Vale Greg Noll: Farewell big wave legend
“It is with a heavy heart the Noll family announces the death of our patriarch, Greg Noll. Greg died of natural causes on Monday June 28, at the age of 84.”
The ping of this sombre post from Greg’s surfboard shaper son Jed woke me up on Tuesday morning, and dumped me in a pretty bad place. Not that I knew the legendary big wave rider and shaper as well as many did, but “Da Bull” was big of heart as well as stature, and once he’d embraced you in one of those grizzly bear hugs, you’d formed a bond forever.
That’s what happened to me. We were pretty close for about a decade, and although I hadn’t seen him for at least a decade since then, I can still summon up the image of him sitting by the pool at the South Pacific Resort in Noosa, with a shit-eating grin all over his dial, or hiding in a corner of his trade show booth in San Diego, resting between signing autographs, and I can still hear that loud, throaty chuckle as he cracks wise while talking story. That was Greg.
Already a noted big wave rider at Makaha on Oahu’s Westside, and one of the pioneers of the relatively unexplored North Shore and a place called Waimea Bay, Greg first came to Australia in 1956 for the international surf carnival being held at Torquay, Victoria, in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympics. He and his mates on the combined Hawaii/California lifeguard team brought with them their new-fangled and finned balsa pig surfboards, which enabled the surfer to turn the board and ride the face of the wave, rather than straight in on a toothpick.
These relatively lightweight boards had been seen in Australia earlier than this, but no one had seen them ridden like Greg Noll and his buddies, including Marilyn Monroe’s surfer boyfriend Tommy Zahn, demonstrated at exhibitions along Sydney’s northern beaches. And when they left the country, their surfboards stayed, igniting the surf craze which, for some of us, continues to this day.
As well as becoming one of California’s leading surfboard manufacturers, Greg went on to a stellar big wave career until 1969, when he famously rode “the biggest wave ever ridden” at Makaha Point, came in and retired to become a professional fisherman in Northern California. That phase had passed and he was back in demand as a shaper – mostly retro logs - when I first met him at early surf trade shows in California in the 1980s. Our paths crossed again at the Biarritz Surf Festival in France in the ‘90s, when he was reviving his Da Cat model with Miki Dora, and when John Brasen, John Lee and I started thinking about creating a similar surf festival in Noosa, strangely the big wave legend whose feet hadn’t been in the wax for 30 years was the first international guest I invited.
At the inaugural Noosa Festival of Surfing in 1998, affable Big Wave Greg got us all the headlines we needed and never tired of signing his famous big wave posters for fans, and he and wife Laura fell in love with Noosa. In fact on a trip up the beach to Double Island Point with a local crew, and after a splendid beach barbie lunch cooked by Noosa’s leading French chef, and washed down with some good wines, the boys nearly got Greg to paddle out for an ankle-snapper. (At the last minute Laura subbed for him and stood up a couple of times.)
The following year Greg and Laura came back, this time with the Greg Noll Legends Reunion, a huge collection of leading surfers and self-proclaimed legends from across the world, across the generations. The surf didn’t really co-operate that year, but it was such a fun week. One of my abiding memories of the 1999 festival – and of Greg – is watching him, Billy Wallace and Buffalo Keaulana carrying the koa bowl to the water’s edge for the blessing of the waters. Three wise old men of surfing, and now Buff is the last man standing.
Aloha ‘oe, my friend.