Word had spread that the titles were to be at Bells and the interest from surfers and non-surfers was high. This would be an exposé of this exciting new sport.

In May 2020 our town will celebrate 50 Years since the world surfing championships came to Torquay and left a remarkable legacy. The event almost certainly impacted the direction of the town for the decade that followed. Some have called it” the block of dynamite that got Torquay going”.

 This was not the first time the World Titles had come to Australia. In 1964 they were held at Manly, and local pair Midget Farrelly and Phyllis O Donnell held aloft the trophies and put Australia firmly on the world surfing map. Prior to that, National champions had travelled to Puerto Rico, Peru and San Diego.

Hosting the world titles was expensive with the host country having to pay the cost of flying and accommodating the national champions of member countries. The titles in 1970 were originally to be in Sydney but sponsorship fell through and there was a risk they would be cancelled. Tony Olsen who was the National President of the Australian Surfriders Association, based in Melbourne, successfully lobbied the State Premier, Sir Henry Bolte for support. The A.S.A were awarded a $25,000 grant and the location changed to Bells. But much work would need to be done to enable Bells to host the titles and upgrade the almost non-existent facilities.

The Australian Surfriders Association had been lobbying both the Shire of Barrabool and the State Government for several years to put some money in to improving things at Bells Easter Rally and for other events that were also held occasionally at Bells. Toilets consisted of portable pots surrounded by hessian walls. The road in and out of Bells via Jan Juc was often a challenge as it was not sealed and full of potholes. The steps to the beach suffered in winter storms and were often falling away and dangerous.

The ASA sought the support of local politicians Aurel Smith, the member for Bellarine and Geoff Thom, the member for South-western Province. Their support meant a new toilet block was in place in time for the titles (this was in the dip at Bells, between where the creeks run out to the sea, near the old windmill. Both have since been demolished). A $14,520 grant from the Country Roads Board improved the access road. Part of this money was spent on opening and sealing the road from the beach to the Anglesea Road on the southern side, now Jarosite Road. All approach roads to Bells were sealed for the event. Despite funds being limited, the state government also agreed to produce poster advertising the World Titles. Surfing was in its infancy at the time the but the organisers had managed to secure not only funding for the event, but also some significant improvements for Bells itself. Many of these improvements were only finalised in the days before the contest was due to start.

Word had spread that the titles were to be at Bells and the interest from surfers and non-surfers was high. This would be an exposé of this exciting new sport. The surfing magazines from the U.S.A., on sale at the Torquay newsagent, had made locals aware of the big names in surfing, the likes of Gerry Lopez, Corky Carroll and David Nuuhiwa were coming to town to mix it up with our Aussie stars, Midget Farrelly, Nat Young and home-grown youngster Wayne Lynch.

Torquay in 1970 had a population of only about 1300 people and was quite a different place from what it is today. There was a small motel on Bell Street, the pub, and “Two Bays Guest” house for accommodation. Many of the locals put up their hands to billet some of the visitors. The American team were to be housed at the Lorne Hotel.

To cap off the early excitement, word spread rapidly around town late in March, that a Hollywood movie star had arrived. James Aurness (Arness) and his son Rolf had settled into a flat at Surf Side Ten and 18-year-old Rolf was already testing the waves at Bells. Rolf was no stranger to the World Titles. At 16 he had competed in Puerto Rico, and a dazzling season in 1969 had seen him become the nation’s top ranked surfer. In Torquay however, the locals had just as much interest in his handsome movie star dad James, who played Marshall Matt Dillon from Dodge City in the long running TV western Gunsmoke. It was hard not to miss the 6’ 8’’ American as he moved around town. In the lead up to the event both the movie star and his gentle softly spoken son made a very good impression on the Torquay townspeople.

By Saturday May 2nd everything was in place. The Australian titles were held on the Gold Coast some weeks earlier and newly crowned champion Peter Drouyn would lead the team. Competitors and officials had arrived in town. However dark clouds were on the horizon and would mark this event as one of the most memorable for action both in and out of the water.

The first storm cloud brought with it a wintery blast from the southwest with rain-lots of it – and gale force winds that put Bells into a savage mood, and a mass of sloppy broken water. There would be no surfing on the planned first day of competition.

