Legends: GREG NOLL

Any conversation about the pioneers of modern surfing would be incomplete without the mention of Greg Noll.  Audacious and charismatic, Noll was not just a really good surfer; he was a first-generation surf filmmaker and magazine publisher, master surfboard craftsman, and early surf retailer.  Perhaps most notably, he blazed the trail for big wave surfing.

Greg Lawhead was born in San Diego in February of 1937.  At the age of six, he moved up the California coast with his mother to Manhattan Beach.  When she remarried, Greg took the surname of his stepfather, Ash Noll.  The family lived near the Manhattan Beach pier, where Greg hung out with the local fishermen and lifeguards; his deep love affair with the ocean had begun.

Noll started surfing at the age of 10, when he begged Manhattan Beach lifeguards to let him borrow one of their rescue paddleboards.  By his mid-teens, he was already known as one of the LA area’s best surfers.  Drawn by the lure of bigger waves, Greg made his way to Hawaii for the first time in 1954.  He ended up living at Makaha Beach for seven months, surfing and completing his senior year of high school at Waipahu High.

On subsequent trips to Hawaii, Noll found himself frequenting spots on the North Shore of Oahu, including Sunset Beach and Laniakea.  Then on November 7, 1957, at the age of just 20, Greg Noll was ready to take on Waimea Bay.  In 1943, Honolulu surfer Dickie Cross drowned there, leaving Waimea with a foreboding aura.  But on that November day in 1957, Noll convinced his friend Mike Stange to paddle out with him.  Another handful of surfers soon followed – including such legends as Mickey Munoz, Pat Curren, Bing Copeland and Del Cannon – and the “Waimea taboo” was broken.  It remains unclear who actually rode the first wave that day (some say it was a Seal Beach lifeguard named Harry Schurch), but it was Greg Noll who undoubtedly led the way.

Noll started building surfboards in 1951, shaping out of the family garage and being mentored by Dale Velzy.  He launched Greg Noll Surfboards in around 1960, and in1965, he opened a brand new, 20,000 square-foot surfboard manufacturing plant in Hermosa Beach.  At the time, it was the largest such facility in the world, cranking out some 200 Greg Noll surfboards each week in 1966.

It was out of Noll’s Hermosa Beach shop that the famed “Da Cat” model was produced.  Teaming up with the eccentric “King of Malibu” Miki Dora, Noll’s factory built some 8,000 “Da Cats” between 1966 and 1968.  Interestingly, the design of the “Da Cat” model may have been inspired by another notable surfboard model of the ‘60s, the Yater “Spoon.”  Both featured a unique step deck design.

Noll’s big wave riding days ended at the very spot they began.  On December 5, 1969, he took off on a 35-foot Makaha monster, known to be the biggest wave ever ridden by that time.  Greg was forced to bail as the wave exploded around him.  Fellow big wave surfer Fred Hemmings witnessed the ensuing free-fall and said, “If there was anyone else in Greg’s place, he wouldn’t have made it alive.”  Aptly nicknamed “Da Bull” by big wave pioneer Phil Edwards, Greg Noll was fearless and tough.

Shortly thereafter, Noll turned his back on big wave surfing and moved to Alaska for a short period of time.  He then settled in Crescent City, a small fishing town on the Northern California coast.  For the next 20 years, he was a commercial fisherman, drawing upon the skills he grown up with around the Manhattan Beach pier.  He continued to shape surfboards on occasion, having mentored his son Jed in the fine art of surfboard craftsmanship.  Jed launched Noll Surfboards in 2009 and continues to build high quality custom surfboards today.

For a guy who shunned surf contests and what he called “beach party” surf films, Greg Noll sure did a lot for the surf lifestyle.  He pioneered big wave surfing, influenced surfboard design and manufacturing, founded both Da Bull clothing company and Greg Noll Oceanwear, was a stunt-double (for Robert Michum) in Ride the Wild Surf and was featured in almost every surf movie made in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s.

Greg Noll died on June 28, 2021, at the age of 84.  He will forever be remembered for his larger-than-life persona, his colorful language, his courage and his commitment to the surfing lifestyle.  “Talk is bullshit,” Noll once said. “You wanna know the truth?  Get a board and paddle out there, point it down the face of a grinder and make a commitment.  That’s where you find the truth.”