The road to Bells

April 7, 2022 BY

Bob 'Boobs' Johnson, Bells Beach local and pioneer. Photos: TIM LAMACRAFT

Bob ‘Boobs’ Johnson was about 13 when he first surfed Bells Beach in the early 1960s on a borrowed board and wiped out, “I got one wave and that was it, it was huge swell.”

Peter Troy was out in the surf that day, Bob remembers, who along with Vic Tantau helped stage the first surf comp at Bells in 1962. Together they were some of the region’s first board makers and surfing world’s pioneers.

When he again makes the trek down to Bells in a few days’ time to catch the 59th Rip Curl Pro, Bob will be one of few in attendance who’ll have been to every comp since it all began, and almost certainly the only one to have a break near Bells – Boobs – named after him.

“Surfing was just a very, very small sport then … you never heard anything about it. Surf Lifesaving was, but surfing wasn’t. The only people surfing back in those days were in southern California, Hawaii, and we had it in Sydney and Melbourne.”

The reason people were surfing in Australia was thanks to a group of Americans out for the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne who came to the coast equipped with the design of a shorter board than that being used locally.

Bells pioneers reunite in 1994: (From left) Dick Garrard (Senior), Ed Beacham, Bryan Poynton (crouching), Ray Wilson, Neil Inglis (crouching), Joe Sweeney, Bob Johnson, and Brian Loudon.

“It wasn’t very good for surfing on the old 16-footers, and then the ’56 games came along, the Americans came for a surfing competition at Torquay and they wanted Malibus which we then started to use, and that’s how Malibus were introduced to Victoria, and for that matter Australia as they went up to Sydney as well,” Bob said.

“You couldn’t ride a 16-footer at Bells but on Malibus you could. Then Vic Tantau, he was from Brighton way, he started making Malibus.

“He was Victorian surfboard champion for paddling, for surf lifesaving … he used to make surfboards out the back of where Doc Hughes is now (Torquay Esplanade), that’s back in the ’50s, early ’60s.

“You gotta remember it wasn’t big business in those days, you would have been lucky to have 50-100 people in the whole of Victoria surfing.

“If you asked people where Bells Beach was 50 years ago, no one would know.

Bob Johnson flicks through Michael Gordon’s 2011 history Bells: the beach, the contest, the surfers.

“It used to take us half-an-hour to get from what’s the Jarosite Road now to the Southside carpark, we used to walk down from there.

“It was a real different ball game then because it was a real event getting to Bells Beach, particularly before Joe put the track in.”

Joe Sweeney was an enterprising surfer who paid someone with a machine to put in a track from Jan Juc to Bells, not far from the bitumen road that’s there now.

“We all put a quid in, 30 of us did … it was still very hard, took us a long time to get there, because of a lot of mud on it, up and down and during winter you’d be risking not getting back again,” Bob said.

“Bells is without a doubt one of the best surf beaches in this country … we’ve got some of the best waves in the world.

“It’s not as big as some of the stuff overseas, but it’s pretty good swell.”