Let's get this straight: if this was any other day of the year, nobody would have bothered surfing Bells today. But here we are, out of days, in a year without waves, in a year where they called off the best day of waves they got, so even though the forecast looked like Godzilla shit, you have never seen surf fans more excited than the ones filing into the Bells car park this morning. The Bells swell was a hot ticket. Fifty Year blah blah. The sun wasn't even up, but the deep fryers were already bubbling and the smell of cooking oil washed across the whole scene and the cars were backed up down Bones Road.

The surfers weren't quite so excited. This wasn't going to be pleasant. All those who have tuned their Bells game over the past five years of good surf here, well, that knowledge was effectively useless today. The sets this morning were washing through 50 yards beyond the usual lineup and lumbering through with no real shape or order. The Cape Sorrell buoy 2 hours away was already shooting skyward. It was a big dumb morning that was due to get twice as big and twice as dumb by the afternoon.

The first surfer who actually appeared to be enjoying it was Courtney Conlogue. The girls in the first quarter had tried to catch waves between the sets, whereas Courtney paddled out to sea and waited. She took the biggest thing she could and went straight at the lip. She then threw herself at the shorey and rode out clean. Meanwhile, Carissa Moore, who surfed well enough to win the men's contest yesterday, was totally lost. This was ocean riding, not surfing. Courtney joked she was on 6'1". It was a 6'4" and the inches made a difference. I got a text from Mark Richards. He'd read my comment yesterday about how a 6'1" would be as useful as a bag of cats. We'd spoken a few weeks ago about how on Big Saturday, 1981, when it was way bigger than today and howling offshore, his step had been a 6'4" twin fin.

In years past, Bells has been a gray bore for Gabe Medina. He's arrived and seemed totally disinterested on pulling any kind of result out of here. It's been hard to fathom why. I'm not sure he knows why. Maybe after three months at home living it up, suddenly finding yourself in the coldwater dirge at Bells has drained the color from his days here. Maybe, as it's been proven, Gabby only delivers when he has to and the second event of the year has no real consequence to him. This year there is a 30-foot tall, multicoloured mural of Gabby greeting everyone who enters town, and today he fizzed with life.

Medina typically finds his rhythm later in the season, but from the looks of it, he hasn’t lost his rhythm from his title-winning season last year. Photo by Joli

By this stage we needed binoculars to find the guys in the water who were out in the shipping lanes. Maurice Cole couldn't contain his glee when he showed me the Cape Sorrell buoy readings which were escalating wildly. That would be here soon enough, along with a high tide. I suggested he start hiring 7'0"s for exorbitant sums. "I'd rather watch them try and surf 6'1"s," he said.

We could, however, make out John Florence. Amongst the turgid wobble out there he was finding vertical pockets and was busy spritzing them. A wave catching contest, which is exactly what this was becoming, suits him down to the ground. It was like big, onshore Haleiwa, just without the barrels…or any sense of it actually being a coherent lineup. John was making the inside section his own, the key here when it's big and the secret to Mick Fanning's years of success.

The swell spiked during Kelly's heat. It seriously did not stop breaking for an hour. The bommie behind Centreside started to cap and sitting there watching with Micro Hall, we both saw something break about two miles out to sea for no apparent reason. The tide was filling in by this stage and making life interesting for the skis. They had to scoop the guys up from next to the Winki Button, which was seven circles of hell by this stage. They'd already lost two skis, one being ground onto the rocks, and the ski that was supposed to pick up Kelly on his first wave had to beach as it was run down in the shorebreak. There was a lot of energy surging into Bells, too much for the break to handle, but the saving grace was that the forecast southwest onshore wind held offshore till the last heat, the valley behind Bells swinging the wind around.

Kelly rode a small quad, which looked optimistic considering the boiling ocean he was paddling out into. He levitated/bounced across the first wave, held on for a six but was soon swapping the board out for a 6'3" Simon Anderson thruster. He then sat way up the reef, the deepest of anyone, and found waves that ran along a more traditional line rather than snowboarding to the channel with everyone else. He was never challenged, however, and finds himself in the quarters tomorrow. He's not carrying a bag of form with him, but he's there.

Ryan Callinan drew the goofy blueprint—draw the bottom turn 30, 40 yards—then get upside down on the last turn. Medina took that to its natural limit. Medina paddled out and the mood shifted. The ocean had been dictating terms, but Medina paddled out and toyed with it. His bottom turns were unbroken and parabolic, but instead of surviving the inside section he lanced it. He had a 9 and an 8 in the opening minutes without even having priority. It was over. He went for the first-round knockout, and you get a feeling that's what he's doing with this season. He generally sleeps for the first half of the year…but this afternoon he looks in the same mood he was in the day he won the title at Pipe last December.

Italo Ferreira, between a rock and a wave face. Photo by Joli

John John looked in trouble against Owen. Halfway through the heat Owen had an 8 and John began catching waves that couldn't yield a 5. John was biding his time, though. Just like that, he started channeling his paradigm-shifting Margarets performance of 2 years ago. Amongst all that diffuse ocean energy, he threaded a sweet line, and then just threw hot rail at the lip. The end section was devouring souls by this stage, but John went righteously into his last turns and emerged unscathed from the fire. Fast in, fast out. Bells had no right to be a performance wave today, but John and Gabby turned it into one. They seemed a class above everyone, which is a shame as they've drawn each other in the quarters tomorrow.

We almost lost John, however, both him and Italo. The pair almost became the Winkipop Button's highest profile victims when they both got washed over it this afternoon. Local good old boy, Pinhead was telling me about his Button near-death-experience the other day. It was years back, and after a quick mood enhancer in the car he paddled out on a day he reckoned looked like today just 5 feet bigger. He got caught by a set in the middle of the bay and was soon back on the Button with 12-footers slamming him against the cliff. The wave drew back and left him clinging to it. He looked up and here was 10-year-old Troy Brooks reaching down for him. Shaun Brooks was lowering Troy down, and Rod—their old man—was lowering Shaun. They pulled Pinhead up, gray, and he spewed saltwater for 10 minutes before Rod looked him in the eye and said, "You know, you have to go back out."

Both John and Italo got washed across the Button this afternoon, although there was enough water on the high tide to keep them off the reef. They were lucky. Guys have drowned on the Button. It's bad water. Italo prayed, John paddled, and they were both plucked to safety by the water patrol, who'll all sleep well tonight. Italo and John were in danger, but not nearly as much danger as whoever was supposed to be caddying for Jeremy Flores in the last heat. Jeremy's leash snapped, and he made it to the beach to find nobody there with his board. He had to sprint up the stairs and fetch it from the rack himself, swearing in French.