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Greg Noll

Greg Noll is the most mythic of big-wave surfers. Known as “Da Bull,” he was born Greg Lawhead on the 11th of February, 1937 and changed his name after his mother Grace married Ash Noll, a chemist. They lived near the Manhattan Beach pier, where the young boy fished and worked as a bait-disher. Out on the pier, he whiffed the wisdom of the fishermen and first felt the euphoria of the “kook-box” and redwood surfboard sliders riding the swells below. That, he thought, is what I want to do with my life.

At the time, surfboards typically weighed 60 to 100 pounds, and surfing was a man’s sport. But on the beach beneath that very pier, a young man named Dale Velzy was carving surfboards from lightweight balsa wood, littering the beach around the Manhattan Beach Surf Club with the shavings of his new “Malibu chips.” These were shorter, lighter boards that made it easier for women and kids, too, to surf.

In 1950, largely because of the mess he was making, Velzy was forced to move his operation off the beach and into better digs not far from the beach, the pier, and the clubhouse. His new place, at Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Ocean Drive, was the world’s first surf shop, and for Greg and Bing, who had fallen under Velzy’s spell, it was an extraordinary place where a few raw materials came in the door and surfboards went out.

Dale Velzy was a colorful character – a hard drinker, a lover of fast cars and women. It was Velzy who bestowed on young Greg the nickname that a thousand other kids would soon suffer. “Greg was the first of a whole gang of ’em – Sonny Vardeman, Rick Stoner, Bing Copeland – and I inherited ’em all,” Velzy commented a few years ago. “But Greg was the ornery one of the bunch; he was a mischief. His mom made me take care of him because he wouldn’t come home. I just had to come up with a name for him, and ‘gremlin’ seemed to fit. He was the first gremmie, but he was always a lot of fun – in the water, out of the water – under my feet all the time. He was a great kid.”

It was hanging around Velzy’s rather primitive surf shop that Greg learned the fundamental skills of shaping and glassing a surfboard. He learned the basics of working with balsa, fiberglass, and resin. Beginning with ding repairs, he soon rose to more trusted status. “Balsa was coming into fashion,” he recalled over 50 years later, “but it was expensive, and so a lot of guys brought their boards in to Velzy for reshapes. These were typically the so-called Pacific Homes System boards, which were made of a combination of redwood and balsa. We’d strip off the redwood and reshape the balsa into a contemporary board.”

It became Greg’s job to remove the old finish and tear away the redwood in preparation for Mr. Velzy, who would come in with his draw knife and whittle the thing into a more compact and contemporary shape, ready to be finished, fiberglassed, and born again.

One day, recalls Noll: “This guy brought in a board – Jerry Cunningham was his name – and he wanted it reshaped into a modern Malibu-style board. So Velzy and Bill Bahr tore off the redwood off and put balsa rails on the thing, then they went to lunch, got shit-faced, and didn’t come back, so I ended up shapin’ this board. It was the first board I ever shaped, and I remember Velzy comin’ back ... lookin’ down the board, lookin’ at me ... lookin’ down the board, lookin’ at me ... and that’s the last time he let me touch tools in his place. He obviously recognized future competition when he saw it. So that’s when I started shapin’ boards on my own.”

Noll shaped his first board amidst the clotheslines in his parents’ backyard, but he was quickly banished once they’d witnessed the catastrophic aftermath of the process. His operation moved from garage to garage , where he built boards for himself, a few friends, and an expanding clientele. Greg had a gift for working with his hands, and his surfboards quickly developed a cachet in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Greg was developing prodigious water skills. Though he was a wiry kid, he was strong. He was a stalwart paddler (some say 90 percent of surfing is paddling) and became an Los Angeles County Lifeguard. He placed third in a Catalina crossing, a prodigious 26-mile paddle from the island to the mainland, even after getting lost in the fog and landing six miles up the coast! “The word for Greg is tenacity,” states fellow lifeguard and lifelong friend (since the eighth grade) Sonny Vardeman. “He goes at his own speed, and he just keeps going until he gets it right. The lifeguard training got him in great physical shape and gave him a good knowledge of ocean hazards. I think that’s why he prevailed in big waves.”

