There was a lone lion on the Bells savannah at dawn this morning. One guy. Jordy Smith. Last year he'd fallen at the last hurdle at this venue, one that should rightly be his. He had the lineup to himself for half an hour, a rare gift, and he had the time to commune with the place and align his chakras ready for the final day. Surely, today.
The car park was empty. The crowd had disappeared back up the M1 Highway to Melbourne. The carnival was over. The show may have looked like California over the Easter weekend, but today it felt distinctly like rural Victoria. The transformation from yesterday was stark. The waves yesterday had been reduced to rubbish under the influence of a howling southwest wind and a fatigued swell. The event was being painted into a corner by bad winds coming from all directions in the closing days of the waiting period and today was the only glimmer of hope to knock it out in decent surf.
Historically the fortunes of this event rely heavily on Easter falling late in April, and already there is a scheduling challenge on the horizon next year with Easter falling early. You could of course move Easter. The new Pope, well, he's tweeting and might just be progressive enough to shuffle his schedule to get Bells better surf. Or you could simply move the contest itself out of Easter, an idea that sounds even more sacrilegious, but one, apparently, that's being floated for next year.
The show may have looked like California over the Easter weekend, but today it felt distinctly like rural Victoria.
The day would see both the women and men ring the iconic Bells trophy, the first time that's happened in living memory. The day started with the womens’ semis and again - as you'll be doing at every event this year - you began your assessment of proceedings by wondering who the hell could beat Carissa Moore, and how the hell they were going to do it. Sally Fitzgibbons got close in the semi, a slow ocean playing into her hands, but when left chasing a 4.77 on the last wave of the heat, she made the mistake of surfing for a 4.77 instead of a 7. The job of stopping Carissa then reverted to Tyler Wright in the Final, and it was a more even contest. Tyler gave it everything, including riding straight up onto the inside reef, a knock that left her so giddy she was later dancing kookily in the competitors’ area. Hang on, that was before the head knock, but anyway, she was left dazed and a point short at the end of the heat. Carissa's third world title just seems to be happening around her.
As I'm writing this, she is sitting behind me in the contest media room being interviewed by some news service from some other corner of the world far away from Bells. She's ebullient as ever despite this being her 50th interview in the past hour, she gets granular into the detail of the Final and what it means to her. It's lovely, and I'm sure the hack on the end of the line thinks so too. Carissa hangs up with, "Have a great rest of your day."
The guys' heats started in diabolically comical fashion. For the second heat running, Adriano de Souza began by paddling a fellow Brazilian up the point to the South Australian border. It was Gabriel Medina this time and both blindly refused to give up the first wave. I waited patiently for one of them to surf straight into the other to force some kind of interference call, but sadly they continued to surf Bells as a right and the moment was lost.
The big heat, however, was Jordy Smith versus Julian Wilson. Common names but uncommon surfing. Julian came to Bells with two bad strikes already against him, neither of which he could comprehend. He felt his surfing had been good enough for both wins, but here at Bells he had the toughest draw. Jordy was a clear favorite to win not only the heat, but the whole event. In many ways, he's more of a favorite here at Bells than he will be at J-Bay. J-Bay is perfect. J-Bay surfs you. J-Bay makes everyone surf well. At Bells you surf uphill. You've got to surf it heavy, but light. It's slow, but mercilessly fast. Jordy has it mastered like few ever have.
Watching his heat with former pros Jake Paterson and Tom Whitaker we talked Jordy and tossed the idea around of whether he should drop back a gear, as his fourth gear here beats everyone else in top gear. But we agreed this lion should never be caged. Jordy in full flight in waves like Bells taps into something both futuristic and primal, both technical and instinctive. But as we talked Jordy indeed surfed his heat at 80 percent, surfed his heat like simply being Jordy Smith would be enough to get him through. He was coasting downhill, and he coasted to the point where Julian had him cold. With 40 seconds left Jordy took off needing a 9.97, a miracle, but as he took off you felt in your bones that he just might go and get it. The cage door swung open and off he ran.
It may have been the only time in surfing history anyone has surfed a wave and expected a 10 to drop.
No wave will be ridden better this year. It was platinum. It was beautiful and barbaric and it was a 10...except that it wasn't. The look on Jordy's face as he climbed the stairs said it all. It may have been the only time in surfing history anyone has surfed a wave and expected a 10 to drop, but when the beach announcers read out that he'd scored a mere 9.93, a derisive smile swept his face and he walked up to take his medicine. For the second year running a contest that was his suddenly wasn't. The rest of the draw breathed a sigh of relief, while the contest site buzzed with talk about how Jordy had been robbed. I quizzed six past Bells winners' opinions on the subject and their reactions ranged from, "He clearly should have won" to "It's bullshit." Jordy took his chops and leaves Bells with a moral victory, if not an actual one.
To Julian's credit, he surfed well enough to create that scenario and it spurred him on. He was unstoppable in his quarter with Joel Parkinson, seemingly surfing to validate the Jordy heat. After the Final in Portugal in 2012, which he won on a controversial score, he knows how much the reflux that follows a controversial win can sour the taste of the win itself.
