Greg Noll: the fearless big wave surfing pioneer

October 28, 2021 | Surfing
Greg Noll: 'Da Bull' takes on Waimea Bay in 1963 | Photo: Bruce Brown

Greg Noll was one of the pioneers of big wave surfing and probably 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 her mother, Grace Zalabak, who had just divorced his father, Robert, and married a chemical engineer named Ash Noll.

Greg, who took his stepfather's surname, started surfing at the age of 11 and, by the time he reached his teenage years, he was already one of Los Angeles' finest hot doggers.

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 ultimate test.

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

The physically strong, broad-shouldered American started developing an obsession for big waves. He was 6'2'' (1,88 meters) and weighed around 230 pounds (104 kilograms).

So, on the following trips to Hawaii, Noll started stepping up his game by taking on bigger waves at Sunset Beach and Laniakea.

Aged 19, Noll traveled to Australia as a member of the American lifeguard team during the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

He and his crew immediately hit the surf with their balsa Malibu Chip surfboards, leaving a long-lasting fingerprint and legacy in the local surfing community.

Greg Noll: one of the first surfers to ride Waimea Bay | Photo: Noll Archive

Breaking "The Waimea Taboo"

A few months later, Noll would experience the most iconic event of his career - a historic stunt that would immortalize him.

The year was 1957.

Dickie Cross had lost his life after a two-and-a-half-mile paddle from Sunset Beach to Waimea Bay.

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

The goal was to make us of Waimea Bay's deep-water channel. Unfortunately, only Brown barely survived.

And so, "The Waimea Taboo" kept surfers out of the line for 14 years.

On November 7, 1957, Greg Noll and Mike Stange were ready to defy the haunted wave. The surf out-the-back was in the 15-foot range.

According to subsequent reports, the duo was not the first to break Dickie Cross's spell.

"It later came out that a mild-mannered Seal Beach lifeguard named Harry Schurch had, in fact, caught a few waves that same morning at Waimea, surfing alone, before Noll and his gang showed up," notes Matt 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 could not be enough.

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

"Da Bull": The Birth of a Legend

Meanwhile, the Californian surfer kept 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).

By 1965, the surfer-businessman opened a 20,000 square foot surfboard building facility in Hermosa.

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

The factory had separate rooms for each surfboard manufacturing stage.

One of the famous boards coming out of his assembly line was Mickey Dora's signature model, which featured "Da Cat" hanging on a cross made of two planks.

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

Greg's most iconic nickname is "Da Bull."

The moniker was given by Phil Edwards, the first surfer to prove that it was possible to tame the barreling Pipeline waves.

Wearing his legendary black-and-white prison-stripe boardshorts, the man who had defied Waimea Bay was ready - and hungry - for more.

The bigmouthed legend was the star of several 1950s and 1960s movies, including "Surf Crazy" (1959), "Gun Ho!" (1963), "Strictly Hot" (1964), and "Golden Breed" (1968).

Greg Noll also appeared in a couple of widely acclaimed and viewed films such as "Ride the Wild Surf" (1964) and the quintessential "The Endless Summer" (1966).

"Da Bull" participated in The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational from 1965 to 1969.

And just when he thought his hey-days were over, Noll dropped into one of the largest waves ever ridden in two decades.

On December 4, 1969, Greg paddled into a 35-foot wave at Makaha, Oahu, and was forced to jump off as the mountain wall of water exploded around him.

"It was like looking over the goddamn edge at the big, black pit," Noll wrote in his autobiography "Da Bull: Life Over the Edge."

"Some of my best friends have said it was death wish wave. I didn't think so at the time, but in retrospect, I realize it was probably bordering on the edge."

A few days later, he saved a seaman from drowning at Waimea Bay.

Greg Noll: wearing his trademark black-and-white, prison-stripe trunks at Banzai Pipeline | Photo: John Severson

A Final Comeback

Soon after, the "Babe Ruth of Surfing," as he was often called, radically changed his life.

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

The larger-than-life adventurous character got back to the media spotlight in the 1980s as a legendary surfer who had pioneered big wave riding.

He appeared in movies and documentaries and got back into the surf industry circus with Da Bull clothing company, Greg Noll Oceanwear, and a new movie, "Search for Surf" (1992).

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

Between 1991 and 1996, he ran a contest in Costa Rica for veteran surfers called 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 surf legend had four children with Laura Archuletta: Ashlyne, Jed, Tate, and Rhyn.

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

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