THE GREATEST BELLS STORIES EVER TOLD 3/3
So Scud [Mark Philippoussis the tennis player] called me the night before from Melbourne and said, “I’m coming down early. It’s going to be pumping,” and he was right. It was going to be pumping, it was low tide early and offshore so I said, “No worries. I’ll meet you in the Winki car park at seven tomorrow morning.”
I got to Winki and it was eight foot and pumping and getting bigger and I texted him and said, “Where are you mate?” He goes, “I’m still in bed. I’ll get up now and drive down. Wait for me.” And I’m like, “Mate, are you kidding? I’m out there. I’ll see you in the water.” Anyway I’ve surfed for three hours and haven’t seen him and I’ve come in and walked up the stairs and there’s Steve Ryan the photographer and he goes, “Your mate was looking for you, the tennis player.” Turns out he’d paddled out from the middle of the beach at Bells which was 10 foot by this stage and by some miracle had got out. They reckon he’d just made it around the Button, just scraped past it. Everyone was going, whoa mate, this guy is in trouble. I was like, “I’m done, I’m not waiting around,” so I went off to work and didn’t think much else of it.
At lunchtime I get a call from the boys in the car park, going, “Mark Philippoussis’s chick is here bawling her eyes out. They can’t find him!” The last they saw of him, he was paddling down the line trying to get a wave in. Well what’s happened is that instead of paddling back up toward the stairs at Winki to come in he’s ended up down the Valley, got onto the inside, snapped his board and has bodysurfed in and climbed up the rocks. The tide was super high by then so there’s almost no way to get back up on a big swell. Down under the cliff there’s a little cave just as it bends around the corner and he’s clambered up into the cave, cut to shreds. He had the tail of his board with him and that’s it. He’s stuck there, and he reckons he’s literally started engraving his initials into the cliff. I don’t know how long he thought he’d be down there for. He thought he was a castaway. He couldn’t get back around because of the high tide and he had no idea what to do.
Anyway he’s seen the rest of his board floating past and thought maybe I can get to that. It was three-quarters of his board and he figured if he swam out and got it he could paddle himself out of there. So he’s swum out to it got onto it and he’s spotted two guys down at Boobs, so he’s drifted down and started waving at them going, “Help! Help!” and they’re thinking he’s just waving at them and they give him the thumbs up. They thought he was coming down to surf with them. He’s eventually washed down there and paddled over to the guys and says, “Mate, I’ll give you a hundred bucks if we swap boards and you paddle in with me.” And the guy has gone, “Sweet, here’s my board,” and they’ve got him in to the rocks at Steps and driven him back out to Winki, where his missus is bawling her eyes out. He rings me and I joke and go, “How’s your surf?” And he goes, “You asshole!” I said, “Mate, if you hadn’t slept in you’d have been here on the low tide and you would have been fine.”
So he’s had the worst day of his life and has ended up driving back to Melbourne covered in cuts and bruises, then pulls into his street and outside his house is Channel 7 and Channel 9 waiting for him.
There’s a perverse schadenfreude spicing the breeze whenever a rock jump goes wrong… and there are few worse places to screw it up than the Winkipop Button. For not only is the Winki Button deceptively dangerous on a big swell – far worse than that – there’s a guaranteed peanut gallery lining the cliffs, guffawing and mocking as a comic tragedy unfolds below, as some miserable wretch with his life flashing before his eyes gets dragged helplessly across the Button. Now, I’m not exactly a fountain of sympathy in these circumstances – due largely to me 1056-0 record of safe paddle outs at Winki – but I’ve thought for quite a while now there would come a day of reckoning, and that day was Wednesday, October 30.
We had swell here in Victoria yesterday – a lot of swell – and the car park at Winki was a beehive when I pulled in at 8.30am. The swell looked six foot, probably bigger, but it had a real muscular edge to it. It must’ve been pretty big because I saw Tony Ray take off on a set and you never see Tony Ray out unless it’s solid.
