So he was mortal after all.
Greg Noll, “Da Bull,” six feet two inches tall and 230 pounds of muscle, jowls, testosterone, Hawaiian shirts, and a wicked slash of humor, who looked as though he’d been carved from the very trunk of a redwood tree, and seemed sure to live as long as one, died yesterday at age 84, of natural causes. He lived in Crescent City, California.
Surfing in the 1950s and early 1960s was a blitzkrieg of rapid developments in materials, board shapes, surf spot discoveries, and an expansion in the size of waves surfers realized they could survive. Noll, at least as much as anyone else in the period, was a pioneer when it came to the latter.
A brash, cocky, but affable self-promoter, Noll, in his trademark jailhouse black and white striped surf trunks and a linebacker’s build, bulled through the biggest surf Hawaii had to offer at a time when big waves were truly an unknown frontier.
He was born in Southern California in 1937, learned to surf there, became a hotshot teenager in the feeble waves of Manhattan Beach, then bolted for Hawaii at age 17, where he finished high school. He settled in Makaha, on Oahu’s semi-arid western shore, and started riding big Makaha Point surf in the mid-1950s; at the time, the translucent blue right-breaking walls of Makaha were considered the biggest rideable waves in the world.
But Noll had his eye on Oahu’s North Shore, a seven-mile stretch of some of the world’s best, biggest, and most powerful waves, then almost entirely unridden at significant size.
In 1957, Noll led a small crew to the water at Waimea Bay, a greatly feared big-wave break that holds waves that easily surpass 40 feet on the right winter swells. Noll cajoled his buddies to give it a go, despite the break having killed Hawaii surfer Dickie Cross the decade previously and which had remained a no-go zone since. (Noll didn’t realize it, but it had likely been surfed by at least one other Californian on big days before he got there).
Noll’s crew mustered their courage on the beach, likely after passing around a bottle of whiskey, and made their way to the lineup and rode a few, thus opening Waimea Bay to the surf world’s attention and cementing “The Bay” as the premier big-wave spot for the next four decades.
Emboldened by surviving the biggest wave of the North Shore, Noll threw himself fearlessly into whatever the ocean mustered for the next decade. He spoke of laughing while being pummeled underwater by massive waves, totally convinced of his ability to survive the ocean’s fiercest tantrums.
“I was overwhelmed by a feeling that there wasn’t a wave that God could produce that I couldn’t ride,” Noll once said. “It was sort of a blind, stupid feeling, but I had all the goddamn confidence of a rhinoceros.”
As if that quote requires convincing, the man was a masterful storyteller, bullshitter, and bawdy joke machine.
Noll spent the 1960s getting famous, conquering huge surf, and making a small surfboard-building empire based out of Southern California. He appeared in just about every surf movie that reported on Hawaii and was respected as far and away the most fearless, if not the most talented, big-wave rider of his generation.
On December 4, 1969, Noll was in Makaha when a gargantuan swell began building. This was long before swell prediction technology; when the waves got big, they got big, and there was no way of knowing how big they’d get or for how long. It was a cosmic roll of the dice to paddle into quickly rising Hawaiian surf, the kind of game Noll lived for.
He rode, and survived, a wave that day estimated at 35 feet—by far the biggest wave ever ridden to that point. A wave so big, Noll essentially packed it up and moved on once he got back to the beach. He surfed again, but not big waves. He’d reached what he figured was the peak, so he bowed out. A master stroke for preserving one’s legend. To this day, 50 years later, it’s still considered one of the biggest waves ridden and is the source for endless speculation.
Surf historian Matt Warshaw wrote about Noll’s Makaha ride this way:
Noll’s ride was witnessed but not documented—much to the benefit of the big-wave canon. Surf photographs, even great ones, are static and fixed. Greg Noll’s wild ride at Makaha, especially as described by Noll himself, has a life of its own; it’s grown and flourished with time. The story serves Noll, of course. But Noll serves the story, too, and the entire sport, by fitting the ride itself into a real narrative, full of content, plot, subplot, and digression. “I remember being out there [at Makaha] by myself,” Noll says, “looking way up the point seeing this tremendous wave rolling through, barreling through, and by the time it got down to near where I was sitting the water on my board, the water drops were just dancing there, shaking and dancing around. Man, I’d never seen anything like that before.”
Noll hung up his jailhouse trunks and moved to colder climes after that ride. Became a fisherman. Settled in Crescent City, California, a coastal town just a Makaha-sized wave from the Oregon border. Left the surf world behind entirely for decades, until his son’s burgeoning surfboard-making business and the surf nostalgia boom of the 1990s dragged him back in.
He’d show up at surf industry gatherings, always in a Hawaiian shirt, trunks, and slaps, no matter the time of day, season, weather, or location. He’d be handed a mic, adjust his glasses, and let fly with profanity-laced tales of past glory, the golden age of surf, and tales of near death. We loved it. We ate it up and demanded more.
Top photo: John Severson/Surfer Magazine