Sean Doherty: Journals from the Vicco Surf Coast During COVID-19

4 Jun 2020 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo by the author

Photo by the author

The Virus Journals

It’s been a great autumn for surf on the Surf Coast.

It started on Day One… March 1st.

A Sunday morning, it dawned six foot and offshore. By dusk it was twice that size and twice as offshore. It was fair roping, the best Bells and Winki had looked in years. Being a Sunday it had been busy early. As the day went on and the swell became more serious the numbers thinned out. It was an afternoon for old sea dogs and strapping lads full of piss and vinegar. A big local contingent took it on but Best on Ground was Mick Sowry, out there celebrating his 66th birthday. Mick took some bombs and had one of the best surfs of his life. Not even getting caught inside on The Cobra by a 10-foot set could knock him off his cloud.

The first day of autumn traditionally marks the start of the surf season down here, but in early March there was a feeling like it might also be the end.

The corona lockdown was looming with all sorts of doomsday scenarios… not the least of which being the likelihood that nobody would be surfing for months. When Bondi became the first Australian beach closed on March 21 it almost felt inevitable. Victoria was taking the hardest line of all the states when it came to corona lockdowns, and it felt it was only a matter of time before that extended to the beaches.

People got in while they could. With businesses, school and unis closing down, Bells and Winki were packed. With surfers suddenly having a lot of time on their hands – and with no travel bans yet in place – the place got awful busy. The surf pumped, the weather stayed warm. Weekdays were suddenly weekends.

Tensions simmered. There was a base level of corona crazy in the air. This wasn’t helped by not being able to find a car park… or a set wave. Much of the crowd was coming down the M1 from Melbourne, and while it was hard to characterise the crowd, there seemed to be an awful lot of uni students amongst them. There also seemed to be a lot of crew from the “Armstrong Creek Boardriders” – the new housing estates outside of Geelong. Locals are used to day-trippers but this was on another level. Some snapped. Impromptu inquisitions were held in the car park.

“Where are you from mate?”


“Never seen ya before. What’s Torquay’s postcode?”

It never got much beyond that – Bells and Winki remain amongst the most civilised lineups in the country – but it was super eggy for a week or two there.

Easter loomed as a flashpoint. As one by one major sporting events fell over, it was clear the Easter Bells contest wouldn’t run… the first time in 58 years. The annual pilgrimage for thousands of Melburnians however was still on the cards. Contest or not, Bells at Easter had a strong gravitational pull. On March 30, the Victorian government entered a Stage 3 lockdown banned all “non-essential” travel with fines of $1600 being thrown around. It didn’t slow down the crowds. Crew were taking the piss and it was just asking to be shut down.

Fearing the Government stepping in and closing the Surf Coast beaches indefinitely, the local Surfrider chapter joined with local politicians to get the beaches closed over Easter. Surfers lobbying against surfing seemed counterintuitive, but they were playing the long game. Better to close it for the weekend than have it closed down till July. Easter Monday and Tuesday pumped, the crowd was loony tunes, but somehow the beaches stayed open. The Victorian Government was drawing a hard line on everything. They’d shut down camping, fishing and even golf but yet somehow surfing was still cool.

It wasn’t till a month later that we found out why. A local guy had a mate working in the Premier’s Office, and he’d been told that the reason the beaches had stayed open was that the Victorian government believed the surfers would protest, as they’d just done with the Bight campaign.

Once Easter came and went, though, autumn fell into a sublime rhythm. The switch flicked, it blew offshore northwest day after day, long period swells formed a conga-line out in the Southern Ocean, and the water stayed warm enough to get away with a 3/2. It’s been the best Surf Coast autumn in years, and despite the crowds hanging in there, there’s been enough waves to keep things mellow. The car park mellowed. Everyone got in a groove.

And then just like that autumn was gone.

Just like March 1 had symbolised the coming of the season, June 1 brought winter with it. It was howling onshore southwest, 12 degrees with the occasional hailstorm. The first brawling winter storm was here right on cue. Luckily the same day they’d opened up the pubs.

Video: Raw Footage of Bells and Winki, the first day of Autumn 2020 by matteoboffe

Video:  Bells and Winki, mid-May 2020 – by carvemediA

Video: 30 minutes of raw Autumn glass drone footage, Bells mid May 2020 – by matteoboffe

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