After the previous event on the Gold Coast where everything moves in hyper-real time and where planned obsolescence rules and everything is bust and boom and seems built to be replaced—apartment blocks, pointbreaks, surf stars—there's a soothing permanence about being at Bells Beach. Things move slowly here: the waves, the wisdom, even the wildlife. The kangaroos on Bob Johnson's farm appear to have been stuffed and staged for the tourist cameras, the mob motionless in the midday sun until one of them eventually hops lazily to a fresh patch of green.
Now in it's 53rd year, it's an old contest but a rich one. It's a ringing endorsement—yes, the pun, thank you, thank you—that success in any sphere starts with an acknowledgment of where you come from, then keeping those connections alive. The Bells contest celebrates connectedness—to the Wauthurong, to Charles of the Sea, to the Southern Ocean and to the primordial days of pro surfing. When the surf is shit it will always have these to fall back on. These can all contribute meaning when no other meaning is apparent.
The two surfers who are going to ring the bell next week will feel connected to all the other names on that trophy, a secret society of surfing greats. But there's more to it than that. They also look forward and know that the list of names will keep growing. That some kid in 50 years time will pick up that trophy and see their name on it. The connection to the past is one thing, but there's also a connection to the future. There's a feeling that even if the Four Horsemen of the Pro Surfing Apocalypse rode into town and pro surfing was wiped off the map by some cataclysmic disinterest event, that Bells trophy would still get rung every year and would continue to have meaning.
On Day 1, more dots were joined.
Mason Ho is the event wildcard here at Bells. You know that. He signed on with Rip Curl last month and this is his great unveiling to the world in local colors. He and "Pops"—dad, Michael—have been surfing the house down here over the past week. The waves have been on the cook and jokes have been made that after extending the waiting period for the last event by two days, they should have brought this one forward by two. While in some ways the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree with Mase and Mike—they both share an almost mischievous approach to surfing, like it's some kind of game—the game is certainly less of a game for Mike, especially when it's played on a big stage like Bells.
For Mike Ho this week has been a trip back in time. He's been talking about his first years at Bells where he rode shotgun with MP, and got to watch the final days of Peterson's Bells golden run where he was unbeaten here for three years straight. Mike points out the spot in the bushes up toward the Winki Button where he and MP and their crew hung between heats, out of sight and crowded around a campfire, MP blazing wild and plotting the demise of the next guy he was going to surf against while the young Hawaiian, five years his junior, sat next to him, all ears.
This morning it was Michael talking Bells with Mason as dawn revealed the swell hanging in there from the previous day. Mason paddled out at dawn to warm up for his heat with three-time world champ Mick Fanning. "It's gonna be a tough one, brah," says Uncle Mike. Mick's about as nasty a draw as you could get out here, probably as close to a modern day MP equivalent as you're going to get, a guy who has turned winning into its own branch of applied science. As we watch on, Mason takes off on the Rincon boil, races, then launches a huge inverted frontside air. This was everything we love about Mason's surfing. Pops watches on, head already in the heat. "Yeah, but it's gonna be tough against the champ," he cools. "Well," I offer, "He's gonna have to knock the champ out. You don't beat the champ on points."
"Yes!" Uncle Mike hits me in the shoulder, loving my stolen sports saying. "I'm gonna tell him that!" Whatever Mason might lack in the killer competitive bloodlust his dad more than makes up for. Uncle Mike is tapping into an era where winning wasn't just paramount…it was a way of life.
RIP CURL PRO: Heat Analyzer
Mason ran down the Bells stairs as Kelly Slater was being interviewed, and Kelly stopped him and wished him luck. Full of good vibes, Mase almost wanted to stop and say thanks and hang and have a chat with the champ, before he figured he should probably just go and surf the heat already. For his part Uncle Mike hid himself away at the top of the stairs, out of range of the cameras, and went through his ritual where he paces nervously and surfs each wave with Mase, complete with crouches and hand jive.
And you know how it ended. Mason threw the same frontside air he'd thrown at dawn, threw the knockout punch and landed it, and scraped past the champ by three-hundredths of a point. Mick Fanning caught a wave in the dying seconds and predictably thrashed the thing to the shore, and for Uncle Mike the wait for the score was agonizing. When they announced that Mick had fallen short Uncle Mike clutched his heart and fake-staggered and pulled his jumper over his head and said, "Ho, brah!" a couple of dozen times.
Despite the fearless online predictions that Mason would fail miserably at Bells – too fly and free for a stuffy old man's wave, Mase had won, and won his way. As I'm sitting here tapping this out I'm sitting next to a journalist from a big newspaper who's talking on the phone to Mason. I'm sensing this is the guy's first surfing assignment and I chuckle as he first tries to decode the North Shore accent, and then tries to deal with the tangential conversation. But the journalist is soon swept up and charmed by the caller's refreshingly elemental love of simply going surfing. Suddenly the guy gets it. He thought he was driving down the M1 from Melbourne to cover a sports story, but after hanging up the phone from Mason realized he was just covering surfing. Where one stops and the other starts is pretty much up to you to decide.
From here the event heads largely into the unknown. Wind shifts, blocking highs, and a lack of polar lows means the event will have to stay light on its feet and scrap for every morsel of swell. It won't be pretty, but that won't matter to whoever's going to ring the bell next week, nor will it appear as an asterisk next to their name on the trophy.
WATCH: Day 1 Highlights
Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach Round 1 Results:
Heat 1: Jeremy Flores (FRA) 15.33, Wiggolly Dantas (BRA) 11.73, Taj Burrow (AUS) 10.63
Heat 2: Brett Simpson (USA) 15.00, Adriano de Souza (BRA) 14.33, Kai Otton (AUS) 6.00
Heat 3: Kelly Slater (USA) 16.67, Sebastian Zietz (HAW) 9.06, Ricardo Christie (NZL) 7.73
Heat 4: John John Florence (HAW) 15.33, Italo Ferreira (BRA) 11.47, C.J. Hobgood (USA) 10.17
Heat 5: Mason Ho (HAW) 13.13, Mick Fanning (AUS) 13.10, Freddy Patacchia Jr. (HAW) 13.00
Heat 6: Gabriel Medina (BRA) 12.76, Matt Banting (AUS) 11.83, Joe Van Dijk (AUS) 8.23
Heat 7: Jordy Smith (ZAF) 14.33, Keanu Asing (HAW) 13.44, Adrian Buchan (AUS) 12.20
Upcoming Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach Round 1 Match-ups:
Heat 8: Michel Bourez (PYF), Nat Young (USA), Dusty Payne (HAW)
Heat 9: Joel Parkinson (AUS), Miguel Pupo (BRA), Glenn Hall (IRL)
Heat 10: Josh Kerr (AUS), Bede Durbidge (AUS), Adam Melling (AUS)
Heat 11: Filipe Toledo (BRA), Owen Wright (AUS), Jadson Andre (BRA)
Heat 12: Julian Wilson (AUS), Kolohe Andino (USA), Matt Wilkinson (AUS)