On opening morning, Hells Bells didn't play. An executive decision, apparently.
This most traditional of surfing events dictates – as written on a centuries-old parchment made of human skin – that the first heat of each day starts with AC/DC's paint-stripping rock classic played at full volume. It loosens rocks from the Bells cliff and it's been that way since Angus Young was a boy. Instead, they played Bryan Adams' Summer of '69. People freaked. It was sacrilegious. They might as well have played Celine Dion's cover of AC/DC's Shook Me All Night Long. If Angus Young were dead – something he flatly refuses to do – he would have been rolling in his grave. It was a sign.
Would this taboo curse the event?
Surely, with the swell forecast stacked up the way it is, day after day after day of it, they couldn't screw it up.
The guys in the event thought they screwed up two days ago, when they sent the women out instead, and it pumped. What started out as a morning of fun three-footers for the girls turned into an afternoon of pulsing eight-foot sets that no one saw coming. There were sets within sets. Dog Marsh counted 43 set waves in a 30-minute heat. The guys watched on grinding their teeth as wave after wave stormed through unridden.
Instead, the men started yesterday morning, two days later, on a swell that was thumping the Cape Sorrell buoy overnight but showed up yesterday morning flogging the Bells Bowl like wet lettuce. The swell was westerly and weak, but it's the Easter weekend, and the crowds are in town, so the show went on, with Mick Fanning just sitting out there contemplating life for most of his heat. He was waiting for waves that never came. Mick later reckoned the one six-pointer he caught was good for a four at best.
Mick's full-time return to the Tour after surviving the shark has been every bit as unlucky as he was lucky back in J-Bay. Mick's looked fresh but has lost by 0.1 and 0.01 early on in the first two events. The guy can't buy a break, and after craving anonymity after a tumultuous couple of years in the public eye, he's suddenly getting his wish as Owen's comeback and John John's surfing at Margarets have blotted out the sun.
Wilko won Mick's heat, and of the five heats run at Bells yesterday morning, goofyfooters won four as the great re-engineering of the Tour continues. Wilko won Bells last year, but before that, it had been almost 20 years since Occy won as a goofy…and now you can't stop the bastards.
The big question heading into Bells was whether John Florence will drop 19-point heat scores in every heat between now and his second world title, sometime in July this year. The feeling among every hyperbolic, wheezy hack has been: you bet! But so fickle is the modern surfing public, so short is the news cycle, that the furious praise of Johnny's surfing in Margarets will disappear on the breeze if he doesn't deliver something equally game-changing at Bells. What happens when he doesn't blow our tiny minds?
The key to John's tectonic Margaret River performance was a wave that pushed back. John becomes half the surfer when he needs to generate his own speed – he's never had to grovel and flatly refuses to do it – and as he watched on from the Bells stairs mid-morning dressed in head-to-toe black, hidden in a hoodie, and with a foppish blonde fringe the only distinguishing feature, he saw a lineup that wasn't pushing back. God knows what he might have done if the guys had surfed on the eight-foot afternoon, but yesterday morning, The Bowl was running on fumes.
But just as he was preparing for his heat, however, he got the news his heat was moving over to Winkipop.
The first wave of the Florence era didn't exactly fill his disciples with hope.
He nosedived like a weekend warrior from Melbourne, but they didn't have to wait long for a bit of Johnny's dial-a-magic. He found a juicy little section on his next wave and launched into a giant forehand spinner, the likes of which he kept on ice in Western Australia. Didn't need 'em. John actually fell behind late in the heat to Jeremy Flores. He was only behind for 20 seconds, though, as on the following wave he repeated his first wave, this time with both barrels. John could have won with a safe six, but instead chased a nine.
Jeremy came in, and it's not often you see the Frenchman effervescent after a close loss, but out of curiosity he asked the guys on the Winki stairs, "What did he do?" They began excitedly re-enacting John's turns and Jeremy shook his head and laughed. It was all he could do. "F**k, he's an animal." The guys he surfs against are fans, maybe even bigger fans than the rest of us right now. He doesn't give us a choice.
I ran into Kelly Slater ordering coffee at the local café yesterday morning. He didn't exactly look comfortable walking into the packed room, although he rarely does look in his element down here. Despite having won Bells more than any man alive, he feels the place remains loaded against him. He walked out drinking his coffee…and pulled a foot-long hair out of it. Before his heat yesterday, he rationalized that the long pointbreak of Winki surfed more like a beachbreak, the idea of surfing down the point an illusion as it fell in three distinct sections, and he surfed it that way. He surfs Winki better than Bells and looked sharp enough yesterday, maybe the best he's looked all year, without creating any kind of hysteria.
In fact, the best 40-plus surfer yesterday might have been Glyndyn Ringrose, the 44-year-old from Phillip Island who became the first surfer to ride a surfboard they'd shaped themselves in a Tour heat since, well, himself, back when he was last back on Tour in the year 2000. I put the question to flatmate, Nick Carroll, and he went as far back as Terry Richardson…who coincidentally turned up at Bells yesterday after driving 10 hours from his home in Wollongong, keen to check it all out again. But surfing your own board in a heat? The very thought of a modern pro surfer being given a blank and told to go for it is laughable on every level. Imagine an event where they all had to do it. It'd be a clown factory. Ringa would be world champ. So to have him not only in the field, not only riding his own board – but ripping! – reconnects the event to a time when guys would take weeks to shape their Bells boards, then take weeks to drive down the coast with them on the roof.
I thought the move to Winki would work in the favor of rookie, Ethan Ewing. In January, I watched him surf Adder – a long, thin sand point back home on North Stradbroke Island – and the way he surfed both light and heavy, linking and spritzing down the line, made me believe he'd do something here at Bells, despite, somehow, never having surfed here before. He's such an outlier from the system here in Australia, having jumped from the juniors to the Tour in one year, that when he pulled up in the car park overlooking both Bells and Winki, he watched one, then watched the other, then asked, "Which one's Bells?" He surfed great, but ironically got beaten by the surfer with the heaviest feet in the event – Tahitian Michel Bourez.
Ewing now draws Fanning in the next round, ensuring one of them will be having a really, really deflating start to the year despite having deserved better.
Phil Toledo was the guy yesterday. He had no right to make the semis at bombing Margarets, but these long, thin, weak walls were made for him, and he didn't let us down. Winkipop by this stage was looking a lot like Snapper did the year he won and he surfed in half the gravity of everyone else. He surfed like Angus Young plays an SG. I hope Phil surfs his next heat dressed as a schoolboy.
Does he stand in the way of an irresistible Florence victory? In a year when The Summer of '69 is the new anthem for Bells, anything is possible.