The greatest contest ever - Bells Beach Easter 1965

Surfing World editorial by Bob Evans owner and founder
“Surfing contests come and go but seldom do contestants get the benefit of really good surf. I have been to two World Contests and four International Championships, plus innumerable meets in Australia and without reservation the Bells Beach contest on Easter weekend presented the most impressive surf ever.
With a 15 ’ ground swell lining up way out to sea, consistent power sets rolled up from Bass Straight. Definately a dangerous sea and beyond the capabilities of the average rider, it was nevertheless a great test.
The waves though close to ideal for big surf, were complicated by a savage rip tide which almost caused loss of life.
Presence of mind and a measure of good on the side of the surfers in danger saved a tragedy.
It could be a long time before a surf like this will turn up when there are so many good in the water.
New Surfing World Barrie Sutherland was on hand at Bells and provided our complete and graphic coverage”

Bob Evans, founder and editor Surfing World magazine

About this gallery

I've taken this story from my memoirs which I've been writing for many years. Enjoy!

“Bells Beach on Easter Sunday 1965 is legendary. The Melbourne Sun–Herald called it ‘Bells Beach Boomers’ while many of the surfing crew simply called it, “The hell swell”.

The story begins on the Wednesday prior to Easter when offshore northerlies had blown out the swell. Since there was no internet and the broad range of swell forecasting that is available today, I used the synoptic charts in the daily newspapers to track and forecast swell. I learned much from the experience. The weather charts were showing a series of intense low pressure systems, deep in the Southern Ocean south-west of the Great Australian Bight. The indicators were clear, we were going to have NW to W winds with a very strong swell for Easter, beginning late Good Friday. Little did I imagine what was about to explode into Bells and become an experience we might never see again. Was it a 50yr, 100yr or more, a once in a lifetime swell? I had no idea!

John Panozzo and I planned our usual early morning start for Good Friday, leaving pre-dawn for the coast, about 15minutes to Torquay via Torquay Road (as it was named then). We arrived at Bells about 6:30am to check the weather conditions for our next move. The wind was blowing briskly from the north across the face of small 1metre waves off Rincon. While a few surfers were out struggling to get waves, the interstate surfers were camped in their vehicles in the car park, most having driven down from Sydney overnight. We quickly left, heading down the coast to Spout Creek and Eastern View, knowing we'd find small surfable waves there. On the incoming tide we surfed small waves at Spout Creek until mid-day, when the wind swung north-west and freshened. Within an hour, swell lines began to appear. We agreed, with the wind now NW, Bells would start to kick in on the falling evening tide. As we drove back along the coast, we could see that every set was building on the previous one. Swell lines were appearing across the ocean, far out into Bass Strait. It was alive with swell! When we arrived back at Bells the line-up from Rincon through to the Bowl was packed with surfers. All signs were there for bigger waves over the next 24 hours.

Saturday morning dawned and we were greeted with a very powerful groundswell that increased wave height to about 4 metres. By noon the wind had swung to the west and was getting stronger by the hour. The Bells contest was under way as the low-pressure systems intensified in the deep Southern Ocean generating a SW swell at a perfect 225 degrees ruuning straight into Bass Strait past Cape Otway and up the coast towards Bells. From the cliff top there were corduroy lines of swell across the ocean to the horizon, with very little let up between sets. The swell kept intensifying and building like I had never seen before.

Sunday morning John and I arrived about 7:00am. As we drove along the Bells track we could see the swell lines and massive spray plums from breaking waves further out to sea than we'd ever seen before. When we arrived at the carpark, parked and walked over to the cliff edge we saw it. Massive swells pushing into a crisp north-westerly breeze building into waves we only ever dreamed of seeing in the Bowl. I have a colour slide taken from the top of the cliff above Winky Pop looking back to Bells and the lines of swell. It’s all white water from Winky Pop through the Bowl to Rincon. The shore break is literally out at the normal take-off point in the Bowl! Only those who have surfed Bells know what this slide means. I quickly exhausted the colour film and swapped to black and white -- the first shot I took was this one of Roger Falahey scratching up the face of a massive Bells wall. Everyone on the cliff top literally gasped and howled. This is probably the biggest wave ever photographed at Bells. Conservative estimates place the wave height at 30 feet – Roger’s board was 10’ long, so you can scale it from there. Years later we asked Roger what he was thinking of as he frantically paddled up the face. His quick reply - “I was hoping there wasn’t an even bigger one behind it!” Fortunately for him there wasn’t. It was ground-breaking stuff and set the scene for a new era at Bells.

Within a few days I had my negatives developed and small prints done. I had to wait another week for the colour transparencies to arrive from the processing labaoratory. I was delighted with the results, given I'd only had several frames of colour film left and one roll of 24 exposure B&W film. I immediately commenced a draft of my Bells Contest feature for Surfing World Magazine.The rest is history!”

© copyright Barrie Sutherland.

The Contest