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When most think of surfing culture they immediately think of places such as California, Hawaii or the Gold Coast of Australia as centers of influence in the sport. Yet a small beach on the southeastern tip of Australia is one of the birthplaces for modern surfing. Bells Beach is a small beach that has had such a profound effect on surf competition and surf industry that it still plays a huge role in surfing world today. Its consistent surf, inspired movies, created major surfing companies and evolved surfing from a past time to professional sport.
Bells Beach is a small bay situated between two headlands. Its fame is a result of the swells 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 especially sandy and hence is not prone to shifting sand bars which would create great variability. Combined with spring tides and a strong nor’westerly winds the waves can rise to five metres, although three to four is the average.
Swells from the southern ocean slow and steepen over the reef strewn shallows to form consistent, rideable waves and the surrounding environment provides excellent viewing from a natural amphitheatre.
Before the surfing competitions and tourism, the area surrounding Bells Beach was home to the Gulidjan Aboriginal people. This culture used the areas rocky reefs to hunt and fish, and Bells Beach’s location allows for tides to expose some areas of the reef allowing people to walk out and hunt for crabs and other intertidal fauna.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the British began to colonize Australia. At the time the british sent droves of citizens over most of which acquired large chunks of land. The Gulidjan people were forced either to assimilate or to move inland and away from the coast. In the 1840’s John Calvert Bell acquired land along the coast around seventy miles away from Melbourne, Australia. John Calvert Bell and his family started a pastoral run in the area. The Coastal area was defined by coastal cliffs and sandy beaches. One of the more popular beaches was soon given the name Bells Beach.
By the turn of the 19th century Australia’s population began to grow, and people began to go to beaches for recreation. It was around this time as well that the past time of surfing began to initially dig its roots into Australian Culture. As surfing grew away from the tropical waters of the Gold Coast, it pushed south in search of larger Antarctic swells. By the early 1930’s some people had attempted to go to Bells Beach for the purpose of its newly found swell, and rumors surrounding the beach began to send shock waves throughout the continent. In 1939 a surfing and environmental group known as Surf Life Saving Club traveled to Bells Beach to see if these claims were fact or fiction. After traveling to Bells Beach to experience the point break first hand, they were able to confirm the swell and classify this area as a surf spot.
As the knowledge of Bells Beach began to spread, the desire to surf the break grew. With a wider interest in visiting this particular beach, there was a problem that kept being a nuisance, the beach had no direct road in which people could park their cars and simply walk to the beach. In the first half of the twentieth century the closest road came within a forty five minute walk from the beach. On top of that, surfboards at the time were large and heavy which made it difficult and exhausting for these surfers to make their way to the beach. Most boards resembled flat canoes and could weigh more than fifty pounds. Lugging equipment down to the beach was an adventure of its own. Although some did not mind making this trip to access a great surf spot, an easier entrance point would have been satisfying. In 1949 Vic Tantau, Peter Troy and Owen Yateman recognized the potential of this beach, but like others who came to visit, they struggled with access.
Approximately ten years later, there was still no road that connected the beach to the old country road. In 1958 local surfers finally convinced landowners to build a road that went down to the beach. Although landowners eventually allowed access through their property, surfers were not closing the gate that kept livestock from escaping. This led landowners to frustration because of their pastoral run, which in turn they revoked access to the beach through their land. Despite having somewhat easier access to the beach, the road itself was not stable. It was highly susceptible to collapsing during the rainy months, along with constantly being weathered down due to the high animal traffic.
For many surfers, the failure of the new road only added frustration to their aquatic hobby. As a result of this general frustration, in 1959 Australian Olympic wrestler Joe Sweeney was so drawn to these fantastic waves that he finally demanded a new road and was determined to fix the problem. Henceforth, he personally hired a bulldozer and built a Cobb & Co. Road all the way down to the beach. For the first time in Bells Beach history people could easily access this great surf spot. After the road was completed Joe Sweeney charged every beach goer £1 until he got his money back from the cost of building this road. Sweeney is now known as the man who literally carved the road to Bells Beach. As a matter of fact, Joe Sweeney is also responsible for designing the trophy that the winner of the Rip Curl Pro would have the honor of having their name engraved on.
Even though the road down to the beach was completed, it was the original 45 minute exhausting hike that revolutionized the surfing world. The trek pushed the industry to make lighter, durable and more compact equipment which became essential to traveling whether short or long distance. It was during this time that shorter, lighter and hollow boards began to hit the market. The surfing industry began to make products that benefited surfers in various situations; for example, producing rubber mats that protected the surfboards from damage along the trail. These inventions were just the tip of the iceberg for surf equipment. Almost all surfboards of today have features from boards that were designed to handle the wear and tear of Bells Beach.
