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The Great Outdoors

Greg Noll, The Surfer Who Became A Myth, Is Dead At 84

Noll staring out at a huge wave.
Screenshot: Surfline

After I watched Riding Giants for the first time, as a waifish pre-teen, I remember being shaken for weeks by a strong sensation of twinned horror and admiration. The skyscraper-sized waves these guys were surfing could kill them, they had killed some of them, and yet the best big-wave surfers in the world seemed to be unable to do anything but attempt to cheat death. The compulsion rattled me, and the idea that living on the edge is the only true, honest way to live has animated and bedeviled adventure sports and exploration stories for millennia. In this case, surfing a big wave is like climbing an imposing mountain, only the mountain disappears in seconds. You cannot point to a killer wave at Mavericks and be like, “I surfed that exact wave there.” All that lasts is the memory.

In this sense, the most emblematically legendary ride in the film is one that isn’t shown, because no video of it exists (probably): Greg Noll’s 1969 ride at Makaha, in defiance of a genuine once-in-a-century swell. Noll died this week, at the age of 84, and his exploits in the ’50s and ’60s mark him as perhaps the greatest big-wave surfer ever, and at minimum, its most important pioneer. Noll was a hardman, an undeniable party animal, and one of the people who pushed the biggest limits in surfing right as the sport (though he pushed back on the idea that surfing is or ever can be called a “sport”) was growing into mainstream consciousness. Makaha was the ride that cemented his legend.

Sixty homes were destroyed that day, and boats were strewn onto the highway. Noll’s photographs from nearby Waimea Bay (some shown in the video linked in the paragraph above, and unconditionally worth your time to look) show black walls of water, vaulted to impossible angles, advancing towards the shore like the gnashing teeth of some eldritch sea monster assaulting the land to take revenge. They look like exaggerated comic book monster versions of waves, and even seeing them feels wrong and dangerous in some inexplicable way, to say nothing of actually riding one of them. In Noll’s version of events, he paddled out and sat staring at the waves for half an hour psyching himself up. “Your chances of surviving one of these waves is about 50-50,” he said, “The final decision was that I’d never have forgiven myself if I allowed this day to go by without even trying a wave.” So he went. The legends say it was the biggest wave known to have been surfed at that point in history, and Noll says it was the biggest wave he ever surfed. He wiped out, and nearly died in the process, at one point staring up at one of the monsters he’d photographed earlier that day “starting to break in a section that stretched a block and a half in front of me.” He was flung across the water and under the surf as the wave crashed around him, and he barely managed to swim to shore before the current claimed him.

“That wave was so big and powerful and frightening that it kind of cleaned the surfing out of his blood,” onetime world champ Shaun Tomson later said. Noll didn’t walk away from big-wave surfing immediately, but the Makaha legend capped off his time as a big wave pioneer. He moved north to work as a fisherman a few years later and let the sport move on without him .”For 15 years, my whole thing was to ride a bigger wave than the year before. I was getting so cocky I said, ‘Come on, God, show me a wave I can’t ride.’ Then all of a sudden that day came along, and it kind of blew the cap off the whole thing,” Noll said.

In the decades since his legendary ride, aspects of it have come into question. Tomson says he actually captured Noll’s ride on camera, and another surf photographer has three photos of Noll atop the wave. People have questioned the actual height of the wave, and while it’s not altogether possible to come to a definitive measurement, weather historians have shown that the swell that battered Hawaii was genuinely freakish. None of that really matters to me, because the point is the myth. I was not unmoored by Noll’s ride because of the precision of his technique, or the minute details of his fall. The thing that matters is that he did something that nobody had ever done before, that he got pushed his defiance of death all the way to the very edge, looked into the void, and was allowed by the monster to rise again.