Riding the shorter, lighter, radically more maneuverable balsa boards that Velzy had taught him to build, Noll became one of the hot South Bay and Malibu stylists of the mid-1950s. But he discovered that he really loved the big stuff and gravitated to Lunada Bay, out on Palos Verdes Peninsula, which was more exposed to winter swells that could develop considerable size and power. So by 1954, when his older friends started migrating to Hawaii for the big winter surf at Makaha, 17-year-old Greg figured he was up to the challenge. He sweet-talked a casual cat named Billy Ming into being his “guardian” and engineered a transfer to Waipahu High on the western shore of Oahu, where Noll was the only haole (Caucasian) among some 1,700 Hawaiians.

The allure of Hawaii had been projected for Greg and his California friends by Bud Browne, a filmmaker who created the surf-film genre. His images of transparent waves being feathered by gentle tropical breezes was too much to resist, but the reality of living and surfing in Hawaii came with a price. Greg had to earn the respect of the locals on Oahu’s relatively isolated West Side, and often this meant taking a beating. “I figured it was a cheap price to pay to be able to listen to the music, drink beer, and be part of the gang.”

It was his paddling that earned Noll a spot on the US lifeguard team that traveled to Australia to compete in paddling and surf-lifesaving events coincident with the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. “Mike Bright, Tommy Zahn, Bob Burnside, Bob Moore, and I brought our boards down there to Torquay,” Noll remembers. “It was after the paddling races, and Mike Bright and I grabbed our surfboards and paddled out. I remember taking a wave, making a little turn, and cutting out the back, then I looked up and saw all these people running back up the beach. I thought somebody had a heart attack.”

Caught in an evolutionary cul-de-sac since way back in 1914, when visiting Hawaiian waterman Duke Kahanamoku left his surfboard behind as the prototype, the Aussies were blown away by the surfing of Noll and friends on their new Malibu chips. A huge crowd gathered, the press was there, and Noll and company made the front page of the Sydney paper. Olympic sponsor Ampol Oil filmed the whole thing, then circulated the movies to surf clubs around the country. The result was a boom in “Malibu” surfing downunder and the eventual rise of Australia as a global surfing superpower. To this day, the Aussies still call traditional surfboards “mals.”

As it turned out, the fun-hog looseness of the Californians triggered the weakening of Australia’s rather tyrannical surf-club infrastructure. As Greg puts it, “Surfing had a liberating effect on the culture. If it hadn’t been us, it would have been somebody else, but our surfing hit ’em like a comet. Took ’em from horse and buggy straight to Porsche.”

So began Greg’s surfing career. Greg returned from Australia, married his high-school girlfriend, worked as a county lifeguard, and made surfboards. Caught up completely in the lifestyle, each winter he returned to Hawai’i, where he found in the challenge of giant surf an arena that was limited only by his own fear; and each year he pushed himself higher. He became fast friends with a core group of local surfers and great spirits, notably Buffalo Keaulana and Henry Preece. He rode the big days with Buzzy Trent, José Angel, and Pat Curren. He commissioned Waianae tailor M. Ni’i to make him a special pair of black-and-white jailhouse-striped trunks, sort of as a joke, and they became a virtual symbol of his increasing focus on surfing large waves.

There is some controversy over who was the first to ride Waimea Bay, but it’s pretty clear who got the party started. Waimea had been kapu (forbidden) to surfers since December 22, 1943, when a couple of young surfers were caught off shore in an abruptly rising swell, and one of them (Dickie Cross) was famously killed. But on November 7, 1957, clearly at Greg Noll’s instigation, Waimea Bay was ridden for the first time by a daring dozen or so surfers. They included Pat Curren, Harry Schurch, Del Cannon, Mickey Muñoz, Greg’s good friend Mike Stange, Bob Bermell, and Noll, who promptly proclaimed that the taboo was broken.

“That first day at Waimea?” Stange says, “No one would even have thought of [riding] it except for Greg.” From then on, Noll found definitive star billing in his pursuit of big waves.