The second black cloud sat over the famous Torquay pub where on the night prior to competition starting, American Corky Carroll had been involved in a fracas with a waitress and insulting and indecent language was heard by all. Corky was thought to have been the instigator. The waitress as it turned out, was the publican’s wife, he took offence and reported the incident to the police, who reported it to the American team manager who responded by banning Corky from the event.

Banning their favourite son from competing did not go down well with the Americans, and as the officials were putting together the opening ceremony, including a parade through the streets of Lorne, one the largest and most favoured team refused to compete stating – No Corky no contest!

The parade at Lorne was a big success despite the hiccups. The competitors and officials were loudly cheered on by a large crowd of locals. Geoff Luton, one of the judges for the event described it as:

The large crowd that gathered on the footpath in front of the old Cumberland saw the Puerto Ricans and South Africans proudly wearing smart shirts, ties and blazers with embroidered pockets. The solo Japanese competitor Doji Isaka described as, the Japanese team manager, official, competitor, and ambassador carried a toothy grin as well as his rising sun flag for the entire journey. Representatives came from Great Britain, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, and a large contingent of Aussies. The Hawaiians marched under their own flag and only 4 Americans marched under the ‘Stars and Stripes’. Dale Tepper, Jericho Poppler , Joyce Hoffmann and Del Canon had decided they had come too far to miss this opportunity and left the rest of the team to sort out politics. The march included 15 women from 6 different countries.

“A semi organised group of notoriously unorganisable surfers, the world’s best, marching down that spectator filled street of Lorne. Who despite themselves, were obviously stoked with the whole deal.”

The President of the Winchelsea Shire Cr J Caldow, Tony Street MLA representing the Commonwealth, and Aurel Smith MLA representing the Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte, warmly welcomed the competitors and wished them the best of luck. All gathered hoped for an improvement in weather conditions and that the waves would arrive.

Behind the scenes frantic meetings were taking place to resolve the stand off with the American team. The President of the International Surfing Federation, Eduardo Arena, called in A.S.A representatives Stan Cooper and Tony Olsen and U.S.A team manager Brendan McLelland and asked that Corky swiftly send off a written apology to the publican and the organising committee before his suspension would be reconsidered.

 The publican himself attended one of the meetings and must have had a change of heart, or maybe he discovered that Corky was not solely to blame as he requested that Carroll be reinstated. Corky, who had been in Australia for three months training for the event, reluctantly offered a verbal apology and then a written one. To this day an air of mystery surrounds the famous food fight, which is said to have started when some boys from the Torquay footy club came in to celebrate a victory earlier in the day. Some “friendly banter” was struck up between the boys and the visitors. In any event, the suspension was lifted and Corky was free to compete.

This was not the only concern for the day as, before competition had started Ted Spencer, one of Australia’s big hopes in the event, withdrew from competition. Stan Couper issued a statement saying that Ted disliked competition and had returned to NSW. A young Terry Fitzgerald wore a wide grin as he was named as Ted’s replacement.

Surfing was scheduled to take place at Bells. World contest banners were in place, flags were flying. There were official caravans in place on the cliff tops, a judge’s stand had been erected, food vendors arrived and so did a large crowd, but sadly the contestable surf did not. Despite the continuous rain, the officials staged some team trick riding much to the delight of the spectators.

A further opening ceremony took place in a giant army tent on the hills at Bells in the driving rain and all the member nations flags were unveiled.

Sunday dawned and there was no respite from the cold and rain and no sign of swell on the horizon. More surfing exhibitions were hastily planned as some 10,000 people had gathered on the beach and cliff tops. Eduardo announced that all competitors would compete in the trick surfing or face the severest penalty. Surfers are a hard bunch to control, and while some took up his challenge others went to Winkipop to do their own thing.

A festive atmosphere prevailed as tandem surfing paddle races and surfing relays more than satisfied the crowd’s needs. Possibly the busiest people that day were the car parking attendants who spent a good part of the afternoon and evening dragging bogged cars out from the mud.

