Greg Noll – Shaping the Future
Born February 11, 1937, Greg Noll was (and still is) one of surfing’s most recognizable figures, and for good reason. Nicknamed “Da Bull” by Phil Edwards for his girth and hard charging, “bull-headed” approach to riding giant waves, Noll made surfing his life and livelihood, successfully avoiding the parameters of a 9-5 existence. Greg Noll crafted himself a powerful surfing brand through guts-for-glory charging and business savvy and remains iconic in his contributions to the sport as both a surfer and a shaper.
Noll’s future took shape after a move with his mother from San Diego to Manhattan Beach California at age three. The knock-kneed twig of a boy was immediately infatuated with the ocean, and at age eleven began surfing on a beaten oversized redwood balsa board. He soon became a young member of the Manhattan Beach Surf Club and was immediately taken with legendary shaper and surfer Dale Velzy for whom Noll swept and cleaned around the shaping room. Velzy’s tutelage would prove pivotal in Noll’s future as a master shaper.
While Greg Noll was fast becoming a top notch local surfer, he made his initial mark as a waterman as part of a lifeguard paddle board team. On a trip to Australia for a paddle competition, he and his fellow Californians rode their loose and fast fiberglass Malibu boards to the delight and surprise of the Aussies who immediately gravitated to those high performance long boards. Noll’s trip is regarded by many as the spark in Australia’s surfing design and performance revolution that is still being felt today.
Noll had begun traveling to the North Shore years earlier. Enamored by the surf and Hawaiian culture, he transferred to Waipahu High School in 1954 during his senior year and managed to graduate even while spending months living in a Quonset hut on the beach at Makaha. Surfing with names like George Downing and Wally Froiseth, Noll was among heavy company in the lineup riding the perfect waves of Makaha (then considered the world’s premier big wave).
Surfing the North Shore was still considered “off the charts” in terms of danger at the time. However, that seven mile stretch of surfing heaven would be where Noll would eventually cement his place in big wave history. The date was November 1957 when Da Bull grabbed his board and paddled out through a treacherous shore break at Waimea Bay. After trying to coax fellow surfers to join him (even being called the “Pied-Piper” for his efforts), Noll made it out and is credited as the first person to ride Waimea’s 25 to 30 foot swells.
Years later, the iconic image of Noll standing in contemplation on the beach at Pipeline in his trademark black and white striped trunks would place him forever in surfing’s collective consciousness. And, it was while riding a wave over that hallowed Hawaiian break’s third reef (far outside), that Noll would add yet another feather to his cap. Nobody had ever surfed Pipe that big or that far out, and the wave Noll grabbed in November 1964 was one of the heaviest waves ridden during that era and beyond. Later, during a monster swell in December of 1969, Da Bull put an exclamation point at the end of his surfing exploits by catching (what was then) the biggest wave ever paddled in to. That wave at Makaha held up as the bar to reach for big wave surfers for some twenty years.
Noll understood business just as he did riding waves. So he struck while his sometimes cartoonish image was blazing. Just as Greg Noll was riding massive waves, he parlayed his athletic fame into a massive shaping and surfboard manufacturing business. He shaped boards for the world’s greatest big wave riders and competitive champions (including Felipe Pomar’s 1965 championship winning semi-gun). He even forged a precipitous business relationship with the enigmatic Miki Dora to develop “Da Cat” signature model surfboard and subsequent ad campaign that would become the stuff of legends (including Dora in full Christ pose on a cross of surfboards). Noll worked toward lessening surfboard weight while retaining strength by using light weight stringers and lighter density foam with fewer layers fiberglass. With a 20,000 sq. foot factory in Hermosa, Noll was holding down the big-wave board market.
Ever the renaissance man, Noll also produced surfing films, the Search for Surf series as well as a brief foray into surf journalism in the form of 1961’s Surfer’s Annual.
After that infamous wave at Makaha in 1969, however, Da Bull effectively walked away from the surf scene. Noll moved on to explore Alaska and commercially fish for two decades but eventually returned to shaping on the heels of a resurgence of interest in vintage surfboards. He still shapes a limited amount of vintage Hawaiian boards each year for a hefty price and co-wrote Da Bull: Life Over the Edge. Although he claims to no longer surf, Noll’s surfing journey is an eternal presence in surfing’s history.