“He was good – a charger – and fun to surf with because he was so ultra competitive,” recalls his old friend and fellow big-wave surfer, Peter Cole. “When he was young, he was a hotdog surfer, but as he got older and bigger, he focused on the largest waves. His thing was not to get outridden on the biggest wave. He’d be out there with Jose [Angel], Ricky [Grigg], George [Downing], and the rest of the gang, and if one of us got a good wave, Greg would immediately paddle outside and be sitting there, hyperventilating, waiting for a bigger one. The thing I remember most is him taking off on these huge waves – and I swear he had his eyes closed.”

Greg wanted to surf other kinds of waves, too. He was the first to follow in the footsteps of Bud Browne, shooting the surf and surfers of Australia, Hawai’i, and Mexico and “four-walling” his first film, Search for Surf, in clubhouses and small auditoriums up and down the Coast and in the Islands. He made three more films – “as good as anybody’s at the time,” says Bruce Brown, whose The Endless Summer took the genre to mainstream consciousness.

Noll spiced his basic surf flicks with outrageous and self-flagellating antics (i.e. surfers dressed in Nazi SS regalia riding Flexi Flyers down through pitch-black La Jolla sewers and out onto the beach at Windansea) – goofy bits of slapstick to break the monotony of the formula. Noll even made a stab at creating a surf magazine, published around the same time as John Severson’s first annual, The Surfer. Greg’s 1961 Surfer’s Annual featured the first published illustrations of a kid named Rick Griffin, who would become surfing’s most celebrated artist.

By the mid-’60s, Gidget had gone to Hollywood, surfing had exploded, and Greg’s black-and-white striped trunks were a cultural icon, emblematic of big waves and fearless commitment. Noll himself had become a living monolith of big-wave surfing. In December of 1964, he took it to the outer limits, paddling out on a huge day to ride one of the great waves of all time at Third Reef Pipeline.

Meanwhile, he had parlayed his reputation (and his considerable shaping skills) to move from the Homer Street garage through a couple of Manhattan Beach shops (including a prime location ata Pier and the Pacific Coast Highway) and finally (in 1965) into Greg Noll Surfboard’s Hermosa Beach factory, which was the consummate all-in-one facility. Over the course of those ten years, surfboards had progressed from balsa wood to a foam-and-fiberglass technology, which arrived just in time to service the demands of the boom. In fact, a critical balsa shortage coincided precisely with the availability of the new materials. Noll’s building occupied a full city block and was at the hub a nascent surf industry, flanked by several other manufacturers (including Jacobs, Bing, Rick, and Dewey Weber in Venice), which collectively made the South Bay the surfboard center of the universe. The biggest of them, Greg Noll’s 20,000-square-foot factory was the consummate all-in-one facility, with the unique ability to create its polyurethane foam “blanks” on site.

“We would start with 50-gallon drums of material coming in the one end of the building, we blended the polymers to make the foam, brought the ingredients together in a mixer, it went into the molds, and blanks came out. We had a cutting machine that was on a track; we had glue jigs that glued ’em up, and from there they went to cure. Then they were shaped, laminated (with fiberglass cloth and resin), colored and pin-striped or comp-striped, they got fins put on ’em, they were sanded, they were glossed, and they were shipped. It started at one end of the building and finished boards came out the other end. And each one of these steps would be a different department; we had 67 guys working at one time.”

The coup-de-grace of Greg Noll’s manufacturing career came in ’65, when he succeeded in forming a business alliance with his childhood pal, now bad-boy Malibu legend, Mickey (a.k.a. Miki) Dora to manufacture and sell Da Cat surfboards. He worked directly with Dora to create one of the most successful ad campaigns in the sport’s history. Business boomed! “I was making up to 175 boards a week,” Noll recalls. “Dozens of employees, advertising, dealers, up to my neck in shit and sinking.”

In 1969, once more returned to winter in the Islands, and it turned out to be the right time to be in the right place. On December 4th an epic swell hit the North Shore. The surf was giant. Houses had been thrown across the Kam highway. He had to circumvent roadblocks and resort to covert cane-haul road logistics to make it his beloved Waimea Bay, where humongous swells folded over and swarmed the bowl with frothing chaos – no surfing there today.

So he took the wracked and cratered road around Kaena Point to the West Side and old Makaha, where he caught the last great wave of his surfing career – the one that would etch his name in surf history – a bigger wave than any man had ever paddled into. And that was his adios. “That day the monkey was off my back,” Noll recalls, “and my life took a turn.”