For most of history surfing equipment was made out of raw material. Most boards were planks of wood, bathing suits were nothing more than just shorts, and many of the necessities of today such as wetsuits, wax and foam were unheard of until the 1950’s. The surfers of Bells Beach needed change, and by the late 1950’s the surfboard began to evolve from a plank of wood to a customizable tool that surfers could change to fit their individual needs. Most of these new boards were still long, but nowhere near as long as they were in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Boards were also hallowed out making them lighter and easier to carry. Despite the ease of transport, there were still limitations surfers faced when it came to the high energy, high performance waves at Bells Beach. When the swell was large longboards struggled to make the big drops into the larger waves, and in 1957 the first short boards were brought to Bells to conquer the larger waves. These short boards were difficult to paddle and balance on, but eventually the experienced surfers were able to ride bigger waves.
This revolution in the surfboard industry led to many shaping companies opening up in the mid to late 1960’s in the nearby town of Torquay. Two of these local start up companies were Rip Curl and Quiksilver. Both Rip Curl and Quiksilver were shaping companies that used fiberglass, polyurethane and foam to make boards lighter, smaller and completely waterproof. These light weight and high performance boards elevated surfers ability to ride bigger waves, make tighter turns and perform more advanced tricks on the waves. With the invention of the wetsuit in 1952, what you wore into the water was almost as important as the board you rode. Quiksilver and Rip Curl used Bells Beach as a test ground for their wetsuits because the water is generally cold. Again the introduction of wetsuits at Bells Beach allowed surfers to harness Antarctic swell and surf bigger waves during the winter months. Over the years these companies have slowly moved away from shaping surfboards, however they are still both heavily invested in surf culture and surf style. These companies are two international surfing powerhouses in 2012 alone both Rip Curl and Quiksilver had a combined revenue of over two billion dollars.
Bells Beach has been a huge influence on the profound effects of surf culture. Surf culture is not landlocked in one state, or country. Dana Brown, son of surf and film legend Bruce Brown described surfing as “not a lifestyle, but it is simply a life where style is just an option.” The genesis of surf culture started in Redondo Beach, California when Duke Kahanmoku came to the states in 1908. He brought surfing to the mainstream and media. Later in the 1950’s and 1960’s movies such as, The Endless Summer, provided a sense of exploration. Surf Culture in Rip Curl as a company is based off of this idea of “The Search.” They describe it as the “restless urge to pack up and go, when the rumor of a perfect wave wont leave your mind. The anticipation, the laughs, the disasters that define who we are.” Bells Beach itself emulates this, it was surfers desire and lust to find new waves, push the horizon and continue to expand surf culture.
Surfing tournaments were quite common across the globe, however most of the time the tournaments were for charity, had no purpose or were just for fun. Due to the fact that Bells Beach was a pioneer for innovation and performance, surfing competitions in the area became quite common. In 1961 Vic Tantau and Peter Troy, the pioneers who attempted to build the first road out to Bells Beach, held the first surfing competition there. The following year in 1962 the competition was moved to the weekend of Easter. Later the Easter Competition was renamed the Bells Beach Pro, and is currently the longest running surf competition held to this day. The Bells Beach Pro is being held from March 29, 2018 – April 8, 2018, with Easter being on April 1st.
From 1962-2018 the competition at Bells Beach has evolved from local competition to one of the biggest and most prominent stops on the world tour. In 1970 the Easter Tournament officially was added to the ISF World Surfing Championship tour. Aided by sponsors like Quiksilver and Rip Curl, the event quickly became a popular pastime due to a higher audience. Even though professional surfers did not make tons of money off the competitions, it was a sense of accomplishment to be able to participate in this popular event. Despite professional surfing organizations changing the world tour lineups, Bells Beach has always remained a part of the tour. Having the history that it does, Bells Beach seems to always be the first stop on the world tour. Competitions seem to be successful here because of the large, yet consistent surf that the beach provides. It is very rare for competitions to be held in conditions under six foot high surf. In 1981 the Bells Beach Pro was rocked by twenty foot waves, an astounding sight to see. The intense waves led to the development of a new type of surfboard, a three finned thruster. Surfer, Simon Anderson, won the competition using the first three finned thruster surfboard. Due to the nature of that competition and the unforeseen waves, the new surfboard seemed to have stuck with the style of boards, and today almost all shortboards are thrusters. Even though people rode thrusters before Bells Beach, Anderson’s win paved the way for more innovative boards, a trend that has not stopped. Today is rare for a surfer on the world championship tour to not use a three or five finned thruster shortboard.
