Death of the icons
Exactly fifty years ago today, 4th December 1969, Greg Noll caught the largest wave he'd ever ridden. It was at Makaha during one of the largest swells in history.
Borne of a deep Aleutian low, the swell struck Hawaii's North Shore late on the 3rd, and by the next morning the North Shore was unrideable. Emergency services blocked access routes across the island, yet Noll managed to cross to Makaha on Oahu's West Side.
Considered Hawaii's original big wave spot, by '69 Makaha had been dethroned by Waimea. Yet on that day fifty years ago, Makaha was holding its shape and Noll, Fred Hemmings, Bobby Cloutier and a few others paddled out.
In a 1987 interview with Matt Warshaw, Noll reconstructed the moment:
"I drove over there and it was absurd - it was probably 10' bigger than any day I'd ever surfed Waimea. It was breaking so far outisde it was ridiculous...it was one of those situations where you really don't know if you want a wave or not because your chances were somewhere in the neighbourhood of...well, the way I figured it, it was about one-out-of-three you were going to die."
Noll further elaborated on the day, how the swell drew a line in the sand for many surfers, how some of them were "whining and crying" in the lineup before he paddled further outside, as much to get out of earshot as to pack a beast, and as he stroked out a wave stood up in front of him.
"I went straight down on the sonofabitch and it folded for three blocks in front of me - and like I say, it was probably 10' bigger than the biggest wave I'd ever ridden. It was so far out there were no pictures taken of it."
That wave became a device for Da Bull to sign off on his big wave career, telling Warshaw, "I'd just ridden the biggest wave I'd ever surfed - by far - and I figured if I wanted to keep doing this shit, well, I was gonna end up six-feet under."
It was fitting and convenient - a perfect stage exit. Noll wound up his big wave career, sold his surf shop, and moved to northern California to fish. Meanwhile, Over the years, Noll's wave grew in stature and significance. Up until the tow era it was considered the largest wave ridden.
In 2011, Australian journalist Kirk Owers wrote an article for Tracks titled 'The Photo That Doesn't Exist'. It's not often surf journos get to play the role of gumshoe detective, but that's just what Owers did as he uncovered a photo, a whole sequence in fact, of Noll's 'undocumented' wave and found it came up well short of Noll's verbal account (see images above and below).
However, rather than use it as a gotcha moment against the great man, Owers put the twin notions of storytelling and charisma up to the light and gently turned them around.
"I sat on the story for a while," writes Owers, "read Noll’s biography and decided I like him immensely. It’s not just his big wave feats or that he engenders so much respect from so many surfing greats. It’s his emotional connection to the ocean and to riding waves that sings for me." Of course, he learns of Noll's emotional connection via his storytelling.
Owers comes to the conclusion that stories and myths make surfing more interesting, and it's hard to disagree.
Sean Doherty came to a similar conclusion in a 2016 column in Surfing World titled 'End of Story: How Computers are Killing Your Heroes". Always incisive, Doherty argues that saturation documentation leaves no wriggle room; no space where "the facts are rubbery and the story naturally embellishes and romanticises and coats itself in a fine crumb of bullshit as time rolls on."
I mention these articles to you now, not just due to the fifty year annivsersary, but also because of a recent conversation I had with a surf photographer about a fading trend: the iconic surf photo.
"Where are they?" my photog friend mused. "Curren's Backdoor cutback, Carroll's snap at Pipe. Where are the modern equivalents of those iconic photos?"
It's a great question and if you spend any time thinking about it you'll also ponder the changing nature of media.
In 1969, the surf media was so scarce that surfers could literally construct their own iconic moments - as Greg Noll did - embellished to entertain and to enlighten.
Yet if Noll's wave was ridden in 2019 it would've been covered from every angle, land, sea, and air. It would be online before he towelled off, and the public would be the arbiters of the moment and what it meant.
Somewhere in between 1969 and 2019, in between scarcity and abundance, lay the ideal system for the creation of iconic surf photos: limited photographers relying on equally limited press. Enough technology to capture the image, but with enough empty space around the edges for storytellers to romanticise or contextualise them. Add to that, monthly print runs providing further space for dissemination and appreciation; time enough for images to be seared into memory.
Would Tom Curren's cutty have the same impact if, say, he did it half an hour ago and you just saw three different versions on Instagram? After all, it's the story of that board, the logoless MC reverse vee, that elevates the image.
If surfers once had free reign to construct their own stories, now their input is incidental to the imagery. Imagery that is instant and abundant. There's no time for a story to be told, and no space for it amongst the waterfall of content.
Of course, iconic photos still occur, though the last one I can think of is Brian Bielmann's shot of Nathan Fletcher at Teahupoo. Or maybe Healey's board at Cloudbreak. In both instances we needn't know anything more for the picture to be completed. Nothing complementary is required for the viewer to be impressed. We don't need to hear Fletcher or Healey's stories.
If this all sounds like future-fearing, another rant at the evils of technology, then it's not intended. Consider it a curious poke at the changing media landscape.