THE GREATEST BELLS STORIES EVER TOLD 1/3
“There was a real novel day back in ‘84 when the swell went from howling eight-foot south-easterly then the wind switched offshore north-west and it looked like a whole different wave. It was maybe ‘84 and it was around Easter as I remember seeing guys like Mike Lambresi and some other pros around. I was working in the Rip Curl store at the time and I used to surf a lot with Pete Johnno. I’m going back to the time before there was any forecasting sites before everything you’ve got today. Your weather and swell came from the newspaper, that’s all you had, so you could still get surprised.
So we were looking at the surf at Bells and it was big and south-easterly and it breaks into Bells not across it, and it breaks toward the cliff the opposite to what it usually does. It happens occasionally but what was different this day was that the wind swung offshore. We had no idea it was going to happen, we were just there. As we stood there it swung and it we felt it switch and within five minutes these big onshore peaks became these fanned offshore peaks, and it was actually barrelling, top-to-bottom.
We’ve paddled out and the Bells Bowl was like a peak – a left and right and the inside of the right didn’t close out. It was running at such an angle that it was horseshoeing around the reef on the inside of the Bells Bowl and it was barrelling! There were these spitting stand-up barrels horseshoeing into the bay. It looked a bit like the inside at Sunset or a bit like a heavy inside Angourie and I’ve never seen it to this day. It only lasted a few hours and it was gone. There were only a handful of crew on it and we just fluked it we were there when it happened. Maurice was there and he remembers it and it’s like this kind of myth. The guys who were there tell the story and the guys who weren’t call shit on it. “Yeah, yeah, right Flitto, eight foot barrels hey?” No one believes it and I’ve never seen it happen since.
The other one that stays with me was the Easter ‘81 day. I was 19, and just got my licence, had a car, and I was living with Ross Slaven in Torquay and he’s good mates with Simon Anderson. Simon turned up with his thruster for the first time ever to Ross’s and I was like, what the hell is this?
I don’t know if I was young and didn’t care, but in those days you were just there. You weren’t ready for surf, you were just there. You’d hear the rumble and there was like, okay, there’s surf. You turned up and you went surfing. You looked and went, it’s on or it’s not and. That’s how it was. I only had one board back in those days, a 5’10” twin fin, so we’ve turned up on the big day and this is old time Bells remember, there’s no car park there. I pulled upon my own I’ve looked out and gone, what the hell! It was the biggest most perfect thing I’d ever seen. And I was just out there! Nowadays you’d sit there and watch it for half an hour and time the sets and be strategic about it, but I was 19 so it was all root, shoot and electrocute. It wasn’t till I was running down the Button stairs that I started to grasp what was going on. I think it was Bobby Owens caught a set wave at Bells and that’s when it hit me – this was fucking massive. I knew it was big when I’d seen it up top, but I suddenly realised just how big it was. It was a next level size.
I got down onto the beach in the corner and it was just white water, like paddling out at 20-foot Waimea. In the movie there’s a little short sequence of me walking down, stopping, then walking back, then turning around and heading down to the corner at Bells. I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure I should be doing this, especially seeing I was on a 5’10” twinnie. But it was too late. I was already there so I had to do it.
I jumped in and paddled like a maniac and to my surprise I got out. I was just getting around the Button when another massive set came and I was watching these guys over at Bells dropping into these huge waves. Guys like Lynchy were there and it was like being in a dream. What am I doing out here? What is going on? It was so surreal, it was so big and so perfect. It’s not’s big for the world today, but in my world at the time it was the biggest surf I’d ever seen. I got out there and Winki was firing and there was only two guys out – Nat Young and Richard Schmidt, both of who I knew from magazines. Nat was on this nine-foot yellow single fin and Richard Schmidt was on a 7’6” Al Merrick and they were just gliding across the surface while I’m digging deep on a 5’10” twinnie. I paddled for a few and couldn’t get over the ledge, but I eventually got one. Nat got a couple, but Richard Schmidt was the standout, he was gliding on these things. His timing and his positioning was impeccable. It was perfect, three or four times overhead, and the swell was so big the tide had no influence – it was high tide all the time. But there was so much sweep and that’s what got me in the end. Nat and Richard kept on paddling but I couldn’t fight the water coming around the Button. I can’t even remember coming in.