There had been a revolution in surfboards (going from long to short) and surf culture in the late ’60s, concurrent with a revolution in the larger culture. “It was a whole new deal that, to me, was repulsive,” Greg admits. “I didn’t understand it. And when my dad passed away, I was ready, man. I thought the San Andreas fault was gonna crack and the whole L.A. thing was gonna go right down the sewer.”

Within two years, Noll had sold his business, put 15 years of paperwork into temporary storage in a garage (it’s still there), and headed north. “Laura (Greg’s wife) and I got in an old Metro that I fixed up, and we drove all the way to Alaska looking for a place to settle down. And we went through here, and I got in with some Indians, and we went up and killed some deer and fished for about a week, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ And most of that’s never stopped happening.”

“Here” was Crescent City, where Greg and Laura still live today, perched on the edge of the Smith near the “Cable Hole,” one of the best steelhead fishing spots on the river. Greg got into commercial fishing in the 1970s; got a good boat and did well. He caught a lot of fish, but he never drifted too far. Laura and Greg raised their daughter Ashlyne and son Jed (after Jedediah Smith). Later, Greg’s first wife and their sons Tate and Rhyn moved to the area. Life had settled into a rhythm when, ’round about 1985, Greg got a call from his old friend Buffalo.

“So Buffalo calls me, and he says, ‘Hey, bruddah, come down, drink beer.’ I say, ‘Where are you?’ He says, ‘I’m at some sports show in Southern California.’ Turns out it’s the Action Sports Retailer trade show in Long Beach. So Laura and I drove down there, and we walked into this convention center thing, and here’s all this shit goin’ on – y’know, gals with their tits in the wind, and they’re selling everything in the name of surfing that isn’t nailed to the floor, and … it was like chiseling this guy (me) out of ice – y’know, some prehistoric man – and I’m looking at all these Gotchas and Quiksilvers and Billabongs …

“And so I make friends with Jeff Wetmore, the guy in charge of the whole show. We ended up spending some time together – fishing, going to Baja – and we’d talk, and he’d be pulling these stories out of me, stories about the old days, and finally he tells me, ‘Greg, we gotta get all this down before you croak.’ So he hooked me up with Andrea Gabbard, and that’s how that book [Da Bull: Life Over the Edge] came about. In the meantime, he said, ‘Look, I want you to build me a board – anything you want – out of a bunch of redwood laminations or something.’ I built him a board, he hung it on his wall, and it never has stopped since.”

Today, Greg works with his craftsman son Jed (lovingly nicknamed Pinch for a particular habit he had as a nursing baby), making a dozen or so special surfboards a year. Each one is a classic recreation or inspiration, carved or planed or chiseled out of Humboldt redwood, Hawaiian koa, Port Orford cedar, or some other special wood he’s discovered from a network of salvagers, who keep their eyes peeled for this special customer. He makes replicas of the ancient olo, of Duke Kahanamoku’s redwood plank, of the spear-shaped hot-curl board, of Bob Simmons’ strange slot model, and other exotica. Most are purchased by collectors for thousands of dollars and will never so much as see water.

Greg Noll is a perfectionist, and his boards are much sought after; he has all the work he needs. Meanwhile, there is massive interest in just about any old surfboard. Boards that sold new for $120 in 1962 can go for five or ten thousand today. Surfboard auctions have become large-scale events and are often forums for raising money for surf-related nonprofit organizations. The collector market is on fire, and some of the most desirable commodities are old Greg Noll surfboards.

As the history of surfing becomes increasingly well-documented, the history of surfboards, as expressed in the progression of designs and materials, assumes a concomitant importance. To the educated collectors, these vehicles are sublime interpretations of the creative spirit of their times. But the art of Greg Noll has found a kind of culmination in returning to its ancient inspirations, and reinterpreting them in the light of 50 years of experience with the tools of his trade. The curves and muscles of the breaking wave are carved into these rare, handmade objects, and Noll’s continuing inspiration is to find an essential beauty in the marrying of the solid memory inherent in the wood with the swift-moving form inherent in the wave.