The game then changed. With the high tide blanket making Bells all soft and fluffy, the call was made to move to Winkipop, just around the corner. In a perfect world the Bells Beach Pro would be the Winkipop Pro, but the weight of tradition and the logistics of running a contest on a verdant headland reserve means it's saved for special occasions, and this afternoon was one of them.
With all the angel trumpets announcing the arrival of Jordy, Julian and John John to Bells Beach, two old sea dogs had quietly made their way into the semis without so much as a yelp. Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow have had subpar seasons. In the rush to transfuse the Tour, they have become grist for the mill and both sat well back in the ratings coming into Bells, and while they'd been solid in the early rounds neither had set the place on fire.
Both Taj and Mick made chess moves over the course of the afternoon that hinted at a deeper understanding of the wave.
But the move to Winkipop played right into their hands. It's a wave that, like Bells, needs experience. Both have surfed it religiously since they were kids, and both knew every landmark on the hill when they paddled out against their youthful opponents. Both made chess moves over the course of the afternoon that hinted at a deeper understanding of the wave. This was especially so in the Taj and John John semi, where the Hawaiian had trouble with the Lowers section that raced away from him and prevented him from landing clean knockout blows on his final turns.
I can probably tell you a little more about the Julian Wilson controversy during his loss to Mick Fanning in the semis as I was involved in it...although I'm still not a hundred percent sure I understand it myself. At the point of the heat when it happened, Julian was needing an 18-point-something combo. He needed two nines and some change. Mick had him on toast. With the clock getting skinny he caught two waves back-to-back, the second a good one. Working on the beach commentary, my colleague read out his first score - a 6.33 - as his second, which soon after came in as a healthy 8.43. It was a mistake, sure, but at that stage Julian needed two nines anyway...an equation that universally means you need to blow shit up, immediately. Julian, storming up to the judging tent after eventually losing the heat, said that it had thrown him off- "A six! For that?!" - and had made him surf the remaining minutes of the heat differently.
Since the genie was let out of the bottle at Margaret River, what exactly could precipitate another resurf has been a hot topic.
Without mentioning the "R" word, I read it was where the conversation was going. Since the genie was let out of the bottle at Margaret River when Taj and Bede resurfed their heat after an accidental leash pull, what exactly could precipitate another resurf has been a hot topic. Sadly for Julian, today's blooper didn't qualify. Before the start of the season I pegged Julian Wilson as the world champ this year, and from what I've seen after three events I reckon his surfing is still up to the call as long as Julian himself is.
The shadows of the Winkipop headland lengthened and from them Mick Fanning emerged flying down from Upper Lowers down to Lower Uppers. He knows this reef well and it suits him far better than Bells. Taj was a wave short at the end, and we mused as to which Rip Curl guys were going to chair Mick - as per tradition - up the thousand stairs to the car park. In the end, Mick walked them himself, stopping to chat and high five his crew, the stairs lined with captains of industry, snotty wetsuit-wearing punks, and of course the UBB, the Ultimate Bro Brah, Ryan Fletcher who had suggested it would work better if Mick were to walk up the stairs under his own steam.
His win this afternoon has again resulted in ratings roulette, Mick Moving from 11th to 3rd, and with Brazil next you can bet it's going to happen all again in a couple of weeks where we all prepare to blame it on Rio.
2014 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach Results
Final: Mick Fanning (AUS) 16.83 def. Taj Burrow (AUS) 13.46
Semifinal 1: Taj Burrow (AUS) 14.43 def. John John Florence (HAW) 13.43
Semifinal 2: Mick Fanning (AUS) 18.20 def. Julian Wilson (AUS) 17.36
Quarterfinal 1: Taj Burrow (AUS) 15.50 def. Adriano de Souza (BRA) 13.16
Quarterfinal 2: John John Florence (HAW) 13.13 def. Kelly Slater (USA) 11.10
Quarterfinal 3: Julian Wilson (AUS) 17.53 def. Joel Parkinson (AUS) 15.34
Quarterfinal 4: Mick Fanning (AUS) 13.16 def. Owen Wright (AUS) 11.37
Round 5, Heat 1: Adriano de Souza (BRA) 16.27 def. Gabriel Medina (BRA) 13.33
Round 5, Heat 2: Kelly Slater (USA) 15.26 def. Adam Melling (AUS) 12.44
Round 5, Heat 3: Julian Wilson (AUS) 17.30 def. Jordy Smith (ZAF) 17.26
Round 5, Heat 4: Owen Wright (AUS) 13.37 def. Fred Patacchia (HAW) 13.10
ASP Men’s Top 5
1: Gabriel Medina (BRA) – 19,200
2: Joel Parkinson (AUS) – 18,400
3: Mick Fanning (AUS) – 16,950
4: Kelly Slater (USA) – 16,900
5: Taj Burrow (AUS) – 16,250