Blackhawk Down at Bells Beach
Behind the scenes at the Rip Curl Pro
Pulling out onto the Great Ocean Road the other morning I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the future. It was a silver Delorean, late ‘80s model, which had materialized back from the future and was now sitting tight on my bumper. When it pulled back enough for me to get a get a look at the lisence plate, it read “MCFLY 8”. I shit you not. The oldest surf contest on Tour was about to meet the future of pro surfing, and I took the Delorean sitting on my ass as a sign… although at that stage I just wasn’t quite sure what it was telling me.
The first rounds of both men’s and women’s in the days since proved that, at Bells anyway, the more things change the more they stay the same. This wave has the power to make some surfers look like they’re still surfing in 1985. No matter what plan you have for it, it can dismantle your reasoning totally, confuse you totally, screw up your plan and throw it back in your face. As testimony to this, both Kelly Slater and Joel Parkinson, who hold seven Bells trophies between them and are the two most successful Bells surfers of the modern era, both scratched their way to unconvincing last-second wins yesterday. Kelly managed to squeak past Kolohe Andino with a marginal three-pointer, the decision prompting Kolohe to demolecularise his surfboard in the surfers’ area, walk past Kelly without shaking his hand, then give a free assessment of the score to the judges as he stormed off. The debrief was still going down yesterday afternoon with Snips Parsons and head judge Richie Porta throwing the score back and forth.
This morning dawned a classic of the genre. Easter Sunday at Bells was four-foot on a 16-second period, long and lined and damn near beautiful. Bells looked flawless as the dawn ink bled out, but once the heats started it was clear that perfect Bells is, in many ways, actually harder to surf than chowdery Bells. The better it gets the weirder it gets. The wave has no discernible rhythm, so trying to match its rhythm is tough. It can be like trying to dance with a corpse.
The first heat of the day proved just that when Michel Bourez, fresh off a win in Margaret River, lost to Glenn Hall who is fresh of sitting on a lounge for a year with a broken back. “Micro” had been awake since four o’clock this morning, his back still so calcified and stiff that he needs to stretch for two hours before he can even surf. He got out there and picked the better waves and his win felt righteous. He’d broken his back on the Restaurants reef in the middle of an ASP event last year and yet somehow was overlooked for an ASP wildcard spot on tour this year. Just as Michel had been a shock winner last week in Margaret River, he was a shock loser here at Bells… and he won’t be the last. Strap in for the strange here in coming days.
If you’d looked carefully on the broadcast this morning, as the drone cameras shot wide panoramas of the Bells headland, you would never have noticed a slim figure in blue jeans and a hoodie standing on the low tide reef at Rincon, indistinguishable from the thousands of sports-mad Victorians who were flooding down to Bells Beach on Easter Sunday. As waves ran down the reef and surfers flew down the line, he stood there in bare feet on the carpet of bubble wrap seaweed making a phone call, presumably back home to the east coast of the United States. Standing anonymous amongst a few dozen early morning surf fans was Dirk Ziff, the mysterious billionaire backer of pro surfing who has quietly slipped into town to check out for the first time exactly what it is he now owns.
Your correspondent’s request for an audience with the mysterious Ziff was met with a polite chuckle from the official channels. Dirk don’t do press. It was here last year at Bells that his name first popped up in conversation as the sport’s new owner, but in that year we still haven’t learned anything much else about why he’s forked out what’s reported to be $40 million to bankroll this thing.
Billionaires in Australia have a tendency to be larger than life, huge, cartoonish characters who create their own weather and attempt to leave their imprint on the national identity. Mind you, we’ve only got a handful and most of them have made their money simply by selling dirt to Asia, but the American variety have a tendency to make money from money and happily stay out of the public eye. Dirk spent the afternoon with his family sitting in a modest demountable building behind a closed door, watching the ancient ritual play out in front of him… rebranded, repackaged, and in search of a new audience.
The new owners are banking on making surfing a sport. Like, a real sport. One with flying robot cameramen, and a mahogany desk for its announcers. In Victoria, they have found fertile ground, for here life is sport. Just pick up the Sunday newspaper and read in 20 pages from both front and back and all you’ll get is sport. Sport, sport, sport. Even art is classed as a sport here, and the VIP areas here are crawling with football stars and big-time jockeys and racing car drivers, all of whom are avid surfers and have helped cross this humble surfing event over into the mainstream conscience here in Victoria. The Rip Curl Pro is big news here; as big as the F1 Grand Prix and the AFL grand final and the Melbourne Cup horse race. For the past two days the road into the event has been closed mid-afternoon with the “full house” sign up, the event sold out, every square inch of sand occupied by engaged and knowledgeable punters, few of whom actually surf. While strong pockets of resistance to the whole ideology of pro surfing still thrive in other parts of the world, Bells continues to be a flagship of surfing as a sport. If the new owners of pro surfing could pack this crowd up and take them to Trestles, all their dreams would come true.
The last time I’d seen Adriano de Souza in town was the night after he’d become the first Brazilian – and the least likely surfer ever – to ring the Bells trophy. He was at the Bird Rock Café late that night and still had the trophy with him. Despite the perpetual Bells trophy being taller than him, so furiously had Adriano rung it that afternoon that he’d shaken the thing to pieces and at Bird Rock he was ringing the shit out of the replica he’d been given, howling at the moon. It was a victory of will. He was the least likely winner in Bells history because here was a short-arc beachbreak surfer who employed the tactic of surfing vertically – north-to-south – when Bells is traditionally a down the line, east-to-west wave. And yet for years Adriano has turned up here at Bells weeks before the contest and not only learned the wave, but founded a whole new approach to it. It’s the angry inch. He can make small moments on this wave count more than anyone else, and his heat this morning proved that, as unfashionable as he might be amongst this roster of overpaid and over-marketed superstars, he goes into Bells as one of the favorites.
The girls paddled out at Rincon this afternoon on an incoming tide and as the shadows lengthened under the cliffs and Carissa Moore dispatched local wildcard Zoe Clark, the future collided with the past here at Bells Beach. The camera drone that has been hovering menacingly above the break all week here at Bells, providing the fresh perspective the event broadcast promised at the start of the season, sputtered and lost altitude and crashed without so much as a whimper into the ocean, right about where Dirk Ziff had been standing on the reef at low tide earlier that morning. Blackhawk down. The machine flailed on the surface momentarily, before the lights went out, the rotors stopped spinning, and the whole thing sunk to the bottom, dead. As this report is posted it is still lying on the ocean floor, this wonder of modern technology wedged into a 10,000-year old rock shelf, useless, a curious octopus eyeing it off as a potential home.