Charting the histor y of surf ing’s most mythologised trophy.
You only have to look at Jordy Smith’s theatrical and presumptuous bellringing stunt halfway through the final of the Rip Curl Pro this year to realise how much the best surfers in the world want to ring that bloody bell.
This writer thought that Jordy’s antics were funny, cheeky and entertaining, much like the man himself, but you only have to look at the way social media lit up in shock and horror to realise that pretty much the whole pointy end of the pro surfing world regards The Bell as some sort of sacred icon, which is pretty funny, considering the event’s scruffy beginnings, but also understandable, given what it has become.
Should the WSL follow through on its Trump-like threat to eliminate one of the three Australian world tour events for next year, in the interests of restoring balance and stability to the Free World, it would be unwise, and perhaps fatal, to point the gun at Bells, but should that happen, rest assured The Bell will be rung loud and clear, a clarion call to action.
The Bell has come to represent far more than the trophy presented to the winners of the world’s longest-running surfing event, which in itself is fairly impressive. It is even more than the much-quoted “most coveted trophy on tour”. It has come to represent the measure of a surfer. You can win as many world titles as you like, but you haven’t really stepped up unless you’ve proven yourself in this strange and challenging array of Southern Ocean power, unless you’ve rung The Bell.
Odd then, that so little is known by most surfers about the origins of The Bell. In his Bells 50th anniversary book, Michael Gordon writes: “Like almost every significant detail concerning surfing at Bells, the question of who came up with the idea of having a bell for the trophy is the subject of conjecture. Was it Tony Olsson, who was running the contest and had an eye for the big picture? Was it Midget Farrelly, who saw the attraction of having something as authentic as a carved wooden trophy at Makaha? Or was it John Witzig, who hatched the idea over a glass of champagne at the Torquay Hotel? In all likelihood, it was all three.”
Maybe, although beyond about 1965, it is unlikely that those three gentlemen ever sat down for a drink together, and it is equally unlikely that you could get a glass of champagne at the Torquay pub, then or now, even in the enlightened
Pawson era. Witzig, the only survivor of the trio, has no recollection of coming up with the idea, or even brainstorming it, although he says that “it’s the kind of thing I might have come up with after a few glasses.”
In any case, no one did anything about it until 1968, when Rod Brooks, a multiple Victorian junior champion and a 1965 Bells finalist in the biggest surf to date (perhaps ever) was assigned the task, because he was an apprentice cabinetmaker, of producing the first trophies. Brooko wisely turned it into a class project at Prahran Tech, with students sharing the load of producing the bases from wood offcuts, while the bells themselves were sourced from a factory near the Big O’s Melbourne Surf Shop.
The early Bells were pretty rough but everyone loved them. When Rod Brooks graduated the buck passed to local
carpenters, then to boardbuilder Fred Pyke, and finally to Joe Sweeney, a pioneer Bells surfer, champion swimmer and Olympic wrestler (Melbourne, 1956) who also happened to teach physical education and woodwork at Geelong Tech. There are many fascinating stories about the Bells pioneers, but none is better than Joe’s.
When I interviewed him at his home about 20 years ago, he had recently retired, and had sorted out all his memorabilia and displayed it around the house. He took great pride in walking me through his life. In 1951, already a champion swimmer, he was invited to train with Torquay’s elite surf-swimming squad and moved to town. He soon became part of the 16-footer brigade, riding his toothpick out front of the surf club, or paddling around to Point Danger or recentlydiscovered Bells Beach. Bells proved a tricky wave to ride on a toothpick, but after the introduction of the Malibu chip “shortboard” during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Torquay crew started to feel better equipped for it.
“But Bells was such a bugger to get to,” Joe told me. “There was a rough track, but if it rained you’d never get out!” He investigated a more direct route following an old coach road, and sought council permission to grade it. “No, Joe,” said the council bloke. “You want to widen an existing road. Less paperwork.”
Joe Sweeney hired a bulldozer for 30 quid, carved out a track, then sat by his handiwork and charged a toll until he had his money back.
Joe and the other pioneers were none too happy when Peter Troy and Vic Tantau started advertising a big New Year contest at Bells in 1962, but by the mid-1970s, with the Rip Curl Bells Pro one of the major stops on the new pro tour, they started to take pride in it. A fastidious and excellent woodworker, Joe was able to express his pride in the creation of beautiful trophies over more
than 30 years. “It gives you a buzz when you see them ring that bell, there’s no doubt about it,” he told the Geelong Advertiser in 2011. “It’s an honour to be involved with the competition and to see it grow from a backyard affair has been amazing.”
Before Joe passed away in 2016, he handed over the task of creating The Bell to his son Jeff Sweeney, a highly accomplished Bells surfer himself and a respected veteran of the Torquay surf industry, now running Quiksilver’s snow sports division. A couple of weeks after the Bells event Sweens told me: “I actually made a bell for the WSL office three years ago, which was like a test I suppose, and I’ve made them for the event the last two years. Dad had faith in my woodworking skills, but he kept an eye on the quality just in case, and he was happy with the first display bell for WSL, which was a proud moment in the handover process.
Sweens says he’s made a few subtle changes to Joe’s design: “Being a boat builder by trade I used flush blackwood plugs to cover the top screws like a boat deck finish, I sprayed the varnish to give it a quality finish, and I might have snuck the family brand on the bottom. It’s been a ritual I’ve watched from arm’s length for the last 30 years, and I’m proud to continue the legacy that Rod Brooks and Dad created.”
But does he wish the winners would go a bit easier on them?
Sweens has a cackle. “Well I was sweating a bit when they both kept shaking the hell out of it. The commentators urge them on and it’s become like a gauge of their stoke level to show the world how hard they can ring that thing.”
Photo: Nolan. Left: Remember – you only get to ring it if you win it.
Bottom Left: The handover: Bell craftsmen, Joe and Jeff Sweeney in 2015. Bottom Right: The latest version of Sweeney & Sons’ exquisitely handcrafted and much-coveted bell.