greg noll

Most of us have seen photographs or news video of Hawaii’s biggest waves on the North Shore of Oahu at Waimea Bay or The Banzai Pipeline. The waves get to be 30-feet in height and since the beginning of time the local Hawaiians thought they were impossible to ride due to their massive size. It would be impossible just to paddle out in such treacherous conditions. I first saw the waves in a movie called Ride The Wild Surf which was a hokey surf movie starring Fabian with music by Jan and Dean. The waves looked like mountains and falling off your board looked like certain death to me. The movie was made in 1964 and highlighted the monster waves of Waimea Bay. The first man to ever stand on the beach and look at those waves during a peak high break and say to himself  “I’m going to try to ride those waves” was Greg Noll, nicknamed “Du Bull” in reference to his physique and way of charging down the face of a wave. I don’t know about you but sitting on the beach looking at 30-foot waves and then thinking “Hey, I’m gonna try to ride those” would be one of the last thoughts on my mind. I would be thinking ” Man, don’t get too close or the backwash will take you out to sea forever”, but this guy does the opposite. It had never been done before. Noll had a perfect surfing upbringing. He was born in San Diego and moved to Manhattan Beach at age 3. He began surfing in Manhattan at the age of 11 and became a member of the Manhattan Beach Surf Club and was also a lifeguard. He moved to Hawaii in the mid-50’s and lived and surfed at Makaha. Surfing was just getting attention in the US and the local surfers of Southern California could have their choice of waves wherever they wanted. Local surf groups began to form and surfing became cool with the allure of hanging out at the beach with bikini clad surfer chicks. The 50’s was the beginning of modern surfing. The surfing fad took off and strongly established itself as a glamour sport. The baby boomers were directly marketed to with “the surf look” and it caught on big time. The surfers of the 50’s were still riding big cumbersome boards made of balsa wood. The So. Cal surfers from Malibu to San Diego started to get real good, it was a life path. Huntington Beach and surrounding areas became Surf Central and the locals there were all the big names in surfing. They became so good that the next stop was the island of Hawaii and the famed North Shore for the biggest waves then known to man. It would be a bit disconcerting to most that even the local Hawaiians hadn’t surfed Waimea Bay on a big day. But in November 1957 Greg Noll gained his reputation by surfing Waimea Bay in 25-30 foot surf…unheard of at the time. He went where no man had ever been before armed with only his self-confidence. He didn’t know if that would be his last living day on Earth or if he could even paddle out thru the monstrous sets, let alone riding a wave successsfully. I think that is what impresses me the most, being the very first to do something with no knowledge of the results. That takes GUTS. He made his historic ride and others were soon to follow. I don’t know if anyone outside the surfing world even knew of his exploits in 1957 but he was definitely a hero to anyone that had ever ridden a surfboard.

By the 60’s surfing took on a radical change with the invent of fiberglass and foam surfboards making them incredibly lighter and less cumbersome. It changed the way everybody looked at surfing. Boards got shorter and faster and the average length went from 10-feet to 6-feet. It was easier to gain the speed necessary to catch any wave including the big waves. Big wave boards were still longer for stability. Greg Noll was still a hero in the 60’s and in November 1964 did again what no man had ever done in the past …he was the first surfer to ride a wave breaking on the outside reef of the Banzai Pipeline. Maybe he now had confidence from his Waimea feat but it still took Big Balls to be the first again. There was no assurance it could be done, just have to give it a try. In his own words, “It got bigger and bigger, and I started to go faster and faster. I felt like I was on a spaceship racing in a void. Suddenly there was no noise”. What a feeling to know you are the first at accomplishing something great even if your not a surfer. It would be comparable to being the first man to climb Mt. Everest. It was later at Makaha, in December 1969, that he rode what many at the time believed to be the largest wave ever surfed. This time he took a major wipe-out and the reality of being thrown around by a 30+foot wave took it’s toll. The trouble doesn’t end when you resurface, you still have to swim in to reclaim your shattered surfboard. I actually contacted Greg Noll by letter and had him sign an epic picture of him standing at the Banzai pipeline with his trademark black & white swimsuit. He signed the picture and kindly sent a nice note back with it…it is now framed and sitting over my desk at home. To many it may seem an insignificant feat but whenever I look at it I have to wonder what was going through his head when he decided to be the first to try something considered impossible and wonder if I would ever have the guts to try something for the first time myself.



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