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Old Bones Road

Opening round musings from the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach

Doug's tooth fell out at breakfast yesterday.

It was a molar. The whole thing just popped right out on its own. He didn't even break it on a bread crust or anything – just spat it into his hand, calmly put it in his pocket as there was a gold filling in it, and kept on chewing. He didn't miss a beat, although grumbled that his $40 breakfast (Australian standard these days) was set to become a whole lot more expensive. But despite this sign of creeping age, Doug paddled out at Winkipop soon after with a missing tooth and a bum knee and surfed like a teenager.

It's in the water here.

In this ancient corner of the surfing world, old isn't old. It's actually the opposite; being decrepit is the bomb. Treacherous old age works to your advantage here. Bells eats the young. Bells is for the old.

Well, we all got old waiting for the contest to start this morning.

Photo: Joli

Kelly, opting for a bit more reliable Bells equipment. Photo: Joli

The forecast onshore hadn't materialized overnight, and instead, the sun rose over a clean, offshore, firing, low-tide Bells lineup. It was smoking, with the freesurfing session – featuring pretty much the entire men's and women's fields – dominated by whoever it was wearing the orange wetsuit.

Carissa.

The waves were a surprise Easter gift from the Gods, so what did we do? We sat around for an hour waiting while the sets pulsed and waited for a TV network to come online somewhere in mainland America. As replays of Snapper looped endlessly on the broadcast, an hour of perfect waves, maybe the best hour this contest will see, came and went. Bells don't care for TV networks. I commented that this lost hour would bite us on the ass at some stage. I didn't have to wait long to be proved right.

It was an old heat to start the day.

With a combined age of Moses, Kelly and Kai Otton paddled out this morning and found their groove in this Old Testament lineup. Well, I don't know if Kelly was technically in the groove, I don't know if Kelly ever is in the groove at Bells and certainly never before midday, but he looked a damn sight better than he did last time we saw him at Snapper. The banana board had been ridiculed on the Gold Coast and was sitting on an airport carousel somewhere, doing lonely laps, and Kelly was riding a fresh, white thruster and moving with some real hustle.

But it was 36-year-old Kai Otton who surfed the best wave of the day. Surfing deep off the bottom, "Old Bones," as his mates jokingly call him, drove straight up at the lip and channelled the Great Occ himself, the only goofyfooter to ever leave a meaningful scar on this place. Kai was visibly moved after winning the heat, having a sick infant at home and a mate involved in an accident, but sadly it was the only emotional trigger point for the day.

As the early rounds ran, and a day largely full of meaningless non-elimination heats rolled out, nothing pulled the beating heart from your chest and squelched it in your face. Maybe it was just the wave itself. Enjoying a cup of tea and a muffin while watching the mid-morning heats, I couldn't help but notice that the Bells lineup was quickly developing muffin-like tendencies as the tide marched in and critical sections disappeared completely. There were moments, but for the most part, the day was as exciting as watching Joe Turpel iron his underpants.

When Matt Wilko is the most pumped-up, run-through-brick-walls guy in the field, it probably tells you something. The newly-minted World Number One had almost ran me down in his flashy new Jeep as he swerved into the Winkipop car park in the dark, driving like a World Number One should and channelling the days when the World Number One drove his Porsche from the Gold Coast to Bells and would burn into the car park in mirrored sunglasses with Bowie blaring and a mystery blonde in the front seat.

Photo: Joli

Wilko has so far worn his yellow jersey to size on his trademark backhand. Photo: Joli

But watching Wilko prepare for his first heat as World Number One was almost comical. Wilko was a steely-eyed killer as he stood on the Bells stairs and shifted his weight from side-to-side. It was exactly how he used to take the piss out of the top guys before he suddenly became a top guy himself. But he paddled out and did enough on his backhand to win through, beating Kolohe Andino who threw fruitless air reverses into the offshore breeze.

Watching that heat the question germinated in my brain. What kind of surfing will win here this week? Backhand? Maybe. Progressive? Forget about it. Classical? You bet. Whole waves were scored rather than just the sum of the turns. Parko can do this in his sleep, and even John John flowed out here between turns, and you could almost see Bells starting to make sense to him. One of the great truisms of Bells is that, because it's a hard wave to surf, the judges go for surfers who make it look easy. Dutch footballing genius Johann Cruyff passed away a few days ago, and what Cruyff did for football is what the judges want to see at Bells: Someone who sits in the middle of this huge field and just makes it all happen around him.

The past couple of years have seen the group collectively make great strides here at Bells in understanding and even redefining how to surf it. So far from what we've seen this Easter, despite coaches outnumbering surfers, it feels two steps forward, three steps back.

The question germinated in my brain: What kind of surfing will win here this week? Backhand? Maybe. Progressive? Forget about it. Classical? You bet.

But Bells largely screwed royally with the psyche of the younger guys surfing it. Here was a powerful wave with no power. A slow, gutless wave that broke fast down the reef. Good luck, padawans.

As Bones Road – the road into Bells – turned into a car park as thousands of sport-tragic Victorians descended on the place, the women were sent out to do battle with the high tide in a call that harked back to the days when the women's tour acted as halftime entertainment for the men's. The girls would have to surf through the high tide because someone had to. There's swell coming, but there are a lot of heats that need to be run. Steph Gilmore sat there in the water this afternoon and applauded herself when it was announced she'd finished her heat with a pair of twos, having sat there for 20 minutes without a wave breaking. All she could do was laugh.

It got worse.

The final heat of the day featured World Number One, Tyler Wright. By this stage, the onshore had really kicked up and Bells had turned to rank soup. After 33 minutes, Tyler had a four, and her opponents each had a three. That was it. Suddenly, that missing hour in the morning looked a whole lot better. There's a huge gulf between Bells at her best and her worst, and we'd seen both within the space of eight hours.

I'll refrain from bad resurrection jokes. But tomorrow, Easter Sunday, will at least have size.

Photo: Joli

Gilmore makes the most of a poorly dealt, muffin-crumbling hand. Photo: Joli