Big Bells and Brass Balls: paddling out at Bells beach on a big day.

You crest the hill in the old Holden and you’re craning your neck to try and get that first glimpse of blue swell lines cut up and stacked upon the horizon. Powerful lumps of raw energy that have rolled relentlessly across the vast waste of the Southern ocean ready to expend all their force on the weather beaten shores of the Gadubanud  people.  You’re riding with three mates: good mates.  Peter “led balls” Leddin, John  “Fozzie Bear” Foster and Pete’s older brother Bernie: our surf shepherd.  More like brothers to you than your own blood. It’s bloody freezing but the steaming coffee you’re cradling is working its magic on your groggy metabolism and the building excitement boiling in your blood. Surf is up!!


Last night’s boozy boogie in the city seems a million years and miles ago. You’ve made the morning run to the coast with your best mates and your expectations are about to be rewarded. The sun is up fresh and raw in the late April morning, the mist still wrapping its wispy tendrils around the coastal scrub. It’s the best time for waves in Southern Australia.  The pre-winter Antarctic swells are consistent and the wind still delivers pristine offshore conditions at regular intervals.  The brass balls and freezing cold ferocity of storm ravaged onshore July and August are still being safely kept at arm’s length.


In another twenty odd years a lot of the pastures to the east will be subdivided up and parceled into ¼ acre blocks all the way back to Jan Juc. Roads will be cut in and street lights will light up the asphalt. The folks who found the “sea change” lifestyle so appealing will have cluttered the coast with houses beyond their needs, big foreign cars and clogged the waves with snotty little grommets. Kids that have grown up within sight of the waves and been lured beyond the sand will populate the line ups with snarky fuck you-ness. Sadly, they have come to take the majesty of it all for granted, over indulgence being their ruin.   Frantic little “oy mister, misters” constantly hassling inside of the older blokes: age before grace, said no one ever.  To the west the tourism pimps at head office will rebrand the undulating Great Ocean Road “The surf coast”,  from the Torquay foreshore all the way out to the majestic crumbling beauty of the twelve apostles.


The cash will come rolling in, fat green wads in metaphorical seasonal waves. Quaint little hamlets like Lorne and Apollo Bay will blow up into obscene brawling magnets for city slickers. There’ll even be rock concerts and traffic snarls limping past places whose names are cemented in your memory forever.  Wye River and its snug harbor of a pub.  Separation Creek and the wreck of the W B Godfrey, her anchor still visible above the reef, a grim reminder of the wretched mismanagement of the ship.  The well rutted road cut through the bush to remote Moonlight heads, where with the right factors in play, it is easy to imagine you are the last humans on Earth.


I don’t know any of this is going happen.  I am still young and the world is still an unfolding mystery.  Elvis Presley will fall off his perch in but a few short months and that sad event will  forever be a reference point of departure in my life: a time of leaving and change.  For the moment my feet are firmly planted in the present.  It will be years before I realize this was one of the greatest gifts I would ever be given. I’m not looking forward beyond this moment to the changes and storms that cloud a man’s life. The long road I will travel to the future will slowly be revealed, but only as I move along it.  For the moment I am here in a special harmony, the transcendence of the blended doings not yet reduced to a memory.


Bernie Leddin jerks the old HK Holden (the Bernie mobile) onto the gravel shoulder at the crest of  Bones road and four gangly young men tumble out pushing and shoving to be first. Fit as trout’s and eager as we will rarely ever be able to be again. Lingering summer tans rising in autum goose bumps, four mates bantering in the antique language of the times. “A hoot man. I’m stoked mate. These waves will be so pogilant. Fucking grouse mate”. The boards are battened down on the racks waiting.  A motley collection representative of the trends of the day. Single fin pin tails and rounded pins all just a wee bit shy of seven feet. All with a few home patched dings. The creations of the backyard shapers whose names have not yet built a multi billion dollar global industry. Klemm Bell and Hot buttered Terry Fitzgerald.  The morose but not yet suicidal artistry of Alan Oke planing his legacy  into foam blanks in a Mordialloc store front.  His work a wonder to those of us involved in the knowing and the doing of the surf tribes of Southern Australia.


In hindsight we probably looked like a bunch of dags, living as we were in what would come to be considered the least fashionable decade of the twentieth century.  Shagged hair cut like a mutated amalgam of poor doomed John Lennon and Greg Brady, whiskers sprouting. Decked out from head to toe in finery that would send a hippie bolting for the nearest showers and spa boutique.  Beanies and knit caps too warm the noggin.  Eyes still too eager for life too require hiding behind the fade of sunglasses. Puka shells adorning necks not yet fattened by the demands of work and responsibility.  Gaudy Hawaiian print shirts worn under snugly buttoned duffel coats warm corduroy dag daks and either thongs with socks or the precursor of the green recycling of future days. “Treads” Old radial tires cut into sturdy footwear.  Sweet Jesus, what a ratty mob.