 By Monday the skies cleared, and some decent waves arrived. The contest was under way. The Australians and the Americans were standouts. The smiling Doji Isaka failed to make the grade and was eliminated on Day 1 along with the team from Panama. Despite the atmosphere more dark clouds were gathering. Judging in surfing contests had been contentious in the past and this was to be no exception. Points were to be gained for placings obtained by all competitors in each contest and the highest aggregate point scorer at the end of the period would be the winner. The poor conditions magnified the anti-contest sentiment that had been building in the surf world over the previous few years. At the end of Day 5, and after his first heat, David Nuuhiwa joined Ted Spencer in exiting the event and he too headed home; the freezing conditions including hail did not help his cause. It was becoming clear many competitors were disturbed by the lousy weather and the absence of good surf. The Puerto Ricans had taken to their beds with the flu.

Perhaps the blackest cloud of all was about to cast its shadow over the event when news broke that there has been a drug bust in Lorne. Members of the Melbourne Drug Squad raided rooms of the Americans at the Pacific Hotel and found “a matchbox with a small quantity of a substance believed to be Indian hemp”. This news made bigger headlines than any magic Midget was weaving in the water. And again, Eduardo Arena was put in front of the cameras to issue a statement on behalf of the International Surfing Federation. Poor Eduardo was in disbelief at the turn of events. 17-year-old Brad McCaull was hastily afforded a lawyer and a jacket and tie and dragged before the court in Geelong.

The patience of many of the visitors was wearing thin with the antics of the Victorian Press and the perceived harassment from the Victorian Police. Certainly, the Australian surfers were embarrassed by the attitude of many not connected to the contest. The feeling among all the Americans was that they positively believed that the young surfer involved never touched any of the substance that was found in his room. For the public however this publicity only fed the frenzy to go to Bells to see the action for themselves, with crowds arriving every day to see what would happen next.

There were enough breaks in the weather during the week to allow for some events to be surfed. Bells held its shape long enough for the best in the world to strut their stuff. Mike Purpus and Rolf Aurness stand outs for the Americans. Midget, Nat Young and Peter Drouin the best of the Aussies. 14-year-old Shaun Thomson from South Africa left everyone in no doubt they would be seeing more of him in the future, and Margo Godfrey excelled in the women’s heats.

The crowds arrived in huge numbers on the weekend despite the cold and rain. They were again treated to exhibitions of paddle races and trick surfing. A standout exhibition surf from Midget had them cheering.

The women’s heats were held at Bells on Day 10. In the days pre leash, the competition was tough with boards regularly washing in onto the rocks and valuable time wasted retrieving them. Judy Trim, Gail Couper and Nola Shepherd represented the home team.

Sadly the swell was short lived and by Day 12 officials were calling emergency meetings. Bells was dead flat and Lorne was a millpond. Already past the allocated time for the event, they were persuaded to give it two more days. Some of the boys including Rolf Aurness and his father James had ventured down south and thought there might be a chance of waves down there. The waveless days had sent everyone, surfers, officials, the media into a desperate frenzy.

By Wednesday morning the whole circus was packed up and on its way to a tiny place past the Otways called Johanna Beach. After the winding Great Ocean Road, crossing rivers and creeks, and along axle breaking gravel roads they arrived at the magnificent stretch of windswept beach to see perfect 6ft sandbar tubes.

This was the panacea that the judges, officials and competitors had been seeking. Good surf, away from the crowd happy vibes and everyone laughing together. There would be no time wasting, as with luck, the semi-finals and finals would be run.

One by one contenders dropped out. Brad McCall had memorable Titles in more ways than one but was one of the first to fail to qualify for the final. As rounds progressed he was joined by Paul Strauch, Mike Purpus, Keith Paul, Terry Fitzgerald and Shaun Thompson

The word had spread to the local farming community that something big was happening on the beach and they downed tools, wandered across their paddocks and climbed the dunes. They were able not only to watch the action but also to chat freely to the surfers on the sand. They knew little of the art of surfing but had a chance to see the best in the world that afternoon.