I was so young I just thought this was how it is. It must do this all the time but it’s never been like it ever since. What was special that day too was that it was sunny and offshore. There are plenty of big days, but they’re generally dark, plus this was Easter and all the cameras were there a lot of the imagery lived on and reminded you of it. I came in exhausted, just completely overwhelmed. I drove home, went to bed and laid down and went straight into a deep sleep.
A solo surf at Winkipop alone these days is a near impossible feat, but they used to happen a lot, especially when it was big. This one special day was I think the winter of ‘89. We’d had a year of huge consistent swells at that point. Once a week you’d wake to another eight-foot swell but there were plenty of 10-foot days and also a couple of solid 12-15 foot days as well. This one particular day was one of those 12-15 foot Bells Boomer days. There was a huge south angle on the swell and many sets were closing out the back of Bells. Winki meanwhile was really clean and organised, but the notorious Button paddle out this day was horrifying. The sweep across it was like a river in a hundred-year-flood. People were seriously getting in trouble. We watched our mate Pinhead get swept over the sharp reef, get held down forever, and came in all bloodied and bruised. No one could get out in the relentless massive ocean.
My buddy John Darby and I had been sitting in my car for an hour watching the many attempts, trying to figure out the best place to paddle from and the best moment between the sets. So like a pair of soldiers going to war we waxed up and hit it down the stairs to the Bells side of Winki in front of the button. Darbs and l loosely agreed the button was suicide, so we’d go run out to Rincon, take a battering, be swept down to Winki, and slip out before the Button. Good solid plan. As we get to the beach I look out to sea and the swell has literally stopped. I yell out to Darbs, “Let’s go!” and he turns around with a cheeky grin and says, “Sure it has!” He waves a quick goodbye and runs off. Before I start to doubt my change of plans, and the need for a bit of company in the war zone, I spontaneously wrap my leggy on and I’m in the water, arms blazing.
I punch under a few big bits of white water and I’m about 20 feet in front of the Button. My mind starts thinking about John Pawson, who died in that very spot a few years earlier. Trying to stay positive and push out those thoughts out of my head I come over a small lump of water and sure enough here comes my worst nightmare. My heart skips a beat. This wave has lined me up perfectly. Like a car accident time seemed to stop, the wave seemed to hit some deep water and it just backed off enough for me to slip under its sledgehammer lip. I’m in the belly of this beast prepared for the suck back over the falls when it just blasted me thru the lip and I popped out the back of the wave. Sunny blue sky never looked so good.
So here l am, way out to sea, riding some amazing waves to myself and l’m the only guy out. I’m paddling back out after a wave and I finally see Darbs way out to sea paddling into one of a huge set wav and I’m screaming as he literally pulls into one of the biggest barrels I’ve seen at Winki. He disappears behind the curtain and looks like he gets annihilated, while this wave steams down the reef all the way over towards me at Lowers. I’m thinking poor Darbs, took an hour to get out and gets flogged on his first wave. I was thinking I wouldn’t see him again for at least another hour. So I turn and stroke into this wave thinking Darbs is toast, and as I’m about halfway down the face I hear this scream from somewhere. I look back into the tube halfway into the take off and here’s Darbs standing there inside the tube, hanging on for dear life. He was coming out for sure, except I’ve faded him. Of all the waves l could have dropped in on him, why did it have to be this one? We were the only two guys out!
Darbs gets beaten up all the way down into the Valley, gets another 10 waves on the head, then after disappearing for another 40 minutes he finally gets back out to me, sits up on his board laughing. “I would have made that barrel,” he says to me. I said, “I know.” He turns away and looks back and says, “You been out here all this time alone? You’re one lucky bastard… but you’re on dishes for a month for that drop in.”