So what makes Bells Beach such an ideal surf spot? Bells Beach is not a normal beach, and is unique that it is one of the few places on Earth to have the ability to harness Antarctic swell. Antarctica produces low pressure systems that generate large long period swell. In contrast, Australia’s mainland produces high pressure systems that drive winds offshore. As swells form, Bells Beach can experience two swell directions. If the swell comes from the south of Tasmania, then the swells hits Bells from the south and is generally slowed and weakened by Tasmania. If a swell begins in the Southern Indian or Antarctic Ocean, then the swell has no major speedbumps. These southwest swells are funneled through a channel between the mainland and King Island. Furthermore, as the swell continues on towards Melbourne, it will eventually hit the point of Bells Beach.
Bells Beach itself is divided into two parts, the bowl or the sandy inner cove and the rincon or the rocky points, each has its own prime conditions. Waves at Bells are drivable from two feet to twenty feet, however the perfect waves are between four and ten feet. The bowl has better surf at low tide, where as the rincon requires high tide because during low tide the reef is exposed which makes surfing extremely dangerous. Having two locations to choose from is one of the reasons that Bells Beach is favorable, because there will always be one spot that has fit conditions to surf nearly perfect waves. Bells Beach favors long period swell, which are swells that are stronger, faster and have more energy. Long period swells also absorb winds better than short period swell, but the only drawback to long period swell is that it takes longer for sets of waves to hit the beach. This means that on crowded days it may be harder to catch a wave. Like any surf spot, offshore winds are key to produce clean surf.
In 1988 a group of local surfers who were concerned about the human impact that tourism was having on the Bells Beach Surfing Reserve started a group called ‘Surfers Appreciating the Natural Environment’. This groups goal was to be able to protect and restore the natural beauty of the surrounding bushland. Unfortunately, having fifty years worth of visitors from all over the world come to the Bells Beach area, there had been a huge toll on the land. The ecosystem had been damaged, along with degradation of the soil. ‘SANE’ is primarily focused on replanting native species, removing any non-native plants and weeds, assist the fencing management, and have an active role in advocating for the community. Since 1988 they have met monthly to revegetate the reserve in an effort to bring it back to its original state. They have planted over 100,000 plants there to date. Thanks to SANE, the bushland area of Bells has not been totally destroyed, but has been recognized as a common means of access that should be respected.
What makes Bells Beach a special place is that it is cared for by the people who made it famous. In many surf spots across the globe tourist and locals can easily forget about the beach. That is not the case here. Bells Beach’s surfing respect the beach, they protect it because they value the beach more than just a surf spot. It is a second home, a place where man not only interacts with nature but is one with nature. The surfers and residents of Bells Beach should be looked upon as role models. It is rare to see a beach form a culture and a community that values a place like a home.
Bells Beach is often forgotten as one of the worlds primer beaches. It is one of the unsung heroes of the surfin world, as many point to California and Hawaii as the epicenter for surfing. Despite this Bells Beach is like the proverbial pebble dropped in a pond. It has created such a ripple effect that it is impossible to look at professional surfing without it. The surf spot arguably is responsible for some of the largest surfing brands in the world. Bells has done more for the sport of surfing than anywhere else. Hawaii was the genesis of surfing, California threw surfing into the limelight and Bells Beach evolved it into something bigger than a pastime. Without Bells there would be no competitions, no fame, no surfing glory. It set the benchmark for surfing, it gave surfing the attention it needed to succeed. Bells Beach is the keystone beach, its legacy is unmatched by any other beach in the world. No Bells Beach means no Pipeline Masters competition, no U.S Open of Surf. The hypercompetitive Brazilian Storm of young surfers that are defining this era of surfing would not be progressing the sport. Yes, at some point surfing probably would have become a sport but competitions, but Bells Beach not only created the benchmark for competitions but has defined the way competitions are run today.
It is easy to overlook a small beach in southern Australia, however when we go to the beach today in California we often forget how much heritage has transcended from Bells Beach. Surfing and surfboard companies have blossomed and have been the staple for laid back styles across the world. Bells is the quintessential beach when it comes to environmental responsibility. The community surrounding the beach is strong, protective and active, they want to preserve their beach for generations to come so that Bells Beach can continue to be a sphere of influence for decades to come.
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