Greg Noll Was A Big Wave Icon Carved From a Redwood Tree

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 sense of humor, who looked as though he’d been carved from the trunk of the redwood trees he loved, and seemed sure to live as long as one, died three years ago this month, 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 a mind-altering expansion in the size of waves surfers learned 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.

Noll 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 even then Noll had his eye on Oahu’s North Shore, around the corner from Makaha, so to speak, a seven-mile stretch of some of the world’s best, biggest, and most powerful waves, then almost entirely unridden at size.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling there wasn’t a wave that God could produce that I couldn’t ride

In 1957, Noll led a small crew to the water at Waimea Bay, a greatly feared big-wave break that holds waves easily surpassing 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, bolstered no doubt by passing around a jug of cheap whiskey, and made their way to the lineup through the ferocious shorebreak.  They rode a few waves and lived, thus opening Waimea Bay to the surf world’s daredevils. The session cemented “The Bay” as the premier big-wave spot on the planet for the next four decades. It still is on the right swell.

Noll, right, Waimea, 1964. Photo: Severson/Surfer

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 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 filmed in 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 there was no such thing as surf forecasting. 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 a wave that day estimated at 35 feet—by far the biggest wave ever ridden to that point. The wave was so big, Noll essentially packed it up and moved on from surfing once he got back to the beach. He did surf again, but not as seriously, and never again in big waves. Noll had reached the mountain top, took a look around, figured there was nowhere else to go. So he bowed out. A master stroke for preserving one’s legend. To this day, 50 years later, Noll’s Malaga wave is 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. He became a fisherman and settled in Crescent City, California, a coastal town just a Makaha-sized wave from the Oregon border. He 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.

Noll would 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. Surfers loved it. We ate it up and demanded more.

Top photo: John Severson/Surfer Magazine

Words by Justin Housman



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