I reckon I must have been 10, and me, Shaun and Dad were up in the Winki car park. Dad had taken us out there to watch the big swell and we looked out and there’s two surfers about to paddle out from the beach. Dad goes, “That’s Pin and Eags having a crack! Pin had this iconic blue board and we could see them paddling out. Somehow they got out, but then once they were in deep water out in the bay this huge set has come and cleaned them up. Eags got washed in but Pin ended up being washed over the Button and it was a bad one. That had to be one of the scariest moments of his life. We thought he was dead so we’ve run down the hill through the bushes down to The Nose, the little cliff that overhangs The Button. We peered down over the cliff and there he was clawing his way up the Snoz. We’re like, fuck! We could see a set was already breaking at Bells and marching toward the Button and we’re like, “Don’t look behind ya, mate, just climb!” They’re the sharpest rocks in the world, they’re like razor blades and this set was coming and Dad held onto Shaun who was holding onto me and I’ve grabbed him and pulled him up just as this huge wave hit the cliff. It would have swept him along the cliff to god knows where, because it was so big and the tide was so high I had no idea where he’d even have come in. He was fucked.
This one goes back a couple of years. Me, Timmy Hawken, Johnny Hawk, maybe Jeff Rowley, we were talking about ‘81 Bells and how someone had ridden one through from Bells to Winki and we threw down the idea of a standing bet of a case of piss for anyone who could do it. Every time the swell got big enough the call went out; anyone who could get past the Button would get a case of beer off everyone in the bet. People were chipping in everywhere. Anyway, I saw the day I thought it was going to happen. I’d come back from Hawaii in January that year and I had an 8’2” I had for Sunset. It was the biggest board I’ve ever owned and still ever owned to this day, and I’ve jumped in and stroked all the way out. It was macking Bells – sunny, offshore, clean as, and these huge peaks out to sea with the odd one freight training toward the Button. The swell had some west in it. I remember paddling out with the vision of what I wanted to do. I took this wave and it was a solid one, the third or fourth wave of a set, but it didn’t make it. I kicked off kind of in front of the Button and I was like, I should have gone through that section and tried to shoot it but it was my first wave, so I went all the way back out. The next set I’ve gone the first wave of the set and I’m on. I’ve started racing waaaaay out in front of this thing, a hundred metres in front of it, and I was locked in. The wave started getting smaller but it had good shape, so I had to fade in closer toward the Button as it lined up toward Winki. I was like at least it’s not a 12-foot close out, it’s only an eight footer. All the time I’m getting closer and closer to the Button and eventually I’ve had to kick out. I’ve kicked out, turned around and there it was. It was terrifying. It had broken out at Bells already and was coming my way and I looked around and I was right in front of the Cobra peak next to the Button by the time the wave got to me. The Cobra is like a full slab right next to the Button and I was right on it. This set has hit it and the Cobra looks like Shipstern Bluff, it’s broken half way down the face, it’s got two lips and the bottom one has gone over me like a waterfall. I’ve bailed and was just executed. I got pulverised down the reef at Winki, bouncing off the bottom, flipped upside down a bunch of times. I come up with the tail of my board and here’s the next one. Same thing happened again. Then I’m stuck out the back of Winki with a 15-foot leggie and one foot of board and I’ve started swimming around Uppers. Then the next set came and I’m like, I got to swim in here. The tide was pretty decent, wasn’t high, but even the low tide when it’s that big isn’t that low. There’s so much water. I’ve swum in got rolled and all of a sudden I’m down in the Valley and the whole ocean is moving down toward Jan Juc, two kays away. This is the last bit of rock to climb up before I go with it and have to swim to Juc which is a whole other headache. Then just as I was about to pop up on the rock the rest of my board all surged up next to me, three pieces of at the same time so I’ve picked them up and started clambering back up the rocks with them. It was a packed afternoon, a full car park, and I had people come looking for me, that’s how blown up I got. Then after that they called it a non-make so I didn’t get my beer either.