the fearless pioneer of big wave surfing

Greg Noll was one of the big wave surf pioneers and possibly the first surfer to ride Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Greg Lawhead was born on February 11, 1937 in San Diego, California.

He moved to Manhattan Beach with his mother, Grace Zalabak, who had just divorced her father, Robert, and married a chemical engineer named Ash Noll.

Greg, who took his stepfather’s last name, started surfing at the age of 11 and by the time he reached his teens he was already one of the best hot dogs in Los Angeles.

The regular footed surfer made his first trip to Hawaii in 1954. Noll was 17 and was eager to put his surfing skills to the test.

For seven months, he stayed in a Quonset hut on the west side of Oahu, near the infamous Waimea Bay, and completed his senior year at Waipahu High School.

The physically strong, broad-shouldered American began to develop an obsession with big waves. He was 6’2 ” (1.88 meters) tall and weighed around 230 pounds (104 kilograms).

So, on subsequent trips to Hawaii, Noll began to step up his game by taking on bigger waves at Sunset Beach and Laniakea.

The 19-year-old Noll traveled to Australia as a member of the US Lifeguard Team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

He and his team immediately hit the surf with their Malibu Chip balsa surfboards, leaving a lasting imprint and legacy in the local surf community.

Break “The Waimea Taboo”

A few months later, Noll will experience the most iconic event of his career – a historic blow that will immortalize him.

The year was 1957.

Dickie Cross was killed after paddling two and a half miles from Sunset Beach to Waimea Bay.

He and his friend Woody Brown were desperately trying to reach shore after being caught by a powerful swell and continuous breaking waves.

The goal was to get us to the deep water channel of Waimea Bay. Sadly, only Brown barely survived.

And so, “The Waimea Taboo” kept surfers away for 14 years.

On November 7, 1957, Greg Noll and Mike Stange were ready to challenge the haunted wave. The surf at the back was around 15 feet.

According to subsequent reports, the duo weren’t the first to break Dickie Cross’s spell.

“It later emerged that a mild-mannered Seal Beach lifeguard named Harry Schurch had, in fact, caught a few waves that same morning in Waimea, surfing alone, before Noll and his gang showed up,” Matt notes. Warshaw, author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing.”

But, symbolically, Noll and Stange had opened a new chapter in big wave surfing history, and the world just couldn’t be enough.

Greg Noll: a master surfboard shaper and legendary big wave pioneer |  Photo: Noll Archives

“Da Bull”: the birth of a legend

Meanwhile, the Californian surfer has stayed close to the surf industry.

He had founded Greg Noll Surfboards and launched a series of publications: “Surfers Annual” (1960), “Surfing Funnies” (1961), and “The Cartoon History of Surfing” (1962).

In 1965, the surfer-businessman opened a 20,000 square foot surfboard factory in Hermosa.

In less than a year, the extravagant investment enabled it to produce more than 2,000 boards per week.

The factory had separate rooms for each stage of manufacturing the surfboards.

One of the famous boards coming off its assembly line was Mickey Dora’s signature model, which featured “Da Cat” hanging from a cross made up of two boards.

Despite his successful business ventures, Noll has never stopped surfing and pushing the limits of wave surfing.

Greg’s most iconic nickname is “Da Bull”.

The nickname was given by Phil edwards, the first surfer to prove that it was possible to tame the crashing waves of the Pipeline.

Dressed in his legendary black and white striped prison boardshort, the man who challenged Waimea Bay was ready – and hungry – for more.

The bigmouthed legend starred in several films from the 1950s and 1960s, including “Surf Crazy” (1959), “Gun Ho!” (1963), “Strictly Hot” (1964) and “Golden Breed” (1968).

Greg Noll has also appeared in a few widely acclaimed and viewed films such as “Ride the Wild Surf” (1964) and The Quintessential “Endless summer“(1966).

“Da Bull” participated in the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational from 1965 to 1969.

And just when he thought his heyday was over, Noll fell into one of the biggest waves to ever ride in two decades.

On December 4, 1969, Greg plunged into a 35-foot wave in Makaha, Oahu, and was forced to jump when the mountain’s water wall exploded around him.

“It was like looking over the edge of the great black pit,” Noll wrote in his autobiography “Da Bull: Life Over the Edge”.

“Some of my best friends said it was a wave of death wishes. I didn’t think so at the time, but looking back, I realize that it was probably on the borderline.”

A few days later, he saved a sailor from drowning in Waimea Bay.

Greg Noll: Wearing his signature black and white striped prison swimsuit at Banzai Pipeline |  Photo: John Severson

One last return

Soon after, the “Babe Ruth of Surfing,” as she was often called, radically changed her life.

Noll moved to Alaska to live in an RV, then worked as a commercial fisherman in Crescent City, California for 15 years.

The adventurous larger than life character returned to the media spotlight in the 1980s as the legendary surfer who pioneered big wave surfing.

He has appeared in films and documentaries and returned to the surf industry circus with Da Bull clothing company, Greg Noll Oceanwear, and a new film, “Search for Surf” (1992).

Although he never quite retired from shaping surfboards, Noll began producing limited edition Da Cat surfboard models that he would sell to collectors for $ 10,000.

Between 1991 and 1996 he held a competition in Costa Rica for veteran surfers called the Da Bull Surf Legends Classic and found time to establish the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.

Noll was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996 and received the Waterman of the Year 1998 award by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA).

The fearless surfing legend had four children with Laura Archuletta: Ashlyne, Jed, Tate and Rhyn.

Greg Noll died on June 28, 2021 in Crescent City, California.


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