The man of the hour begins his final campaign. Fanning, Bells 2018. (WSL/Cestari)


The traffic at 6.30am this morning, a half hour before first light, was stretched for a mile out to the Bones Road intersection. Carloads of Victorians with a sense of occasion were filing in early to make sure their asses were parked on the sand at Bells when the fourth heat of the morning paddled out.

It was fortunate that Mick Fanning’s heat got pulled yesterday afternoon. The waves at Winkipop had become chumpy as the day went on, and Mick’s house had been full of mates from Coolangatta who’d drunk through the night and were still on the piss yesterday morning. They were trying to pour beers into Mick before his heat. He was spent from the night before, emotionally more than anything.

In case you haven’t heard Mick Fanning is surfing Bells for the last time.

Mick’s testimonial the previous night had been held in what the locals call “the pigeon boxes.” What used to be the Torquay Golf Club was taken over by the RACV who promptly turned it into a five-story concrete monstrosity, like someone had taken an Eastern Bloc apartment complex and added a parabolic curve to it.

But enough of architecture. For most surfers the occasion of retirement from the tour is marked, if they’re lucky, by a free dinner from their sponsor. For others they simply walk away at the end of the year and don’t return the first day of the following season and the milestone goes by unnoticed.

But not for Mick. No, the man who by some God-given talent, three world titles, a shark attack and a sweeping personal narrative would be sent out in style.

Parko was due to give the opening speech on the night and wrestled with it in the days before. It would set the tone for the evening, and he struggled between celebrating his mate and roasting him in traditional Coolangatta style. He was as neurotic as George Costanza all afternoon. I suggested he get up there, lock eyes with Mick, ignore everyone else in the room and just talk to his mate. Speak from the heart. Write him off when he felt the time was right.

The speech was a classic. He recounted the story of Mick punching his front two teeth out one Christmas Day. Apparently every Christmas they celebrate Coolangatta Festivus, where they get a skinful of piss in them, put boxing gloves on in the backyard, and any lingering beef from the year is sorted out on the spot. Joel ended the speech by saying, “You’re a fucking blessing, mate.” That pretty much summed up the sentiment in the room.

Tommy Peterson had been seated at our table and belched loudly as Rosie Hodge, the MC for the night, took to the stage. Rosie then threw down to Kelly Slater in the crowd, who’d made an 11th hour dash to get there. Kelly’s not in the contest of course but is here at Bells for Mick, although many in the room believed he was more there to steal White Lightning’s thunder. Rosie delivered the line of the night when Kelly interrupted at one point.

“Shoosh, it’s not your naaaaaaght Kelly.” Served.

She then delivered the second-best line of the night after watching a video of Mick celebrating his first world title, on stage with Grinspoon, on the back of a truck in the car park of the Kirra pub, speed dealer sunnies on and dancing around with an Australian flag as a cape. She laughed, “I think that’s the most Australian thing I’ve ever seen.” They then wheeled out the lead singer of Grinspoon who played the tune More Than You Are Now. It summed up neatly the evolution of the snowy bogan in the Aussie flag a decade ago into the universally lauded, worldly and well-dressed surfing statesman who’s about to leave the sport.

When we finally navigated the traffic and found a car park this morning we started walking across the road but were chased down by a car park official screaming at us, “You just walked past four signs telling you not to walk across the road!” I was walking with photographer Peter Boskovich, who duly turned around and replied, with Novocastrian subtlety, “Fuck off mate.” And he was right. The guy needed to fuck off. Victoria is Australia’s nanny state, and even an event with a reputation for getting loose is plastered with a million signs telling you what you can’t do.

Mick Fanning ran down the beach to warm applause of the early morning crowd and duly paddled out and after an early fall procedurally sliced his heat to pieces like it was 2007 or 2013 or any other year really. The dependability of Fanning over the years is as remarkable as his surfing. Mick delivers.

If you were a betting man you’d have on the spot put some money on Fanning winning his last event, only you couldn’t. At the entrance to the surfers area is another sign, this one saying, “Sports betting in this area is prohibited.” It’s been coming for a while but three days ago the WSL dragged in all the coaches and managers associated with their tour surfers and read the riot act about betting on heats. A bunch of them have cleaned up over the years, and the look isn’t good. Surfing is a sport that probably more than any other could, if you put your mind to it, be thrown. The ocean would make it entirely plausible. Nothing has been thrown, not for money anyway, but having your coaches betting is not a good look with the Olympic era dawning. And it’s not a good look if the WSL were to, say, sign a lucrative deal with a sports betting company. They’d need to have their house in order.

Today the waves were good, the air was warm, but the surfing, however, was for the most part tepid. Even Electric Phil Toledo in the first heat of the second round was running low volts. He’s managed to revolutionise other old school waves, but was spinning his wheels out here at Bells this morning. The lineup had energy but it was diffuse with no hard edges to it. It was hard to get sparky.

As a group the surfers have made great strides in the past three years in dragging Bells kicking and screaming into the modern age, but it was three steps forward and today, two steps back. The waves contributed, and sure it was the losers round, but there was some supremely dumb heats surfed out there today. Guys got lost and muddleheaded. Too deep, too far inside, failing to spot the end of The Bowl and squeeze one last turn in before they got there. It’s a dark art though, surfing Bells. Kelly spent 15 minutes on the webby trying to explain it later in the day and I’m not sure if he made it any clearer. He’s wrestled with it more than any man alive.

This will change tomorrow. The Bells specialists come back into the draw, the guys who’ve cracked the code long ago, Mick being one of them.

The women paddled out late in the day and if anything made more sense of it than the men. The first wave ridden by the women was by Caroline Marks. It was the 16-year-old’s first wave at Bells and it was by the book. Three turns out back – the last of them done just before the Bowl drops into deep water – then a flamboyant finish in the shorebreak. On her backhand it was reminiscent of another 16-year-old a few years ago, a guy, who with a low centre of gravity just made Bells look easy.

Occy’s not here, but if Mick makes the finals day watch them come out of the woodwork.