First Session: The History of Bells Beach

Matt Rode

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Updated 137d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay, Huntington Beach, Germany, Tofino, Chicama, Malibu and the Maldives. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

Australia is full of waves that are steeped in history and myth, but perhaps none so much as Bells Beach. Bells is home to the world’s longest-running professional surf contest (60 years!) and also featured in many of the seminal surf films, such as The Endless Summer and Free Ride. It was also the fictional setting of the “50-Year Swell” in the original Point Break. And of course, Bells was where Simon Anderson unveiled his thruster in 1981, forever changing surf design and by extension the nature of performance surfing.

A wave that’s so historically significant offers the ultimate bragging rights to its original pioneers, but it takes a bit of work to confirm who the first surfers were to challenge the Bells Bowl. Most agree it was a pair of Torquay locals named Owen Yateman and Vic Tantau who first paddled out at Bells in the late 1940s—or perhaps we should say “paddled down to Bells,” as the boys would have had to paddle their huge, rudimentary boards six kilometres from Torquay to the lineup.

Forecast: Bells Beach

Keep in mind that Jack O’Neill was still five years from inventing the wetsuit and his son Pat decades from inventing the leash, which meant the early Bells crew had to brave the tricky, fickle sections at their newfound playground with no safety net and nothing to protect them from hypothermia.

By the early 1960s, Bells had become a staple of the Australian surfing experience—arguably the most important wave in the country. A local named Joe Sweeney bulldozed a road to the bay in 1960, and in 1962 the first Bells Beach surf contest was held. It quickly grew into the Easter Classic and began to gain more and more prestige and attention every year, with the legends of Australian surfing making “The Pilgrimage” to the spot throughout the 1960s.

In 1973, Bells became the world’s first protected surf reserve. And of course, Easter Saturday of 1981 stands out as the ultimate day at the fabled event, when Anderson took his new three-finned surfboard out into humongous Bells and made mincemeat of the rest of the competition, whose clunky single fins and skatey twins were no match for the stacked sets that poured into the point.

© 2022 - Brett Stanley.

Bells isn’t the best or easiest wave to surf on tour, but that may be precisely why it is so important. Powerful but fat and notoriously temperamental, the wave has a number of different sections and is extremely difficult to read and surf well, which is what inspired Shane Dorian to say in 1999 that “no kook has ever won Bells.” Indeed, the list of names who have rung the famous bell (the contest’s trophy is, appropriately, a big-ass bell with all the former winners’ names engraved on it) is a veritable who’s who of surfing’s best.

Simon Anderson won twice, Michael Peterson three times, and Mark Richards four. Tom Curren is a multiple-time winner, as are Sunny Garcia, Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, Pauline Menczer, Layne Beachley, Lisa Anderson, Steph Gilmore, Carissa Moore, and Courtney Conglogue. Occy’s performance during his 1998 win is still considered to be one of the greatest displays of backhand surfing ever, Nick Wood’s famously beat a stacked international field at the age of 16, and of course Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater have well-publicised love affairs with the wave, having both matched Richards in ringing the bell four times.

Gail Couper. The GOAT at Bells.

Gail Couper. The GOAT at Bells.

The ultimate boss of Bells Beach, however, is a name that many of us might not be familiar with. Gail Couper won the event 10 times between 1964 and 1976, losing only once during her record-setting streak to Vivian Campbell. Appropriately, Couper was a Torquay local and grew up surfing Bells, likely influenced by the very men who pioneered the wave back in the late 1940s. And ultimately, that says a lot about the wave. Because even though the world’s best have been coming to compete at Bells every Easter for the past six decades, the wave has always been the centre of the local Torquay surf scene—and the other 355 days of the year, it’s the locals who dominate it.