[The Wavelength Drive-In Cinema is back for 2021, bringing you a range of surf cinema, cult classics and family favourites from the clifftops of Cornwall, including Riding Giants 26th August. Browse the full lineup and get your ticket here. Or, subscribe to Wavelength now to get free entry to a screening of your choice.]
Central to Riding Giants’ premise of the stories of the legendary figures that lead the charge of big wave riding is Greg ‘Da Bull’ Noll, whose swell of the century exploits on a giant day at Makaha in December 1969 is arguably big wave surfing’s defining mythology.
If ever a big wave legend nickname were to further icon status, Da Bull would surely be it, featuring both the strength of the uncastrated male bovine, and the honourific Hawaiianised definite article. For while surfing tends to have more Da’s than most, they’re still relatively rare. Scouse for father, Russian for yes, Hawaiian pidgin for ‘the’, and applied to a fairly select list of people or entities; aside from your Kines and your Huis, we’re only really left with Da Cat (pretty, agile… but untrustworthy) – and of course Da Bull.
Noll’s thick neck, broad shoulders and small eyes hark back to an era – rapidly passing into the rear view even in his own time – of brawn based surfers. Finesse was not Da Bull’s thing, chargers of his ilk more aligned with head down and go, gritted teeth daredevil types. But rather than the pedal to the metal of 1950’s hot rodders, in his case the physical pressure was that exerted ample quads and glutes straining at the stitching of canvas surf shorts as his wide surf gait teetered atop, then hurtled down and across mountains of Hawaiian water.
Towards the end of that decade, as modern surfing continued to break new ground, it was Da Bull that lead the charge of a handful of surfers to tackle big Waimea Bay for the very first time.
Seven years later, a famous John Severson / Surfer image of Noll beholding huge Pipeline pre paddle out in winter 1964 is perhaps surfing’s most iconic image of all. A man at the height of his muscular confidence and vigour looks somehow frail, almost insignificant when facing the might of the Pacific.
Perhaps most poignant of all is the way his surfboard is leaning on his shoulder, further adding to the sense of fragile poise. Rather than preparatory, it suggests a moment of beyond the point of no return awestruck contemplation. A surfboard so heavy most of us today would struggle to carry it down the beach looks as small and certain for destruction as the human foolish enough to dare launch it seaward into such violence.
If surfing sometimes seems overpopulated with legends, it’s because it is. Our folk heroes tend to hang around, and thus age before us in real time, the size of the swells of yesteryear they recount growing with their waist, forehead and aloha shirt size, precious few preferring obscurity to a perpetual limbo of tradeshow bar-b-q’s. And while Noll lived into his 80’s before passing away in late June 2021, central to his cementing his own legend was walking away from the sport altogether after one gigantic Hawaiian swell in 1969, to spend the next few decades in obscurity.
The precise details of the events of Dec 4th 1969, at Makaha on Oahu’s west side, as featured in Riding Giants, have been subject to heavy scrutiny in recent years. But surfing, especially the big wave wave kind, was never one to let truths get in the way of a hallowed creation myth.
The time-honoured fable goes a bit like this: Noll finds himself alone in the lineup at Makaha after a handful of other surfers wash in. Confronted by the biggest swells he’s ever seen, he rides one giant wave heroically to the flats, where he’s blown up by massive whitewater. No photos or film of the ride were captured, thus Noll’s own description of the wave’s size serves as the only record. Having stared down his own mortality, and blinked, he promptly walks away from the sport. Flies to California, sells his failing surfboard business, and moves to the Pacific Northwest to fish.
As he states in his 1989 autobiography ‘Da Bull: Life Over the Edge’, “That day at big Makaha was like looking over the goddamn edge at the big, black pit. Some of my best friends have said it was a death-wish wave. I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect I realize it was probably bordering on the edge.”
And while it turns out that an image from the day, until recently dismissed as a smaller warm up wave, was in the fact the wave in question, and perhaps wasn’t quite as big as the likes of Noll and witnesses like Randy Rarrick and Fred Hemmings like to remember, the legend remains very much intact. Not only did Noll walk away from surfing after that day, big wave surfing itself went into a decade or so of doldrums. Threading tubes became the 70’s grail, rather than riding down huge walls in a straight line, and an absence of legit El Niño winters in the Pacific until 1982 meant Noll’s Makaha bomb only ever grew with time and distance.
Physical feats of surfing excellence will always be topped, eventually, while the cultural significance of those endeavours lives on much longer.
“He more or less invented the big-wave surfer as an archetype or a character” says Matt Warshaw of EOS, ”Fifty-odd years after he rode his last big wave, he’s still the yardstick by which all other big-wave surfers are judged.”