A bold big-wave surfer with a knack for shaping, storytelling and swearing, Greg Noll is a surfing icon. During the late ‘50s and the 1960s, he was on the forefront of the growing big-wave movement. He’s credited with being the first to ride the massive walls of water at Waimea Bay in 1957 and a 35-foot wave at Makaha in 1969—which, at the time, was considered to be the largest ever ridden. Also a businessman, his Hermosa Beach-based Greg Noll Surfboards was one of the top surfboard shapers and manufacturers during the mid-20th century. Greg serves as a living reminder of the South Bay’s surfing pedigree—a region that was, at one point, the focal point of surfing culture for the entire world. And Greg was right in the thick of it.
- Written byStefan Slater
“Greg’s probably one of the most well-known big-wave surfers of all time,” says Mike Jipp, owner of Lincoln City Surf Shop in Lincoln City, Oregon. As proprietor of one of the largest collections of Greg Noll memorabilia in the country, Mike’s bounty includes nearly eighty Noll surfboards, decals, posters, vintage jackets and swim trunks, magazine ads and more.
He adds that while modern big-wave surfers like Laird Hamilton have gone on to conquer bigger and meaner waves, Greg was a pioneer during an era when tow-in surfing, emergency flotation surf vests and surf cams were pure science fiction. In the “Golden Age of Surfing,” Greg had only his strength, board and skills to rely on. “It was much more dangerous back then,” Mike says.
Mike finds Greg’s mystique appealing. His accomplishments and reputation—he was nicknamed “The Bull” during his surfing prime in part because of his size (standing taller than 6 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds) and because he often charged headfirst with little hesitation in the heaviest of surf—form the cornerstone of Mike’s reasoning for starting his Noll collection.
Greg was, and still is, dedicated to all things surf. To put it simply, he loves everything about big waves. “All Greg wanted to do was ride big waves,” Mike says.
Speaking over the phone from Northern California, Greg is affable. Though his voice is a low, gravelly grumble, the stories come quickly and easily. In the background, it sounds like he’s listening to Hawaiian music, which—when paired with talk of pineapple fields and the entirely vacant lineups of the North Shore during the ‘50s—seems all too appropriate.
Greg was born in the 1930s in San Diego, and as a young child he moved up north to the South Bay, settling into a house near the Manhattan Beach Pier. “I was at a prime spot to see what was going on,” he says, regarding the area’s growing surf scene. He adds that some of the older local surfers would sometimes take a beat-up board, light it on fire and toss it off a cliff because “that was supposed to bring up the surf.”
One day he purchased one of the soon-to-be sacrificed boards, rescuing it from the flames, and picked up surfing at around 10 years old. According to Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Greg quickly became one of the top surfers in the region by the early ‘50s. He spent much of his time with fellow surfer Bing Copeland, but Greg was one of many talented surfers and shapers in the region.
From the older Dale Velzy to younger surfers like Dewey Weber and Hap Jacobs, the entire South Bay was alive with surfing talent. “It’s all we could think about,” says Greg about Hawaii. “For Bing and I, was this far-off, magical place where the surf was neat and the girls were good-looking.”
HAWAIIAN HUNCH Greg scoping the surf on the North Shore.
As a teenager, Greg convinced his parents to let him travel to Hawaii, and he ended up spending several months on the west side of Oahu, renting a Quonset hut at Makaha with a handful of friends. “We surfed our guts out all day, and if the surf was flat, we’d dive for food and steal a few pineapples from the fields,” says Greg.
While Makaha was his go-to, he also explored the now-famous North Shore with his friends. This seven-mile stretch is home to a number of dangerously challenging waves, including Pipeline and Sunset Beach. At that time, the North Shore was fairly remote and sparsely populated—a far cry from the modern North Shore, which suffers from ample traffic jams, crowded lineups, web cams streaming surf video 24/7 and televised surf contests on a regular basis.
“It’s a goddamned circus,” he says. “There were so few guys , that we would welcome anyone pulling up to a spot to keep us company—because there were so few of us.”
Greg developed a taste for bigger waves, riding massive sets at Makaha and Sunset, and in 1957 he made the push to try to ride Waimea Bay. The Bay, he notes, had an unsettling reputation. A surfer named Dickie Cross had died there in the ‘40s while trying to escape a sizeable swell. Even some of the homes on the beach were thought to be haunted.
So while the spot had plenty of big surf potential, few could work up the courage to ride it. But Greg and his friend Mike Stange paddled out one day to a ride a few 15-foot rollers, and the rest was history. “I dropped into a wave and thought I was going to get flushed down the toilet, but I made it, popped out and was still alive. By the end of the day there were seven or eight guys surfing. The taboo was broken.”
