The Bell

Chart­ing the his­tor y of surf ing’s most mythol­o­gised tro­phy.

Tracks - - Curious Species - By Phil Jar­ratt.

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.

Photo cour­tesy of Jeff Sweeney.

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.

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