GARY Dunne was well into his career reporting on surfing before he experienced the Rip Curl Pro in person, but now more than three decades on, what he dubbed “surfing’s Wimbledon” has formed a central part of his life.
It was 1989 when Gary first set foot on the surfing mecca to cover the Rip Curl Pro.
He had seen Bells Beach before on film and in surfing magazines, including Tracks where he was deputy editor at the time. But when he arrived, he was still taken by its aura.
Years on, it is a feeling Gary has not been able to shake.
“Even having lived here for 25 years now, it is really a beautiful and special place. I’ve travelled the world thanks to my job at Rip Curl, but there is no place like it.”
What is different to when Gary first descended the stairs at Bells Beach is the memories the place now holds for him.
In the mid-1990s, Gary was hired as team manager at Rip Curl, and subsequently worked with many of the talented surfers the brand sponsored. This included the likes of Mick Fanning, Stephanie Gilmore and Joel Parkinson, who all went on to win the Rip Curl Pro on multiple occasions.
Gary said being able to help guide the gifted youngsters on their way to becoming some of surfing’s finest was very rewarding.
“I was fortunate to be mentored at Rip Curl by one of the founders, Doug Warbrick. He loved pro surfing and loved competition surfing.
“His passion for it and his passion for helping the young surfers realise their ambitions was something that he passed onto me and something that I got a lot of personal gratification from.
“It was great to be able to help those young people essentially grow up and show them the support for what they were trying to do.”
Gary said this made it all the more satisfying when the surfers he had supported achieved their ambitions.
“It was special working with Mick from when he was a teen and through to when he became an equal record-holding winner.
“Stephanie Gilmore as well. I got to work with her from her early teens, and similar to Mick, having come to Bells a lot as a junior and learning to read the waves, she then emerged as such a dominant champion at Bells and on the world stage.”
Fanning’s victory in 2001 is one Gary recalls with particular fondness.
“2001 was a fantastic year as it was when Mick Fanning won as a wildcard. It was the moment he announced himself to the world.
“He was not quite 19 at the time. He’d competed in the event the two years previous but not gotten past the third round.
“The surf was pretty good and he just lit it up. He has some pretty close heats and beat someone who was one of his childhood heroes, Danny Wills, in the final. Mick well and truly validated Rip Curl’s sponsorship of him then.”
Fanning’s fairytale victory was also indicative of the testing nature of Bells.
Gary says the unique conditions make local knowledge and firsthand experience of the beach critical.
“Mick had a number of years competing here at Pro Junior Events and of course the two prior years as a wildcard as well. He really just had a great run and showed the benefits of the preparation and the time he spent there.
“More than anything, it’s a tricky wave to ride and a tricky wave to read. Where you have to sit to kick off and get the best waves, a lot of locals would tell you that there’s a particular point you need to line up. But that varies depending on the size of the swell.
“So it just takes that awareness of where you’ve got to be to get the best waves.”
Yet the testing nature of the surf is just one aspect that makes Bells Beach unique.
Gary said the spectacle it provided for fans was unparalleled.
“It’s an old cliché the commentators used to use, but the natural amphitheatre of Bells Beach is just breathtaking.
“Another great thing about the competition is the access to the surfers. The kids can go out and go surfing with the world’s best. That’s priceless for the kids that grow up here.”
What Bells Beach offers to the locals Gary believes is reciprocated in the care people show for the iconic part of Australia’s coast.
“That is one of the great attributes of the local community: their advocacy on behalf of the area.
“In the time I was with Rip Curl, the lengths to which Surfing Victoria and Rip Curl went to ensure that the only thing left after the event were the footprints on the sand were really significant.”
These efforts have continued in the years since Gary left Rip Curl to work at the Australian National Surfing Museum. At the 2019 Rip Curl Pro, 73 per cent was diverted away fromnlandfill.
The 2020 Rip Curl Pro has unfortunately been postponed due to the coronavirus. When the world’s best surfers take to the shores of Bells once more, it will be a joyful sight for many.