GREG NOLL: 1937–2021
Greg Noll, who has died aged 84, became the first poster boy of big wave surfing, and in 1969 he famously surfed Hawaii’s biggest ever swell.
Nicknamed “Da Bull” for his fearlessness and stocky bodybuilder’s physique, Noll was one of a group of Californian longboarders who migrated to the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the 1950s in search of the perfect wave.
“There was nothing there, no watch, no car, no money, no nothing, just a T-shirt and a surfboard,” he recalled. But there was usually a 16mm camera to hand and Noll, in his convict-stripe trunks, became a familiar figure in early surfing films, larking about in monstrous waves – “no lifeguards, no jet-skis, no helicopters. If you f—ed up, you were on your own”.
In October 1957 he led a handful of surfers to the notorious Waimea Bay, a U-shaped inlet where the waves can reach three storeys high in the winter. The bay was said to be impossible to surf by locals, who believed the place was haunted. The last person to try, a young Californian surfer called Dickie Cross, had been killed trying to wade ashore in 1943.
“I slid down the face of a wave, then checked to see if my hands were still there,” Noll recalled. “Within an hour, there were four or five guys in the water catching waves. The entire town lined up on the cliff to see the crazy haoles [non-Hawaiians] commit suicide on Waimea Bay.”
In 1964, Noll was credited with being the first person to ride a wave, a 25-footer, at Oahu’s Third Reef Pipeline (“like I was on a spaceship racing into a void”). Then, on December 4, 1969, during what was said to be the “Swell of the 20th century” (locals had evacuated the area), he rode a wave at Oahu’s Makaha beach that was agreed by witnesses to have been the biggest wave ever ridden, though there was dispute about its size – some said 65ft, others a mere 20ft. Sadly, no cameras were there to record the event – or Noll’s spectacular “wipe-out”.
It was said that after that Noll never surfed again. That was not entirely true, but the wave certainly changed his perspective: “For 20 years, I’d been grinding it out, every force in my body saying I needed to ride a wave bigger than the last time I was out. But now that monkey was off my back.”