The Doherty Report: The Long Shadows

Day two of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach

If I were going to have one of those local coaches who are so du jour on Tour these days…if I was going to have one of them for Bells? It wouldn’t be Adam Robertson. It wouldn’t be Maurice Cole. It wouldn’t even be Occy.

No, the local coach I’d employ would be that lovely older lady in boat shoes with the sweet disposition who’s been sitting there on her own on the Bells stairs watching the surfing, day after day. She’s standing next to a banner that reads, “Gail Couper – ’64, ’65, ’67, ’68, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ’76,” her pale blue eyes darting across the lineup as airbrushed lines break from one end of the bay to the other.

She is, of course, Gail Couper herself, the greatest Bells surfer of all-time, and she didn’t win those ten Bells trophies by accident. Talking with her yesterday morning as men’s Round Two ran in pretty much flawless Bells (waves that might get more flawless in coming days), the softly spoken matriarch of this event offered a short and unsolicited take on what was going on out there. “They’re sitting in the wrong spot.” As she delivered this, a line of swell broke for a quarter-mile before a surfer dropped into it and rode the rest of it to the beach.

“They’re missing the best part of the wave.”

And she was right.

When Bells is as geometrically sublime as it was yesterday, you can surf way up the reef and just follow it down, waiting for the thing to slow down enough to get busy with it. Instead, the guys surfing their heats yesterday morning all sat zealously on The Bowl, counting their three turns, without realizing they were using a fraction of the swell’s scoring potential.

Gail knew, though.

“And don’t get me started on the girls. I could have throttled them a few days ago.” She delivers this stinging barb, of course, in a genuinely loving manner, because she wants the girls to master this place, but the previous afternoon, the girls – including six-time world champs – had got hopelessly lost out at Winkipop, lost to the point where they didn’t even jerry that a wave breaking in the adjacent Bells Bowl would break, on the stopwatch, a minute-ten later at Winki. It’s Bells 101, but so few surfers – guys and girls included – have a working grasp of it. “They were too busy worrying about each other to be worrying about the wave.”

The great truism of Bells is that you don’t outsurf the wave; you outthink it. It’s cerebral as much as physical, and that’s what makes it so vital to the Tour. Yes. Bells. Vital.

You heard.

Zeke Lau yesterday morning looked more 3228 than 808 when he paddled out and took down Connor Coffin.

The Hawaiian seemed to instinctively sense the contour of the reef below as he surfed over it – as Hawaiians are predisposed to do, I suppose – and he matched his rhythm to it perfectly. Out wide, he raced down the line, then at the precise moment the reef cornered on the Bowl and steepened, he’d drop to the bottom of the wave and throw his huge Polynesian frame straight upward. It was like having Sunny back, just with some smoother edges. Zeke dropped two nines, the best heat of the morning, and I figured his coach Jake Paterson had more than a little to do with it, wearing two big oven mitts to ward off the cold and waving them around to direct traffic. Imagine though, if you will, what Zeke might do with Gail Couper in his corner! Gail or no Gail, by the end of the day, Zeke had made the final 12 at Bells, and with the swell rising after the Easter weekend, he could do something big here.

Bells pumped all day – all day with hardly a breath of wind – but we moved to Winki regardless.

It might have had something to do with Mick Fanning being in the first Winki heat and sensing Ethan Ewing presented more of a challenge at Bells than he did at Winki. After all, Ethan’s mum – like Gail – had also won Bells. While the move to Winki was shot down by the traditionalists on site (Bells is as Bells does) and also by the large crowd who were forced to watch it in a car park on a giant screen, the move worked great for Mick, who tore through his heat with Ethan, surfing with the command of world title years past. Mick’s win – along with some wack seeding – would see him surfing against Kelly, however, in the next round later that afternoon.

I can only imagine what Gail Couper would have said if she’d walked up the hill and watched the start of Gabe Medina’s Round Three heat against Portuguese rookie Frederico Morais.

The pair jumped in the water and almost paddled back to Bells in an attempt to hold the inside. They got as far as the Winki Button, a good hundred yards from the takeoff spot, before stopping, the gamesmanship boiling furiously. Fred’s coach, Dog Marsh, had put him up to do it, knowing full well Gabe couldn’t resist. By the time they returned to the actual takeoff area and someone caught the first wave, a third of the heat had gone down the drain. All things equal, Gabe wins the heat, but he was so discombobulated by the tactic that while he was busy watching Fred in the lineup, Gabe turned his back as the set of the day swept across the bay from Bells and landed squarely on his head. His wretched run at Bells continues, but this one was all on him.

I don’t even know where to start with Mick and Kelly.

As both venture into legacy years, they harbor a bastard desire for it to be something more than that. They’re cellularly engineered to win, have been since forever, and when you start stoking that fire with years of psychological warfare between the pair, you get something bigger than simply a shitty Round Three Bells heat. Both have had ordinary starts to their respective seasons, seasons that began with huge promise like a new day rising. Instead, one of them would be leaving Australia with their season in a smoking ruin. This year was supposed to be all about Kelly and Mick. They were going to suck the oxygen from the room. Instead, all we’ve talked about is Owen and John.

Losing this heat, for whomever lost it, would be a royal kick in the nuts, and both surfed like they were afraid of losing.

Sitting on the cliff above Winki, an American friend walked past and said, “Let’s run an overs-and-unders market on when Kelly does the first throwaway air that says, ‘I’m fucking losing here and I’m over it.’” Literally within 10 seconds of this statement he finished his first wave with a futile finishing air over the inside shelf. “Shoulda had some money on that, huh?” my friend quipped. The strange thing, however, was that Mick seemed equally offbeat. The board he’d surfed so imperiously a few hours before against Ethan suddenly seemed a foot shorter and with a mind of its own. It skipped out at every opportunity, and the most assured surfer the Tour has ever seen looked like a cat with plastic bags on its feet.

Even the waves came off the boil.

In a day where the swell built steadily and long cobalt swells swept in from the Southern Ocean, strung like power lines between Bells and Winki, they almost switched off totally for Mick and Kelly’s heat. There was a time when billing these two together would conjure an otherworldly magic – and waves – like when they surfed the 2012 Bells final and Kelly helicoptered a perfect 10 and Mick won regardless and MP had just died and a storm hit after the final that blew down every past winner’s banner except MP’s.

In the end, it was Mick who won. Kelly stayed out there afterward, paddling around, soaking up the loss, even paddling through the middle of the next heat as he made his way in. The sun had sunk behind the cliffs by this stage, and they both climbed the 113 steps up the Winki cliff in the shadows.

Photo: Joli