When Bells Beach welcomed the world
BY CHRISTINE BARR, TORQUAY MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS
WHILE this year’s Rip Curl Pro has unfortunately been suspended, 2020 marks 50 years since the World Titles arrived on the shores of Bells Beach.
In many ways it was the bomb that got Torquay going. Surfing up until 1970 had been a pretty casual affair. A few surfers drifted into town and stayed, not worrying too much about jobs and careers, just happy to be able to surf when there were waves. But after the Titles, it became obvious that there was more to the sport and some very clever people who were in the right place at the right time went on to grow the surf industry as we know it today.
Hosting the world titles was a big deal. Headed by Tony Olsen, the Australian Surfriders Association (ASA) led the campaign to get sponsorship money from the Bolte government. They then began the constant petition to upgrade facilities at Bells.
At the Bells Beach Easter Rally, the council would put up temporary toilets that consisted of pots surrounded by walls of hessian. The road through Jan Juc was gravel and full of potholes and the steps to the beach washed away with the tides over winter. Local politicians eventually came on board. The toilets were built, the road was fixed, and money spent to extend the beach road past Bells and Southside to Anglesea Road. A judges’ stand was erected on the cliff tops just in time for the event.
On a wintry May morning, some 89 competitors, officials and judges from 15 different countries marched down the streets of Lorne to begin the competition. They were a mixed bunch. The Puerto Ricans and South Africans wore smart blazers and ties, contrasting the hippies from Hawaii in flower power embroidered jeans. Right from the start, things began to go awry. The good surf that had been about disappeared as a horrible south-westerly brought near freezing conditions and put Bells in a very angry mood. Five of the first eight days had to be postponed. After an altercation at the Torquay pub, the USA team almost did not compete. A drug bust in Lorne that saw the youngest member of the team, 17-year-old Californian Brad McCaul, brought before the court in Geelong. The constant rain and cold meant several teams were confined to bed with the flu.
There were huge crowds at Bells on the weekends to see the stars in action, but the lack of surf meant that rather than competitive surfing, they were treated to exhibitions of trick surfing, paddle races, relays and even some tandem surfing. The busiest people all day were the car park attendants, who dragged bogged cars out of the mud.
In the end a magnificent final was held at Johanna Beach, with 18-year-old Californian goofy footer Rolf Aurness crowned champion. Rolf was the son of Hollywood movie star James Aurness, best known for playing Marshall Dillon in the long running television western Gunsmoke. Their presence in Torquay leading into the contest caused quite a stir and many in town have fond memories of the softly spoken 1970 world champion.
The most lasting consolation from the disappointment of the surf was the declaration by the Bolte government some 12 months later that Bells Beach would become nation’s first surfing reserve. This magnificent decision driven by the ASA means today we are all able to enjoy Bells today as wild and wonderful as free of development as it was
For more details, pick up the Torquay Museum Without Walls History Matters magazine from Torquay Newsagency, or request a digital version by emailing [email protected].