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A Legendary Photographer's Memories Of Bells

Peter "Joli" Wilson, a stalwart of the surf media, has been shooting surfing for more than four decades. Here, the self-described "Memory Millionaire" shares some of his favorite moments from the 2001 Rip Curl Pro, won by a young wildcard by the name of Mick Fanning.

Mick's victory

Mick Fanning came into the 2001 Rip Curl Pro as a 19-year-old Sponsor's Wild Card and finished by claiming a prestigious Bells Bell trophy, his first ever CT title and a record (at the time) prize-money cheque of AUD$59,900.

“I can't remember whether he was leading the final or he needed a score on his last wave but I was down at the water's edge when he rode his last wave and pulled off a frontside air in the shore break right in front of me.”

It was nothing compared to today's massive airs but it blew everyone away at the time, with Mick torquing his body and forcing a recovery in the white water. He stood in knee deep water as the scores were read out and thrust his board into the air to claim victory with the crowd hooting and cheering.

Super fans

In 2001 there was a mix of generations fighting out the CT events. Guys like Occy were still in the mix and he had a massive crowd following. A few fans took it to extremes.

Each year when the Bells event came round a group of diehard fans from Warrnambool, a seaside country town miles down the Great Ocean Road on the west coast of Victoria made the trek to Bells Beach to watch Occy surf.

In a time when it was still legal to drink on the beach, they'd set up with their well stocked Eskies (coolers) with the local favourite VB beer and celebrate Occy's every move.

The more beer they drank the more raucous they became with antics like ‘nudie' runs along the beach and running into the freezing water with beach chairs or the Eskies.

They certainly kept the crowd entertained, who in true ‘aussie style' egged them on, as did the beach commentators from the cliff above.

I've seen some of these same guys at recent Bells contests and they come up to say ‘hi' and ask if I remember them. Who could forget! Nowadays they are still keeping the tradition of the Easter trek to Bells alive but bring their kids and not their beer stash.

Magic boards

Occy had some magic boards for Bells and he used to stash them away during the year and bring them back out just for the Rip Curl event. His magic boards were shaped by Rod Dalhberg from Angourie on the mid north coast of NSW.

What gave them the ‘magic', according to Occy and Rod were the channel bottoms that took hours to shape and sand and gave Occy the incredible drive out of his amazing bottom turns, one of his trademark moves.

I loved shooting the bottom turns as Occy drove through the Bells Bowl with the outside fin almost out of the water and the channels funnelling spray out the back of the board. At the time I was shooting for a Japanese Surf Magazine and Rod was selling a lot of Dalhberg boards into Japan.

Knowing Occy's popularity and how well the boards performed, he knew he'd probably be getting lots of orders but the boards were so time consuming to shape and glass that he joked with me to pull back from showing the bottom of the boards with all the channels when I submitted my contest reports.

Media party

Back in the mid 80's during the Rip Curl Pro the founders of the company Doug ‘Claw' Warbrick and Brian Singer decided to have a ‘media party' to thank the media for supporting their company through the year.

I attended the very first party with a handful of other media crew from Tracks and Surfing World magazines. It was a beer and pizza night in the Rip Curl Boardroom with less than 10 people in attendance.

Small beginnings that over the years grew into a massive party night with hundreds attending put together by the Rip Curl workers Social Club, who tried to make the yearly event bigger and more outrageous than the previous year.

They got so big that they were moved from the Rip Curl office to the hospitality tent at the Bells Beach contest site. During its peak years, there were some outrageous acts that in no particular order included a camel train, a military theme with a tank parked in front of the Rip Curl store and personal carriers with track treads to take the party goers to the beach, a string quartet in tails playing chamber music, fire eaters, night surfing at Bells, fireworks blasting off the Bells cliffs, etc.. It was an infamous party and invites were one of the hottest tickets during the Easter Rip Curl Pro events.

A celebration of surfing

The state of Victoria, where Bells Beach is located, has been described as ‘sport mad'. It's the home of Australian Rules Football (AFL). Home and away games during the Winter season can attract crowds close to 100,000 at the stadiums in the state's capital, Melbourne.

It happened at the end of one of those AFL games that the Coach of the winning team began to wave his jacket above his head in a victory celebration and encouraged the devoted fans to do the same. The scene of thousands of fans twirling their jackets, coats or scarves above their heads became part of footy folklore.

In this shot, Rip Curl founder Doug ‘Claw' Warbrick emulates this to celebrate Mick's victory.

The lineup

This is your first view of Bells Beach as you drive from Torquay out to the contest site. You get glimpses of the ocean on the short drive out but as you crest the last hill at the end of Bells Boulevard you can see across the paddocks into the little gully at Bells.

This is the image you want to see, lines stacking up out to sea. This is the moment (pre webcams and text alerts) that your pulse jumps a bit knowing there are waves and from my point of view, the contest is on and the surf is pumping.

Danny Wills

I've known Danny Wills since the mid 80's when I was Advertising, Marketing and Promotions Manager for Quiksilver Australasia and signed him at the age of 13.

He was a ‘super grom' or surfing prodigy growing up in Byron Bay. His smooth flowing open faced surfing was polished on the right hand point breaks, spots like The Pass and Lennox Head, just as Mick's style was similarly moulded by point breaks like Snapper and Kirra.

Danny Wills at this stage in his career had been on the Pro Tour since 1997 and in his second year on tour was in a tight race for the World Title, eventually finishing third after Kelly Slater jumped passed him during the Pipe Masters to take the Title.


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