I suited up and ran down and was almost reversed over by a large off road vehicle driven by the towering figure of Craig “Pinhead” Stevenson, who had Andrew Flitton riding shotgun with him. I asked them where they were going and all Pin coughed up was a cryptic, “Down the coast.” The pair of local surfers and former surf industry execs are now in quasi-retirement, spending their days scouring the coast for surf and working on their car park comedy act. “You’re looking a bit skinny, mate,” offers Pin dryly. “You look like Bobby Sands,” referring to the Irish hunger striker who starved himself to death in the ’80s. He kept going. “And have you got rid of those NSW plates on your car yet? We don’t like the yellow peril in this car park.”
The paddle out at Winki on a bigger day needs to be navigated with some due care for the simple fact that you will be paddling out next to the infamous Winkipop Button – a rock shelf half the length of a football field that juts out into the Southern Ocean and effectively divides Bells Beach from Winki. The channel that runs alongside the rocks isn’t really a channel. It’s a confused stretch of short water and it’s hard to tell whether it’s 30 feet deep or three. All the water rolling in from Bells gets flushed out through there, while the deep water outside the channel tends to magnify and focus the swell onto it. On a big swell it actually develops its own gravitational pull and has a real sinister, spooky vibe to it. One of Torquay’s best surfers, John Pawson, drowned there back in ’84.
On a bigger day you can paddle out safely further down the beach, do a shit-ton of paddling and duckdiving, and slog it out around to Winki. Or of course you can roll the dice in the corner near the Button. The principle is pretty simple: wait for the last wave of the set at Bells, jump into the channel, and paddle out with dry hair. Which is more or less what I did yesterday. I watched a big, ten-wave set roll through Bells, checked further down the coast toward Jarosite to make sure there wasn’t another set coming, and I jumped in. In 15 years surfing the place I’d never screwed it up, and as I paddled out nothing hinted to me that my perfect streak was about to be broken anytime soon.
A minute later, level with the end of the Button, I paddled over a three-footer and there it was… a black, rogue, top-to-bottom eight-footer. Where it had come from or why, I couldn’t answer but the fact it was bearing down on me could not be argued.
Okay, big duckdive, couple of underwater helicopters, and I resurface to discover the second wave about to drop. This pattern repeats for the third and the fourth with just half a breath buffer between each. At this point none of those waves had escaped back out to sea and the whole corner was swollen with white ocean water, and with more waves in the set still surging in it only had one way to get out… straight across the Button.
Before the fifth wave I swivelled my head for a split second back toward the cliff and I triangulated from my coordinates that I was most likely, right at that point, on top of the Button. Things were boiling up everywhere around me as the wave drew off the reef and that’s when I saw, just to my right, that it was dry.
The previous eight-footers that had been top-to-bottom when they broke in the channel were now breaking in waist deep water, straight onto the reef in front of me. But worse than that, the left off Winkipop that breaks on a section of reef called The Cobra was now steaming in from the other direction, meeting with the right in an unholy alliance, and detonating on dry reef a few feet in front of me. For reasons I can’t explain I duckdived. It was a foot deep.
My board was blown from my hands instantly, and because there was no water for me to be ragdolled in, instead the thing shook me in a million tiny, furious, violent oscillations. It felt like I was in one of those machines that mix cans of paint in hardware stores. This process repeated on the next wave and I resurfaced, huffing bad, but only managed to take down a mouthful of foam before I got hit again.
It was right about then it struck me how quickly and absurdly this had all gone so wrong. Five minutes earlier I was sitting in the car listening to the radio, watching sets roll down the line. Fifteen minutes earlier I’d dropped the kids off at school. I was just going with it by this stage… like I had a choice. And even at this stage – gassed, flensed, scrambled at a cellular level, supremely violated and waiting for the next one to land – I was mentally roll calling who was up there standing on that bloody cliff watching.
After what I think was eight waves in the set it stopped and just like that and I was in dead, foamy water that was so carbonated it was hissing. It was deathly quiet and I looked up at the cliff above and there were 20 figures silhouetted like crows leaning on the wire of the car park fence, gesturing excitedly to each other.
My neighbour, Middsy, was the first of them into the line-up.
Now Middsy’s a pretty mad sort of guy, surfs pretty much anything, surfs Winkipop in boardshorts in June, and when he got to me even he was shaking his head. “Mate, I just watched all of that,” he cackled like a schoolboy. “You just got proper fucked!”