South Bay surfer and legendary big wave surfer Greg Noll has died

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Away from the hotels, mai tai bars and tourists of Waikiki to Honolulu, Greg Noll sat on his surfboard past the foamy waves and pondered his fate.

“They were horrible, absolutely horrible,” he later said of mountains of water rising menacingly into the dark sky, lashed by a legendary storm in 1969. “The whole situation gave me a feeling of discomfort. “

He could die, he reasoned. Or he could spend the rest of his life regretting the missed opportunity.

Noll paddled the monstrous wave, her surfboard slamming as it sliced ​​through the beast’s face, then, suddenly, silence. Absolute silence. He was in the air, riding what would become known – and forever debated – as the greatest wave ever to be ridden at the time.

“When I caught that wave, I wasn’t the same person when I walked the beach as when I walked in the water,” he told The Times years later.

Noll, a legendary big wave surfer known for his fierce and fearless style of defying the sheer violence of the ocean, died of natural causes on Monday, his family announced on Twitter. He was 84 years old and lived in Crescent City in Northern California.

Gregarious with an outsized personality and a salty sense of humor, Noll was also an entrepreneur who helped transform the sport with his own line of surfboards and was among the first to fashion boards out of balsa wood, the making it lighter and easier to maneuver. But more than anything, he was a goodwill ambassador for the sport and an almost mythical figure to those looking for waves the size of freight trains.

Noll was born in San Diego on February 11, 1937. His family moved to Manhattan Beach when he was 3 years old. He was surfing at age 10, and by the time he reached his final year of high school, he had moved to Oahu to chase the swelling waves of winter on the island’s north coast and leeward side.

In Waimea Bay, he rode waves that rose three stories into the air and was said to have been the first to ride Pipeline’s insanely powerful waves. A tall guy, Noll earned the nickname “Da Bull” for his aggressive stance on the board, leaning forward much like a defensive end ready to rush the quarterback.

His reputation was as great as him, but it grew exponentially in December 1969 as the island was in the midst of a severe winter storm that flooded roads, pushed homes from their foundations and drove boats ashore. .

As Noll exited the shore of Makaha Beach, he said, he could hear police on megaphones advising residents to evacuate or take cover. He floated on the water for 30 minutes pondering his options, which were limited.

“I had spent 20 years trying to catch a little bigger wave and a little bigger wave,” he told the Orange County Register in 2004. “It was a terrible obsession in my life. . How could I live with myself if I had the opportunity and let it go?

So he paddled fast and hard and got to his feet and fell into a wave he estimated to be 35 to 40 feet high. He could hear it explode around him and thought, if this is how I die, I’m fine.

Greg Noll in 2009.

(MediaNews Group / Orange County Re / MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

The ride quickly became a legend, with the size of the wave increasing with each passing moment – 50 feet, then 60. With few witnesses and no tangible physical evidence, it became impossible to know. Although former world surfing champion Shaun Tomson filmed Noll’s journey from a nearby rooftop, he said he then misplaced the footage.

Decades later, in the 2004 documentary “Riding Giants”, filmmaker Stacy Peralta said he unearthed several film clips and photos from that day in Makaha that seemed to verify that the giant waves of December 1969 deserved the label. “Swell of the Century” and were probably as high as Noll had estimated.

Noll, however, grew weary of the debate, and with the advent of towed surfing, in which surfers are whisked away by boat in waves that eclipse anything a paddle surfer could reach, he thought the point was. questionable.

“There is nothing that puts you to sleep faster than an old man talking about the past,” he told The Times in 2004.

Tomson, still shy about the missing footage, saw it slightly differently.

“I think it’s better for myths to be shrouded in secrecy and unknown,” he said. “That’s what myths are.”

The ride in Makaha marked the end of Noll’s career as a big wave rider. “I never really needed to go back after that,” he told the Santa Barbara Independent in 2007.

Although never far from the beach, Noll started his own line of boards, opened a shop in Manhattan Beach, then one in San Clemente, then moved to Crescent City, where he was a professional fisherman. For nearly two decades, an annual surf tournament has been held in the small seaside town in his honor.

Asked by the Daily Breeze if he would change anything if he had to start over, he shook his head. Not a thing.

“It’s a good thing to be able to look back and say I’ve had a good life,” Noll said. “I owe everything to the ocean.”

A full list of survivors was not immediately available. Noll and his wife, Laurie, had a daughter, Ashlyne, and three sons, Jed, Tate and Rhyn.


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