During the ‘60s, Greg began to develop himself as a surfing businessman. In 1965 he opened a 20,000-square-foot facility in Hermosa Beach, and during the height of production in the ‘60s he was cranking out roughly 200 boards a week—with many of the boards heading over toward the East Coast.
Jed Noll, Greg’s son and the current CEO of Noll Surfboards, notes that the Hermosa facility was entirely unique, as it was a “completely vertically integrated surfboard manufacturing plant.” Greg brought in raw chemicals to create surfboard foam blanks in one end, and then he blew the blanks, shaped, laminated, colored and then eventually sold them out the other.
Greg points out that the South Bay at the time was a fun but unusual place for business. His closest friends, like Dewey Weber and Hap Jacobs, were also his competitors.
“It was all the guys I grew up with. Here we’re in business and we’re supposed to be growling at one another, but we were friends. We’d drink and party and raise hell on the weekends, and we’d be business guys during the week,” he says.
Greg calls himself a “fun hog,” and he notes that everything he did—from big-wave surfing to his business—was done purely out of picking up a new challenge and having fun. But 1969 marked an entirely serious point in his life, one that dramatically changed his views on surfing.
According to the Los Angeles Times, three storms collided into one another in the Gulf of Alaska in December 1969, and the resulting monstrosity generated waves of roughly 50 feet in height in Hawaii and nearly 20 feet in California. Greg, who was on Oahu at the time, remembered waking up in the early morning to the sound of distant rumbling.
“I thought they were bringing in the tanks from Schofield Barracks,” he says. Once Greg realized that the island was being battered by heavy surf, he quickly made his way to Makaha. The storm knocked homes right off their foundations, and boats were strewn about the island’s Kamehameha Highway.
Greg, famous for his boisterous attitude and sizeable presence, is solemn when he thinks back to that day. “ gave you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. I was just really trying to get the balls up to do something about it.”
He eventually paddled out on his own and sat roughly 100 yards offshore, just beyond the impact zone, psyching himself up. “I had to say, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to forget it and paddle in and go around the rest of your life being an old shit?’”
Greg dropped into the wave, noting that he “got the shit kicked out of me”—the wave broke quickly and the ride was over fast. But Greg snagged what was then the largest wave ever ridden—a considerable accomplishment given that he did it solely on his own.
“ changed me,” he says. “It did it for me on big waves.” He points out that many thought he was simply bragging when he made it clear that he was through with big waves—almost as if “Da Bull” thought big surf was passé after riding the biggest wave possible.
Photographed By Jerod Harris
Greg Noll and Laura Noll arrive at the 2014 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards
But he notes that the wave offered him an element of freedom. Up to that point, surfing had been an obsession—an all-encompassing need that trumped every other aspect of his life. But once he’d caught that wave, the need to drop everything and surf began to diminish.
“It satisfied a need. If I didn’t catch the biggest wave on the next big day, I wouldn’t have to rush to the local therapist and have my head examined and be pissed off until the next swell showed up,” he says.
Shortly thereafter he shut down Greg Noll Surfboards and stepped away from surfing, instead focusing on commercial fishing and lifeguarding. “I felt like now I could focus on my kids and Laura and not be so obsessed with surfing big waves. It became such an obsession that it was starting to screw other things in my life up,” he says.
Jed notes that his father is driven by passion. “It’s 100% all-consuming. Whatever it is, it is all he thinks about,” he says, adding that even with commercial fishing, Greg would always operate at full bore. But after ’69, Greg began to focus more of his time on being with family. “As rough and as gruff as he is, family has always been important for him,” Jed says.
Starting in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when interest in the Golden Age of surfing started to resurface, Greg began to dabble in the surf world once again. He started shaping wooden surfboards—similar to the kind that were first used during the ‘30s in California—and he and Jed often work together to create these vintage-style boards.
Noll Surfboards, based in San Clemente, offers a wide range of custom boards, and the company is continually pushing the limits of surfboard design. Jed notes that the Nolls are eager to experiment with finless “Alaia”-style boards, which are similar to the first surfboards that the ancient Hawaiians rode.
As for Greg, he looks back fondly on his time surfing both in the South Bay and Hawaii. Surfing, for most of his life, was purely about having fun, and he equates his days in the South Bay’s Beach Cities—selling boards, surfing and spending time with his childhood friends—with pure, unadulterated living.
Surfing is still something he loves, and he’s always pleased when he meets someone who’s recently caught the surfing bug. It’s a life-changing thing with an almost magical appeal, he notes, and he encourages everyone to do it. “Surfing has some kind of magic, some kind of pixie dust,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so goddamned cool.”