The World’s Longest Running Surfing Contest

 

The annual Bells contest has been a fixture on surfing’s pro tour for decades, and is considered a marquee sporting event in Victoria ranking alongside the Melbourne Cup, AFL Grand Final, Australian F1 Grand Prix and Australian Tennis Open. Little did Torquay surfers Peter Troy and Vic Tantau realise that the event they created would go on to become the longest continuously running surfing contest anywhere in the world.

Competition was at the heart of activities for Surf Life Saving Clubs that evolved at popular Australian beaches. Measuring your skills against your mates remained part of the scene as surfers began to break free of the Surf Life Saving Clubs in the late 1950s. Only a few surfing competitions had been held in Australia before a bunch of Torquay surfers gathered at Bells Beach, in the process they created history. Peter Troy and Vic Tantau were both keen surfers, accomplished competitors and members of the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club, both competed in club events as well as state and national championships. Vic Tantau was one of the first people to start producing modern Malibu style surfboards and locally he was the shaper most surfers turned to for a new surfboard.

 In 1961 Troy and Tantau teamed up to produce Tboards and they both felt a surfing rally would be a great way to promote sales of their surfboards .Bells Beach had been a fairly remote and inaccessible surfing location until the late 1950s when local surfer Joe Sweeney teamed up with the Barabool Shire engineer Ron Spence and grader operator Lance Altman to widen an existing clifftop track to Bells.  In an effort to recover his costs Joe collected a fee from those using the track and documented the names and payments on a handwritten list. Unintentionally Joe created a record of early Bells surfing pioneers, this document has survived and now stands as evidence of those who created the early history at Bells. With surfers now having easier access to Bells Beach it was chosen as the venue for the first surfboard rally in Victoria.

Although originally planned for New Year’s Eve 1961, the first Bells Beach Surfboard Rally was actually held on Australia Day 1962 and it was a pretty casual affair. Where today a small city is built on site to support the event, the contest infrastructure for the original event, set up on the sand, was a couple of folding card tables and a megaphone. Under a summer sun spectators gathered on the sand as surfers contested heats in choppy onshore conditions.

Regardless of the small onshore summer surf, heats progressed through to the final. George “Ming” Smith won wave of the day despite not actually having entered the contest. The final was made up of Terry Wall, Marcus Shaw, Geoff Tune, Alan Clissold, Ross Clarke and Glynn Ritchie. Competitors were mostly members of the recently formed “Bells Beach Boardriders” club as well as members of the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club but it was visiting Sydney surfer Glynn Ritchie who won the event. Jeff Watt won the juniors and Terry Wall was the outstanding Victorian surfer.

Pennants were awarded as prizes (printed with the 1961 date which created some arguments over the years) and Ming Smith had to wait some years to collect his cash prize for “wave of the day”. Years later Vic Tatntau eventually presented Ming with a ten shilling note ($1) quite a contrast to the prizemoney pro surfers compete for at the event now.

Pic of the first ever Bells final (thanks to Alan Clissold) L to R Ross Clarke (just out of frame), Geoff Tune, Alan Clissold, Terry Wall, Marcus Shaw and event winner Glynn Ritchie just out of shot

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