BELLS SEEMS RIGHT
On March 1, the first day of autumn, Mick Sowry turned 66. One of the gentlemen of the Bells Bowl, you’ll find Mick out there on every decent swell and plenty of shitty ones in between, sitting wide on his ruby red 7’8” MC, quietly hidden under a cap, looking out to sea. Mick’s pretty measured and not one of those guys to make a song and dance about a birthday milestone, but this one had significance. It was his first birthday without wife, Sue, who he lost last year. Fair to say Mick’s done it tough since, but Bells has been there for him. He’s been able to not only temper his loss out there, but also find some higher meaning amongst it. Plying a few other trades, Mick’s a filmmaker and writer and a guy tuned into the ephemeral moments often overlooked at a place like Bells. Whether surfing with a crew out in the Bowl, or taking a camera down on the beach in the dying light and shooting the shorebreak, he’s down there fossicking for golden dust. Over 50 years of doing this he’s developed a deep appreciation for this corner of the coast, and it’s fair to say this coast sees him as a favoured son. But not even Mick expected the birthday present Bells was about to deliver him. – Sean Doherty
Mick Sowry: “I was on the phone to Maurice and we’re talking work stuff. You know how when you’re driving and the Winki car park’s full and you’re trying to see what the waves are doing through the gaps between the cars? Well, I’m on speaker phone and I looked through the cars and I just went, “Holy shit, Maurice. It’s pumping, I’m out there.” Maurice goes, ‘Oh, all right, off you go then.’ He wouldn’t believe me that it was as good as it was. It was only after the fact, and I think he’s a little bit sort of sliced up about it too.”
“I’m a new convert to walking down to Point Addis to paddle out. It’s my new habit on big days. The last two times there’s been a swell I’ve walked down to Addis at low tide to paddle out and it’s just like… daisy chains. I think the walk down was a preamble in a mental sense, because you prepare yourself. You’re really relaxed and you feel the rhythm of the sea as you go. And it was lovely. It’s only like 1.8 kays from the Bells steps to where you paddle out. The ocean’s all a bit weird in behind Jarosite – it’s knee-high and that Little Mundaka wave was actually working and there was a guy just coming back from surfing that – but I jumped in and the current picked me up and I just floated down with it. I got down to Bells by about quarter-to-two.”
“It was very clearly a long period swell, and there was a lot of south in it. It was also unusual in that there were lots of sets. There was a set every five minutes. That was the other bizarre thing about it. No one got a chance to be sitting all in a clump, waiting. It was just wave after wave and to be honest, the whole surf I was in a quite placid state of mind, you know. It was a nice day – relaxed, the wind wasn’t a hassle on the take-off, and I got one, then two, then three. My usual rhythm is one or two or three good waves in a surf and lots of fuck-ups. The Bells double-bump gets me like it gets everybody, more than most and as I’ve got older. But for some reason, these were so clean, I was just knifing them all afternoon.
“The only wave I wiped out on was a late take-off that I got burned on. The guy took off on my outside and we crossed paths. I made the drop and then I see this guy and I’m thinking, fuck, I’ve dropped in on somebody. I pulled up and then the lips clipped me and my arms hit my board. I’d hit my fin, and I’ve surfed the whole time with my outside front-rail quad fin broken. It hadn’t snapped off; it was pushed down into the fin box, but was still solid. But even getting dropped in on didn’t faze me. My late take off was really late and I made it. I was stoked just on that. After that I thought, you know… I can do no wrong today. I just felt comfy. It was probably one of the finest days I’ve ever had. I had 12 waves and no wipeouts per se, just that one.
“I’ve said to people many times, Bells when it’s good is far better than the tour has ever seen it. They just don’t see it like this. It’s genuinely a world-class wave when it wants to be… and it can be a big burger, too. But this day was perfect, the whole time. And it was solid. There was at least one 12-foot set. I’d paddled for the wave before it and didn’t get it. Then I went, oh fuck, there’s a bigger one behind this and I paddled like billy-oh and just got under the lip. All the other guys got cleaned up. It’s been a thing in the back of my head ever since that I wish I’d caught that wave. Not paddled for the first one and caught the wave of the day instead. But then I think, no, that would be pushing it all too far. Just be happy with what you got. And I was. It was honestly one of the best days I’ve ever surfed. I mean, it was the day of days for me, really, to be honest. I’m glad I’m still out there. That’s all I can say. I was gloating a bit because I’m never going to repeat this. At 66 I don’t think I’m getting a day like that again.
