Big-wave rider Greg Noll, known as “Da Bull,” began surfing Manhattan Beach, California at age 10 and quickly became known as one of LA’s best hotdoggers. Noll visited Oahu, Hawai’i for the first time in 1954, at age 17, spending seven months in a quonset hut in Makaha. During that first trip, he made his initial foray to the North Shore — a 7-mile strip (not yet known as the “7-mile Miracle”) of wave-lashed volcanic rock and sand that would soon catapult Noll into the surfing history books.
Noll returned often to the North Shore, riding ever-larger waves at breaks like Sunset Beach and Laniakea. By late 1957, he was ready to try Waimea Bay, the deep-water voodoo wave where Honolulu surfer Dickie Cross had died in 1943. Noll convinced a group of seven other surfers to paddle out with him at Waimea on November 7, 1957. With that first group, he had officially opened up the break that would define big wave surfing for the next 35 years.
The Noll name became synonymous with big wave surfing, and he was featured riding Waimea in a host of surfing films made in the 1950s and ’60s, including Bruce Brown’s 1966 blockbuster The Endless Summer. Noll applied his surfing expertise to other creative projects during that time, producing the Surfer’s Annual magazine, the Surfing Funnies, and the Cartoon History of Surfing — all published in the early 1960s. He made five surf movies between 1957 and 1961, but his greatest star turn would come more than 40 years later in Riding Giants, the 2004 big wave documentary in which Noll recalls the highlights of his career.
Noll is today perhaps best known for his successful board business, Noll Surfboards. In 1965, he opened a custom-built, 20,000-square-foot factory in Hermosa Beach, California — the largest board-building operation in the world at the time. Noll Surfboards produced up to 200 boards weekly in 1966, about half of which were shipped across the country to dealers on the Eastern Seaboard.
In December 1969, Noll dropped into a churning 35-foot wave at Makaha, jumping off the back of his board just as the giant wall exploded around him. It was the largest recorded wave ever ridden and remained so for more than 20 years. It was also Noll’s last big-wave hurrah. “That day at big Makaha,” he wrote in his 1989 autobiography Da Bull: Life Over the Edge, “was like looking over the goddamn edge at the big, black pit.”
In short order, Noll stopped riding big waves and stepped away from his surfboard business, then spent 20 years working as a commercial fisherman in California. He kept one foot in the surfing world, however, helping to establish, along with Cecil Lear, the East Coast Surfing Legends Hall of Fame in 1996. (The inaugural class is officially known as Greg Noll’s East Coast Surfing Legends Hall of Fame.) That same year, he was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. At the 1999 SURFER magazine awards, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in surf films.