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Noll, Greg


Boorish but charismatic big-wave rider originally from Manhattan Beach, California; one of the original Waimea Bay chargers; founder of Greg Noll Surfboards. Noll was born Greg Lawhead (1937) in San Diego, California, moved to Manhattan Beach at age six with his just-divorced mother, and changed his name when she married chemical engineer Ash Noll. He began surfing at age 10, and by the early '50s was one of the Los Angeles area's best hotdoggers.

Noll visited Hawaii for the first time in 1954 at age 17, stayed for seven months in a Quonset hut at Makaha on Oahu's west side, and finished his senior year at nearby Waipahu High School. He mostly rode Makaha, but also made an initial foray to the North Shore, a wave-lashed seven-mile rural strip of coastline already known for its dangerous and potentially deadly big surf. It was during his first trip to Hawaii that Noll developed a taste for bigger waves; on subsequent visits he began spending more time on the North Shore, riding ever-larger waves at breaks like Sunset Beach and Laniakea.

By late 1957 Noll was ready to try Waimea Bay, the deep-water voodoo wave where Honolulu surfer Dickie Cross had died in 1943 after paddling down the coast from Sunset during a fast-building swell. Cross had sprinted for shore at twilight, but was caught by a set of waves and drowned. Surfers in years following had seen beautiful big waves at Waimea, but were too scared to ride them.

Noll convinced his friend Mike Stange to paddle out with him at Waimea on November 7, 1957, when the surf was about 15 feet. Another six surfers followed. There was some debate in years to come as to who rode the first wave, but all agree that Noll led the charge, and he's therefore received credit for opening Waimea Bay—the break that would all but define big-wave riding for the next 35 years. (It later came out that a mild-mannered Seal Beach lifeguard named Harry Schurch had in fact caught a few waves, surfing all by himself, before Noll and his gang showed up.)

Noll had made a pioneering effort of a different sort one year earlier, as a member of the American lifeguard team that visited Australia during the 1956 Melbourne-held Olympic Games. Noll and his surfing teammates arrived with their Malibu chip boards, and their impromptu wave-riding demonstrations yanked Australia into the modern surfing age. "We hit 'em like a comet," Noll later recalled. "Took 'em from the horse and buggy straight to the Porsche."

Meanwhile, Noll had decided to make a career in surfing any way he could. He published the Surfer's Annual magazine in 1960, followed by the Surfing Funnies (1961) and the Cartoon History of Surfing (1962). He made five surf movies, from 1957 to 1961, each titled Search for Surf. But his main business was Greg Noll Surfboards, founded in the early '50s as Noll began shaping boards out of his family garage. In late 1965, Noll opened a brand-new, custom-built, 20,000 square-foot factory in Hermosa Beach—the biggest board-building operation in the world at the time—which included a separate room for making foam blanks, eight shaping stalls, and a 40-board-capacity laminating room. Noll Surfboards produced up to 200 boards weekly in 1966, about half of which were shipped across the country to dealers on the eastern seaboard. Noll also produced Da Cat, Mickey Dora's signature model surfboard; an instantly notorious print ad featured Dora hanging Christ-like from a cross made of two Da Cat surfboards.

Noll by then had become almost synonymous with big-wave surfing. He was nicknamed "The Bull" for his size (6'2", 230 pounds), as well as his implacable head-down charging style in heavy surf. He was seen riding Waimea in virtually every surf movie of the late '50s and '60s, including Surf Crazy (1959), Gun Ho! (1963), Strictly Hot (1964), and Golden Breed (1968), and was instantly recognizable in his trademark black-and-white-stripe jailhouse surf trunks. He also stunt-doubled for James Mitchum in Columbia Pictures' big-wave movie Ride the Wild Surf (1964), and was featured in Bruce Brown's crossover hit The Endless Summer (1966). Never particularly interested in competition, Noll nonetheless entered in the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational from 1965 to 1969, and was a finalist in 1966.

The big-voiced Noll also earned a reputation as a drinker and a brawler, with a sometimes-macabre sense of humor. A Greg Noll Surfboards employee once cut off his thumb while on the job; after Noll took the man to the hospital and found out the thumb couldn't be reattached, he returned to the factory and placed the severed digit in a cup full of resin to make a paperweight. 

Noll was 32 when he dropped into a churning 35-footer at Makaha on December 4, 1969, jumping off the back of his board just as the giant wall exploded around him. It was the largest wave ever ridden and remained so for more than 20 years. It was also Noll's last big-wave hurrah. "That day at big Makaha," he wrote in Da Bull: Life Over the Edge, his 1989 autobiography, "was like looking over the goddamn edge at the big, black pit. Some of my best friends have said it was a death-wish wave. I didn't think so at the time, but in retrospect I realize it was probably bordering on the edge." (Decades after the fact, an Australian journalist questioned whether Noll's wave was in fact all that big. See linked article in The Inertia.)

In short order, Noll quit riding big waves, liquefied Greg Noll Surfboards, and moved to Alaska, where he lived in a motor home. He then spent 20 years working as a commercial fisherman in Crescent City, California.

Beginning in the late '80s, as interest in surfing's history began to grow, Noll again became a popular surf media figure, appearing in Surfers: The Movie (1990), the PBS-aired Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing (1995), and an OLN-aired documentary called 50 Years of Surfing on Film (1997). His greatest star turn came in Riding Giants, the 2004 Stacy Peralta big-wave documentary, with the salty-tongued Noll recalling highlights of his career. Noll and his son Jed are also featured in the 2007 surf film One California Day.

Noll's commercial sense remained keen: he began making wooden surfboards similar to those he'd shaped in the '50s, selling them to collectors for up to $10,000 apiece, and also produced a limited edition of signed and numbered Da Cat models. In 1991, in Costa Rica, he sponsored the first of five annual Da Bull Surf Legends Classic, a seven-day surf contest and social gathering for older surfers. In 1996 he helped found the East Coast Surfing Legends Hall of Fame.

Noll was voted the top big-wave rider in a 1965 Surfing Illustrated Readers Poll, was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996, and was given the Waterman Achievement Award by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association in 1998. At the 1999 Surfer Magazine Video Award banquet, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in surf films. Greg Noll: the Art of the Surfboard was published in 2007.

Noll has been married twice and has three children.