know they would have run some early rounds over the Easter weekend in some early morning chum. They wouldn’t have been able to help themselves. Early rounds, no losses, keep the punters coming in and the gate ticking over. But let's work on the premise that everyone in the field is still in play when we turn up to witness the Easter Monday miracle. 

Easter Monday: Six-foot clean Bells Bowl, low tide 9am, early offshore dying away to doldrums. Bells Bowl breaking all day through the high tide. Men’s round three. Women’s round three.

This is a day for the big boys. Work through the gears. Rails deep. Meat and potatoes Bells. It’s so clean that any jink immediately kills the score. I’m seeing big heats from Julian, Jordy, John Florence and Conner Coffin. After the goofies dominated on last year’s big swell (four from eight quarterfinalists) the judging scale has swung their way. I’m seeing big heats for Ryan Callinan, Connor O’Leary and Owen Wright. Gabby and Italo reprise performances at big Bells and J-Bay last year. Of the new guys Ethan Ewing stars, throwing around extra beef.

In the women’s, the swell makes it tough for bottom markers and newbies. The stronger, more experienced Bells surfers win through on wave selection. Tyler, Steph and Courtney Conlogue cruise through. It’s been a good early autumn and adopted Bells local Lakey Peterson has already surfed a half-dozen days like this. While the contest remains at Bells Caroline Marks on her backhand looks the only one who can break the paradigm.

Tuesday: Four foot, light northerly-to-nothing in the breeze. Swell more south, better direction but fewer sets. Men’s round four in the Bells Bowl, women’s quarters at high tide Winki.

Adriano de Souza turned up at Bells in the first week of January this year. True. He usually arrives early, but not three months early. Bells has become his patch, but he shines when Bells doesn’t. Bells is too perfect today and he loses. Less sets, more tactical. Gabby paddles his heat around to Centreside and loses. The smaller swell makes it harder on the goofies to go square at the lip. Final eight: Jordy, Julian, John John, Italo, Owen, Ethan, Electric Phil Toledo… and Kelly.

High tide Winki for the women’s quarters. The smaller swell and inconsistent sets even the field. Quick and racy, tough on the backhand. Caroline Marks goes out. A lot of sitting and waiting… this works against Steph. Waves find her, not the other way around. Nikki Van Dijk and Malia Manuel are specials at Winki. Final four: Nikki, Malia, Lakey, Tyler.

A week earlier they had a decision to make. Run heats in onshore rubbish over the Easter weekend, or hold off for a final the following weekend and a long range spike. They waited, and final’s day runs on the second-last day of the waiting period – Friday the 17th. Yesterday. It’s a new four-to-six foot swell, a bit short and ragged but with a north-west offshore wind and dropping tide. Bells Bowl all the way.

Tyler after a year off still isn’t quite back in her groove, while Malia can’t turn sixes into eights. It’s probably been 50 years since the last all-Victorian women’s final. Lakey and Nikki paddle out… although neither are born and bred at Bells. The extra push in the swell helps Lakey and the women’s title stays in Jan Juc. 

The kinks in the swell work against classical Bells surfers like Jordy and Julian. Neither John nor Kelly get going. Toledo however looks lively, while Ethan Ewing finally gets a sense of his potential on a finals day surfing a righthand point. Phil and Ethan in the final, and even though I’m trying my best to give it to Ethan, it’s about time Phil Toledo rang the bell.

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