A brief history of Bells Beach benchmarks

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The Easter Classic at Bells Beach in Australia is running for the 52nd time this week. For more than 35 years now it’s also been known as the Rip Curl Pro, and since the birth of the ASP World Tour in 1976, this event has been part of the world title race every single year. No other event on tour can make that claim. Zip. Zero. Nada.

The tiny town of Torquay is to surfing what Cooperstown is to baseball. The hallowed lineup, iconic trophy, and abundant history of monumental clashes at Bells give it its lofty place in surfing tradition. Add the most devoted and knowledgeable surf fans on the planet and you begin to understand why ringing the renowned Bells trophy is so meaningful.

“It’s the only trophy in pro surfing that actually matters,” Mark Richards told Tracks magazine back in 2011. The four-time world champion was a dominant player at Bells on his twin fins in the late ’70s, when he began collecting his four Bells trophies. “If you walk in a pro surfer’s house 20 years after his career has ended I reckon it’s the only trophy that’s still visible.”

It’s worth noting that back when the tour began, Bells Beach fit nicely into the “dream wave” category. Today, places like Tavarua, Teahupoo, and J-Bay have knocked it down a few pegs. But when swells come marching out of the Southern Ocean, Bells can still produce a stellar show. Its wide-open faces are a big blank slate for the world’s best surfers to carve their initials on. And to this day, nothing separates the men from the boys like rail carving.

To illustrate that point let’s revisit the famous 1986 clash between Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo.

Their surfing still stands the test of time. Note the complete lack of board chatter as they lean into their extended bottom turns, an art that’s nearly lost. Their full wraps and authoritative lip bashing are even more impressive when you consider this was 26 years ago (and Curren’s “black beauty”––which suffered an untimely death on California’s 405 freeway––was 2 3/4 inches thick).

What’s often forgotten about the Occy vs. Curren clash was that it was for all the marbles. (For a brief period in the ’80s the tour ended during the Aussie leg.) Curren clinched his first of three ASP world championships with the win, ending a decade of Aussie dominance. His ascension to the top of the surfing world ignited an American revival, plotting a course for a wide-eyed 14-year-old named Kelly Slater.

Today, 41-year-old Slater has four Bells trophies to go with his 11 ASP world championships. Yet during last year’s final (an instant classic) even the best aerial of his life couldn’t get him past Mick Fanning’s lightning-quick carves. And despite what happens this week (and there’s little doubt we’re in for some more fireworks when looking at the swell forecast) their killer 2012 clash is one we’ll still be talking about 25 years from now. Below is a list of the most influential Bells benchmarks.

The Top 10 Bells Beach benchmarks

1) 1981 – Simon says “let there be three”
Simon Anderson validates his new three-fin Thruster by blazing through the early rounds in perfect 15-foot surf on his new setup. Conditions are the best ever witnessed for the event, topping the epic Easter swell of 1965. He marches forward to defeat Cheyne Horan at small Rincon in the final, showing off the thruster’s versatility. Thirty years later his design is still dominant on tour.

 

2) 1986 – Curren defeats Occy to claim America’s first world title
The famous Tom Curren vs. Mark Occhilupo semifinal clash decides the ASP world title, as Curren becomes the first American to win a championship in the modern era. Two-time world champion Tom Carroll would defeat Curren in the final, numbing his pain of having to hand over the crown to an American. Cold war tensions between the two surf-crazed nations hit their peak, and pro surfing takes off.
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3) 1975 – The Black Wizard of Bells strikes again
Michael Peterson takes his third-straight Rip Curl Pro at Bells, cementing his legacy as the most dominant surfer of the day. MP’s performances in the water were matched only by his colorful exploits on land, and his bad-boy persona established him as the central figure in Bells’ folklore. Today, his grip on the event’s history remains. This week, on the one-year anniversary of his untimely passing, the Rip Curl Pro was put on hold so Peterson’s ashes could be spread in the Bells Beach lineup. To watch MP rip Bells click here
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4) 1978 – Beware of the Wounded Gull
In perfect 6-foot surf on the bowl, Mark Richards lacerates the long walls of Bells on his new Free Ride twin fin to take the first of his four Rip Curl Pro championships. Richards’ utter dominance on the twin (and Bells) would lead to mass conversion to the design that lasted for the bulk of his four-year reign. “I felt like it would go anywhere I was capable of putting it,” he said.
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Click here for more of MR’s thoughts on Bells

 

5) 2012 – Lightening vs. Thunder
Mick Fanning defeats Kelly Slater in an epic final-day clash, just days after his fellow Gold Coast hero (and three time Bells winner) Michael Peterson passes away. Fans around the world get to witness two of their favorite world champions, at the peak of their game, go toe to toe in solid conditions. Even Slater’s incredible aerial reverse (“The best one of my life,” he said afterward) isn’t enough to stop Fanning’s blazing rail work.

 

6) 1998 – The resurrection of Occy
A dozen years after his epic semifinal clash with Tom Curren, Mark Occhilupo emerges recharged and ready to rip after a three-year spiral into drugs, depression, and weight gain. His stellar backhand attack at Bells is sharper than ever, and launches a remarkable comeback that would lead him all the way to his ASP world championship in 1999. After taking Bells, he goes on to win a specialty skins event there, taking 11 heats in a row. Occy’s backhand remains the benchmark at Bells. He’s the last goofyfooter to win there.

 

7) 2011 – Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning delight the faithful
In the 50th running of the Easter Classic, the Bells faithful in Torquay are awarded a stellar all-Aussie final between two Kings of Carve: Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning. In pumping 6- to 8-foot surf the two Gold Coast mates thrill the crowd in an epic showdown. Parkinson ices the victory (his third at Bells) with a 10.0 in the closing moments of the heat.

 

8) 2002 – Andy and Sunny make it a Hawaiian Holiday
After defeating Mark Occhilupo in the semifinals, Andy Irons joins Sunny Garcia (a three-time winner of the Rip Curl Pro) in the first (and only) all-Hawaiian final. Irons’ blend of rail work and timely tail throws honors the best of old and new school approaches at Bells Beach, and helps propel him toward his first ASP world championship.

Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach: One on one with Andy… by broadbandsports

 

9) 1965 – The legend of big Bells Beach bombers begins

Perfect 10-foot waves bear down on Torquay during the fifth year of the fledgling Bells Beach Easter Rally. Competitors without wetsuits took to the lineup on their longboards, giving it their best. Most were smashed just trying to get through the Bells’ onslaught. A handful of epic rides are made, however, and the legend of the Bells Beach bombers begins.

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10) 1987 – Wonderboy
One year after Curren removed the ASP world championship trophy from Australia at Bells, the Lucky Country responded by way of a 16-year-old upstart named Nicky Wood. Wood entered as a wildcard, and quickly sent Curren packing in Round One. He then marched on to win the whole thing, becoming the youngest surfer to ever win an elite ASP event. While the Aussies held high hopes for Wood, today he’s one of the sport’s biggest cautionary tales, after a detour into drugs ended his career prematurely.
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