Bells: That annual surfing festival that drips in nostalgia, tradition and history. The Godfather of this annual gathering of the tribe is arguably Simon Anderson.  Ever since Simon slayed maxing Bells on his revelatory thruster in 81, he has been the most revered figure in the hallowed Bells space.  

When I rolled in to town yesterday, Simon was at Swell café slugging back a coffee alongside his wife, Sharon, and Cooper Chapman. Swell is popular amongst the pros and Bells icons­. With its sleek wooden features, sophisticated but hearty menu and stellar coffee it’s a good place to take refuge between heats and on lay days.

Simon, as per usual, was the epitome of stoic dignity. Just to look at he has the imperiousness of Caesar. Mind you, the serious exterior masks a razor sharp wit.

One can’t help but think it must get a little weary being Simon Anderson at Bells. Fulfilling the expectations of those who want their icons to be larger than life figures. Perhaps Simon would be happier surfing his own tropical island that he’d paid for with royalty cheques (which of course he never got) from the thruster. Instead he was at Bells because if it’s Easter and you’re part of this great tradition that’s what you do. Apparently Narrabeen’s Cooper Chapman had been riding a remake of Simon’s ‘81 board.  Simon doesn’t strike you as the type to ramp up the marketing drive, but we’ve had plenty of Black Beauty so Simon should feel more than entitled to make a little noise about the 81 thruster. 

Out in the lineup at high tide Bells tour rookie, Connor O’leary, was dealing with more immediate issues – like how to pick a good one at Rincon. Rincon bobbles and shifts, runs and backs off, offers sublimely belt-able sections and then often burgers out. It’s one of the tour’s hardest waves and Connor was tuning in because he knew that in the following days he might have to surf for his career out here.

“I’m just trying to work out what a good wave is out here,” he commented in the lineup.

Freesurfing with the pros at contest lineups can be fun (if they’re not all out there) and provides an opportunity to witness their brilliance at close quarters, but these sessions are always underpinned by a certain edginess. The pros are usually happy to chat between sets, but the game face is also on. Tomorrow or the next day they’ll be out here trying to make a heat, so understandably every free-surf has the air of a training session or dress rehearsal. You chat, but you’re also aware when you need to pull back and let them focus on being pro surfers.

Few strike this balance between pro surfer and real person better than Steph Gilmore. Out in the water Steph was happy to chat about the sessions that had gone down at brown water tweed bar while she was in Margaret River. “There would have been so many sharks,” she professed. She talked about her preference for wearing more flexible two mil’ suits in heats at Bells despite the frigid water, and also explained the agony of missing waves at Rincon during heats because of the fickle bobble take off.

Adriano De Souza was also full of insights. Explaining his love for the Rookie, Al Merrick model and suggesting that many surfers on tour start the year with slightly higher volumes and then pare back the foam as they surf their way into fitness.     

Despite the growing professionalism of the WSL and the more conservative tendencies of the modern pro surfer, there remains a strong party atmosphere in the periphery of major contests. Rip Curl’s media night has a reputation for being one of the most raucous events on the party calendar. Usually a more exclusive affair, this year it was opened up to a broader section of the public at the Torquay hotel. 

The Torquay hotel is a classic Aussie pub with multiple bars, and an expansive outdoor courtyard. One of the defining features of the main indoor bar is the alluringly accessible wooden rafters, which hang from the roof.

The night’s main draw-card were veteran punk rockers the Cosmic Psychos – creators of intriguingly titled tracks like ‘Dead Roo’ ‘Fuckwit City’ and ‘Thankyou Mother for the Rabbits’.   

Try to imagine three pasty, overweight, beyond-middle-age guys who probably played their best gig thirty years ago. Then picture the same unlikely looking trio absolutely shredding on stage. The band was super-tight and the frenetic pace of the tracks inspired a mosh-pit that melted together youthful converts and ageing rockers who were obviously long-standing Cosmic Psycho fans. In Sydney they take Selfies of one another but down here in Torquay they’re too busy hanging from the rafters.

The only pro surfer I spotted in the crowd was Steph Gilmore. Steph was close to the stage alongside Darren Handley. Happily risking an injury far greater than a Sally Fitzgibbon fin chop as she artfully dodging the ebb and flow of the surging mosh pit as it spiraled uncontrollably in every direction.

I left the pub reminded that Australian surf contests are genuinely epic. Not only is the contest action riveting, but in a single day you can still enjoy the full gamut of experiences if, like Steph Gilmore, you have the inclination to embrace it all.