“My last wave was five minutes after the wind swung onshore and I thought, well, that’s the end of that. But that wave stood up in front of me and I rode that right through to the Button. That was my third or fourth wave to the Button. But this particular wave I was sort of going for it and I’m like, I really want to get this to the beach. I took it too far though and missed the beach. There is a sort of intuitive spot to come in on big days, and if you’re past that spot you’re going to be in trouble. So I knew I was past that spot and the only way was to paddle back out, so I’ve had to turn around and paddle like blazes right next to the Button. I’ve ended up right in front of the Cobra, and that’s when I got cleaned up. It was a pretty big set, and I’ve duckdived the first one, but the second one I had to ditch the board. I knew by then though I was safe. I’d turned around and looked up towards the crowd and knew that I’d drifted past the worst bit. I knew I was safe, so I was quite relaxed. I got my board back, put my hat back on and then just paddled out across the Winki, waited 10 minutes and got one in.
“I went over the Button years ago. I did one paddle out where I absolutely cocked it up and I was paddling just head down and suddenly this great big rock raised up next to me. I was also one of the guys who found John Pawson when he died. I was standing on the Button that day when he jumped off. When we got him out of the water down at Lowers – he’d just floated all the way down really quickly – they picked him up under the arms, all slumped. I said, ‘Does anyone know CPR?’ And this guy who turned out to be I think the President of Torquay Boardriders at the time said, ‘I do.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll follow your lead.’ And so I just did the heart massage and he did the mouth-to-mouth. We worked on him for 25 minutes before a doctor turned up. We found out later he’d died of fractured skull. He hadn’t drowned. That day followed me for a long while, not in a fear sense with the Button, but more emotionally. Three, four months after that I met my wife Sue and I do remember one night something on the telly that just tipped me and I just lost my shit. All the time before that I’d been fairly sanguine about it. I knew John. But it changed the way everyone regarded the Button, you know. Less guys went off the end after that, and obviously now that bit of the shelf has collapsed into the ocean.
“As you know, that day was my birthday and a particularly special birthday because, you know… I think with losing Sue, mortality has been on my mind. You really don’t know what’s around the corner. You really don’t. She was as fit as a flea and suddenly this particular day she was told she was going to die. There were no ands, ifs or buts. And so to watch that and have a year where I’m basically coming to terms with that, it sort of really makes you value things. The thing that’s really struck me, is that surfing’s made light of as an act, but it’s not. It’s got as much weight in its value to you and even into the world as anything else. In the end everything’s meaningless. And, you know, on this particular day at Bells, all of those guys in the water are having a high life-point. They go home and they’ll remember that day for a long time. Some might remember it forever; the only time a they’ll ever surf Bells like that. And that day of surfing is special. You know, it’s as special as painting or music. I can’t count the number of people who’ve come up to me and told me that day gave them a lift. I was going out there expecting to get maybe one or two waves and get flogged a few times, but the stars aligned for me.
“Surfing is the constant in my life. It’s kept me very sane over the past couple of years, ever since Sue was sick, when I really needed it. You know, a lot of people said, ‘Mick, you should start meditating’ and I go, ‘Well, if you count staring at the horizon I already do lots of that.’ But it’s the truth. I mean, the horizon as a mantra is quite potent. It really is because it does the same job, which is to get you to focus deeply on one thing, while your thoughts don’t deviate. I even find myself on days like this out there singing songs. I’ll sing like – uh, this will sound silly – but you know, Sue and I had nicknames for each other and I’ll make up songs about her nickname and sing them. No one can hear me hopefully. But being out there helps create a connectedness.
“I’ll be taking Sue’s ashes out there. I know where I’m going to put her out there and I don’t do it glibly. I thought, well, if I put her in our back garden, what if I move house? If I go to out to Point Addis none of my friends will know where I put her. But if I put her out at Bells, every time I hear the words ‘Bells Beach’ I’ll think about her, and every time I surf I’ll think about her. One of the things that I’ve been trying to do is find a little bit of immortality for her. Bells seems right.”
“I’ve also been writing a story, the story of my relationship with Bells. I think I saw Bells for the first time in 1971. I’d started surfing in late ’68 but didn’t get to Bells until then. You know, I remember 1972 because Bells – I think Terry Fitzgerald won Bells that year – and I was out at Bells that Easter and he dropped in on me. I was terrible, I couldn’t make a wave, but I just remember seeing that white hair and the track of his board. God, I could never figure out how you could get the speed to make it through the Bowl. And then suddenly it clicked one day and it happened for me. But the story I’m writing, I take it back to geological times, then the indigenous history and then the surfing thing. But Bells has become such a touchstone place. A day like this one when the waves are firing is one thing, but I spend so many evenings down there on dusk taking photos during storms, dodging bullets of rain down in the corner at the Winki end. I’ll be down there by myself and there’s no one in the water and you’re just watching the light… the way the light comes straight down the valley at the steps end. You know how it does that in autumn? You get the shaft of white and you get little peaks in the shorebreak and the light hits those. To me that’s just as spellbinding as a 10-foot set marching through the Bowl.”