By 4.30 in the afternoon, with fading light, the scene was set for the final. Miles from anywhere with perfect surf, Geoff Lutin commented, “There is nothing commercial about this scene, no banners, no hot dogs, no PA system just the bare essentials”.

The final was made up of three Aussies, Nat, Midget and Drouyn; two Hawaiians Reno Abellira, and Keone Downing; and Rolf Aurness from California.

Australian hopes were high when at 4.40 surfers were ordered into the water.

Almost from the start Rolf stamped his mark on the score sheet with clean take off speed on his streamlined 7ft board. Quiet, determined, and confident Drouyn had long rides and sensational cover-ups, Midget’s were smooth and consistent. Nat however failed to fire, and Downing failed to catch the judge’s attention. Reno’s desire for speed caught him out.

Just five minutes before dark the event finished, and no one was left wondering who the winner would be. After a testing thirteen days, Midget was said to have commented that he wondered if there was any ambition left in any of them, but once they were in the water, he like everyone else, saw that Rolf had a mission to win. He surfed faultlessly.

 All seven judges carded the tall lean goofy foot on top and he became the first Californian to win the title.

Surfing World magazine proclaimed “Out of disaster upon disaster the thing ended up pretty well.

 The final day approached and in desperation, on Thursday, after the men had finished their competition, the final of women’s event was run at Skenes Creek.

Skenes was home to a handful of locals who were bemused by the arrival of the surfing entourage. The surf was poor with sloppy left breaking waves. Margot’s form from the heats deserted her- this would not be her day. Hawaiian Sharon Weber emerged as the winner with Margot coming in second.

Sharon’s win was comprehensively ignored by the surf media with surfer magazine devoting two sentences to the women’s final.

 Women’s surfing has indeed come a long way since 1970.

After a long and often testing two weeks, in the worst wintery conditions, the awards ceremony was held in Lorne. Rolf’s acceptance speech was short, he simply said “well that was outasight”

The World Titles have never returned to Australia. They went back to San Diego in 1972 but indeed the rise of professional surfing that followed them meant great changes in the surf competitions.

Sharon went on to defend her title in San Diego in 1972 and was set to go to South Africa in 1974 but took a stance against apartheid when she learnt that some of the native Hawaiian teammates would not be permitted to compete. The contest was cancelled. Sharon was disillusioned with the lack of money and support for women’s surfing, so she turned her head to making a living and stopped competing and travelling. She continues to live in Hawaii and runs a successful business.

The final event at Johanna became the last time we saw the gentle Rolf Aurness in the surf again. He returned to California in the aftermath of the win and struggled somewhat with his rapid rise to fame and the success he had. His journey to the top had been swift. Daily surf sessions at the Hollister Ranch, driving the coast from San Diego to Santa Cruz on weekends and getting as many waves as he could, had occupied much of his youth.

He went on to College and surfed only to be with his friends. He did not defend his title in San Diego in 1972 and was never again seen in a surf competition.

Surfers remember the 1970 World Titles for the maelstrom they created during a cold and wet two weeks in May. We remember the wild nights at the pub, the crazy scenes on the cliff at Bells, the International guests, the media circus but many also remember with affection the softly spoken Californian who seemed to like everything about the sleepy little town and who took away the trophy and left us with a lasting memory.

50 years down the track and things have changed. Competitors at Easter now jet in with an entourage of coaches and assistants, they have bags of technical equipment that record the data from their every move on a wave. They spend their evenings analysing it.

Torquay and Bells is just a stop on a lucrative worldwide circuit.

The most lasting reminder we have of the titles at Bells was the declaration by the Bolte government some 12 months later that Bells Beach would become the nation’s first Surfing Reserve. This magnificent decision, driven by the ASA, means that when you drive to the bottom of Bells Boulevard today, 50 years later you see the break over green paddocks. Bells is still as wild and beautiful as it was then. We are all grateful for that.

Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing
Geelong Advertiser archives
Geoff Luton, Encyclopedia of Surfing
Gail Couper
The Age Melbourne Archives
Surfing World magazine
John Witzig
Jericho Poppler
Corky Carroll Excerpt from Corky Carroll – Not Done Yet – An Epic Journey of the Planet’s First Professional Surfer