Surf trips are ritualistic affairs. Be it an after work scoot to Point Leo, a romp around a continent, or for the lucky cashed up few, exotic global jet setting.  It usually begins with a discussion and a loose plan between mates.   Destinations and options debated much like parliamentarians enact the laws that bind us.  Necessities and provisioning to be considered and equity for the passage pooled in a kitty.  The needs of the group and personal preferences discussed and passed in code along rotary dialed phone lines.  The days of a click on the computer mouse and a surf cam shot of the beach are still things belonging to an alien future some of the mates would not live to see.


On this April day we had collectively delivered our self by way of the isobars and dead reckoning of wind and tide to the west coast: gateway of the yet to be named and exploited  surf coast. Our bountiful option of waves lay like a smorgasbord before a fat man.  Slightly to the East lay “Boobs and Steps”. A crunchy left and right hand combo that smashed against a sharp shallow reef. It was just a sly unlocking of a farmers gate away but it could be a dicey day there if the swell kicked up a bit. The peeling fast right of  “Winkipop”  named after  a slang word for quick  available sex in the sixties beckoned  and even lazy Centreside  and its neighbor Southside showed a flash of attraction to surf horny young men. But our direction today was cast in stone much as the sword in the mythical stone of Arthurian legend.  Bells Beach and all her naked power lay but two clicks down the hill baiting us with her siren song.


Bern pulled the HK past the welcoming white wave at the west car park. Really nothing more than a misshapen mud packed flat above the cliff. It was stacking up line on line to the horizon. A relentless surge of roaring classical foaming shapes easy 8 to ten feet and rising. We watched as a monster set closed out the bay all the way to winkipop. To be honest, each man left to his own devices would probably have snuck back around the headland to gentle Anglesea or Point Roadknight. One lonely bloke stood on the sands below us eyeing his options: he did not look too keen looking back to us atop the cliff and waving.


Foz Foster unstrapped the boards and we pulled the thick neoprene wetsuits from back packs and began suiting up much like astronauts preparing for the hostile void of space. Jerky banter, observations and challenges being dished out to a man: this was a big day rising. Another car pulled in, two blokes got out blowing into and rubbing cold hands.  They didn’t say much to our tribe.  Just a “G’day” grumbled into the dirt as they began to prepare with a watchful eye on the horizon.


The sand at Bells when a big swell is running cuts the beach violently so as when you face the water it’s a mad scramble down to the shore break and a banzai leap of faith across the top of the crashing wave. You scramble madly arms digging and scratching to gain the momentum to pass beyond the breaker.  When clear of the soup you start paddling purposefully forward a glance across your shoulder and the quiet bloke in the car park is now jabbering in your ear, bonding with you as you paddle strung out in a line.


Led balls Leddin is leading the way and you feel the quick relief of pissing in your wetsuit. Warm and sobering for just a moment around shrinking private parts.  The first guy off the beach is now far out beyond the lineup and for a quick moment he reminds you of an un-moored sphinx drifting off to Tasmania. A set pulls up, a big one, and the poor bugger is too slow to get over. He duck dives under, you blink and see his purple board sucked up over the falls his leash dragging him like a rag doll behind it. While the wave, a perfect creation, delivers itself to the shore. And for a moment you believe in a God you thought you had left behind in dusty Sunday school books.


It’s getting bigger and you’re in a cluster bobbing and waiting together, eyes pinned and glued to the wraith like shifts on the horizon. You look back to the beach and more black neoprene bodies are making the trek from the shore.  Some cars pull away cutting new ruts into the mud. Bernie and Pete are a little to the outside as the monster rears up and it’s time to go. The other unknown bloke from the car park hoots encouragement. A banshee screams of unbridled adrenalin.  You turn, back neck and shoulders arched, feet kicking  for a little more momentum, arms scalloping into the blue water in a biting frenzy and you rise, and rise brutally aware of the energy sweeping you up, up and on. The wave feathers and peaks steep. You are alone looking down the line, committed as you step into the liquid.


About Charlie wells

I am an Australian singer and songwriter living in San Diego, California. Supported Geelong since I was knee high. I have strong opinions about the way the world should be, although I try to stay off my soapbox.I have been lucky to travel a lot in my life and go a lot further than I thought my beginnings would allow. I had a few fallow years where I was not writing much and wasn't playing at all. But I have rectified that problem and met some good players and i am busy again making up songs and performing them wherever i can. I have a couple of projects in the works. Coffin ship: which is a collection of songs that draw from the seven seas. Six string box: Songs that I call my square pegs for round holes. Jubilee: songs largely written during "Depression 2.0") That's a lot of new songs ain't it. So hopefully you'll get to hear them soon if you have an interest in what I am doing. When I grow up i want to go to the moon and mine Helium 3.


  1. Thanks Charlie.
    Sad and beautiful longings for places and times buried under curb and channel, tarmac and the delusions of material status.
    That glorious coast was my childhood and I miss it too. Feel lucky to have known and lived it as it once was.

  2. Charlie Wells says

    me too.

  3. Reminds me of driving into Byron with Richard Clapton on tape. Lovely yarn Charlie

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