This one dragged out a little.
After nearly a fortnight at Bells, your correspondent has begun to take on the appearance of a chicken parmigiana, the official pub meal of Victoria, with a greasy film of cheese and tomato beginning to ooze from the pores.
In ye olde days, consecutive lay-days at Bells would have meant a lock-in at the Torquay pub for the surfers in the contest, days of poker, pool and schooners, waiting for the Southern Ocean front to exhaust itself and for Bells to be surfable again.
But that was then and this is now.
When I ran the idea of a pub lock-in past Mick Fanning yesterday morning, he unbelievably knocked it back!
Mick had seen the forecast and knew that finals day would be big and something closer to snowboarding than surfing. He also knew he would also have to surf one extra heat than the surfers in the top half of the draw. It was going to be a physical challenge, and burping beer and leaving a slick of chicken fat as an eight-footer bore down on him mightn’t be the start to the day he wanted.
On several levels, we live in interesting times.
Two days ago, the women’s final ran in perfect five-foot offshore Bells bowl. That shit was a postcard. It was the best day of the waiting period by a country mile. Today was men’s final day and the waves looked like they’d been in the pub for a week…they were wobbly, angry, and looking for someone to snot.
So used to being sent out to surf the scraps the men wouldn’t, the girls actually got the best of it this year at Bells. Standing on the Bells stairs this morning was Courtney Conlogue, who’d won the women’s final, who while watching a solid eight-foot set flush through the Bowl, commented that she wouldn’t have minded surfing today. “Big, onshore – Good training for Margarets.”
And while most people number-associate Bells with 1981, today was the biggest Bells had been for a finals day since, well, ever. Back in 1981, the final was held at three-foot Rincon. As I sit here tapping after the final, a set well north of 10-foot has come through. It’s proper big. I just spoke to a mate down the coast and it’s almost three times the size down there. It’s never too big to surf down there, but today it almost was.
The irony here is that the biggest Bells final would be won by a small-wave wiz who’s never won much at all.
As with every Bells event, there was ritual pain involved this year. It seems necessary to purify the soul.
While the indigenous Bundjalung consider the Mt. Warning caldera behind Byron and Coolangatta to be a place of creative upwelling, surely the Wathaurong consider this place cathartic, blowing away the detritus from the soul and crystallizing basic human virtues. I considered this while eating a pie and while standing in the teeth of a 15-knot southwester at Bells this morning. It was overcast and cold and I looked down on a carpet of Victorians, huddled together on the beach like penguins on South Georgia.
For the surfers, the self-flagellation took the form of duckdives. Lots of them. Some big ones. Anyone who has surfed Bells at this size understands how easy – and dispiriting – getting caught inside here at this size is. There was an attritional factor at play here today. The top half of the draw would surf one time less than the bottom half today, and it’d come into play the same way it did here in 2006.
The top half was all goofy, the bottom half all regular.
After Matt Wilkinson won through to the semis, he crossed paths with Mick Fanning in the surfer’s area. Wilko looked at him and said, “You take care of your side, I’ll take care of mine, and I’ll see you in the final.” Glen Hall – Wilko’s coach and a guy who has seen what happens when either Mick or Wilko win – replied, “And I’ll see you both in the casino in Melbourne.”
I’ll be honest and say I thought Jordy was going to win today.
After a meek capitulation at Snapper, he had a lot to surf for, least of which being the fact he’s been the best surfer at Bells for almost a decade without ever getting his name on the trophy. Few people surf through the mindf*ck that is Bells with the kinetic nonchalance of Jordy, and after dispatching Mick in the semis, it appeared that he might finally ring this thing. And it was a day for a big man to win. It was a taxing day on the frame. Before Jordy paddled out for the final, I watched him standing there punching his thighs, preparing them to carry him down the length of the reef at Bells and onto a famous victory. I was reminded of Aussie footballer, Adam “Mad Dog” MacDougall, who before a big game sat in the dressing room and talked to his legs as if they were teammates, explaining to them exactly what he expected them to do.
I expected Jordy and his big hams to win.
If last year you’d told me Matt Wilkinson would win at Bells on a 10-foot plus day – beating Jordy to do so – I’d have told you the sun rises in the west. While Wilko is one of the most naturally talented surfers on tour, he’s mitigated that by also being amongst the least fit, least disciplined, and least strategic. At Bells, he was also up against history. No goofy had won at Bells in almost 20 years.
But Wilko already knew all that.
Next to the surfer’s area was a rack of wetsuits, and amongst them was the rainbow wettie Wilko wore during the San Francisco event back in 2011. I saw it and chuckled. Back then he was a Tour novelty, the class clown who’d show up in a wetsuit covered in rainbows or tits or dollar bills, entertain for a heat or two, then lose. I pondered for a second whether he’d still be winning if he paddled out in one of the fruit suits, instead of the basic black he won in today?
Of course he would. But a lot and a little has changed for him.
The common narrative around Wilko’s perfect start to the season is that he’s done a George Costanza: Looked at his career and how directionless it was and woke up one morning and decided to do the total opposite of everything he was doing. He didn’t need to do that. He wasn’t simply a Central Coast yobbo. He always had this in him.
The common narrative around Wilko’s perfect start to the season is that he’s done a George Costanza: Looked at his career and how directionless it was and woke up one morning and decided to do the total opposite of everything he was doing.
The best quote I heard in the wake of his Snapper win went something like, “Mate, he doesn’t need to stay home during an event. He just needs to go out one night a week instead of four.” Moderation in moderation. Wilko isn’t the yobbo he’s been painted, but he also ain’t the kind of guy who is going to sit in the lounge to keep himself fresh for finals day.
Wilko went out last night.
If you look closely in the hills behind Bells you’ll see a giant white teepee on an adjacent property. Last night the owners had a night up there, and Wilko was in attendance, eating burgers, drinking beers, and watching Tropical Zombie play a set of psychedelic Southern Ocean rock. He knew the contest would run today, but for his own equilibrium, he needed to be out amongst his people.
Personally, I’d be far more worried about Wilko’s Bells campaign – and his career, in general – if he’d stayed at home.
When asked this afternoon why he’s suddenly winning after a decade of not, Wilko replied in Wilko style, “No idea.” But he does. The little Yoda he’s now got in his corner is a huge part of it. There was no way Old Wilko would have chalked two scores early in a Tour final, then resisted the temptation to catch a dozen meaningless three-point rides, panic, and somehow lose an unlosable final. He surfed smart today. An interesting sidenote to this event is that John John’s management approached Glen Hall at the start of the year to see if the diminutive Irishman would be interested in coaching John. The deal never went through, and now Wilko is sitting on 20,000 points – more than double his closest rival – while John John is on 6,950.
The physical transformation of Wilko is one thing, getting himself to a point where he has won on one of the most physically taxing days I can remember seeing for a contest. Then there’s what’s going on in his head, and the credit rests with Glen Hall, his old mate.
After Wilko rung the bell, Micro walked off to a quiet corner and made a phone call to his wife Gemma, explaining that he might not be home for two nights. At Snapper, it was three. Wilko has won two from two, and is now the most unlikely World Title favorite the World Title has ever seen. He hasn’t gone left yet, but given what we saw here at Bells, anything is possible. I spoke with one of Wilko’s best mates, Damien Wills, during the final. We both marveled at what a machine Wilko has become. Dom asked, “I’d love to know what he’s having for breakfast,” before answering his own question.