Hermosa Beach’s Greg Noll was Da Bull. His surf legacy was even greater than he claimed
by Kevin Cody
Five of the six inductees in the inaugural 2003 Hermosa Beach Walk of Fame ceremony were surfboard builders from the ‘60s Golden Era of surfing. Individually, and collectively, they rank among the most influential figures in the sport’s history.
“It just goes to show that if you live long enough and you tell enough B.S. surf stories, at some point, everyone will believe you because there’s no one around to dispute you,” Greg Noll, then 66, said during his acceptance speech.
The other board builders inducted that day were Hap Jacobs, Bing Copeland, Rick Stoner and Dewey Weber.
Former pro surfer, Mike Purpus, the sixth of the inaugural inductees, observed that Noll, Jacobs, Copeland, Stoner and Weber, by themselves, secured Hermosa Beach’s claim to the title of Surf City, no matter what the courts determined in the then pending lawsuit over the title between Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz.
Of the five board builders, Noll looms largest. He was 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He rode the biggest waves, built the biggest surfboard factory, and promoted himself relentlessly by producing surf films, publishing surf magazines, and enlisting surf cartoonist Rick Griffin to illustrate his adventures.
Noll surfed in black and white, striped board shorts in the era of black and white photography so he would stand out in the line up.
“Boorish but charismatic,” is how Encyclopedia of Surfing editor Matt Warshaw, who grew up in Manhattan Beach during Noll’s reign, begins his Noll entry.
Stoner died in 1977, and Weber died in 1993. The gentlemanly and reserved Jacobs and Bing each retired without fanfare, though both still license their names.
Noll, by contrast, remained a commanding figure in surfing, up until his death on June 28, at age 84, of natural causes.
Warshaw, in a tempered tribute following Noll’s death, wrote, “In one of his final public appearances — the 2016 World Surf League Big Wave Awards, in Anaheim — Noll lumbered to the mic like Falsfaff gone Hawaiian and told a story that began as a somber tribute to a recently-hospitalized friend…” The story ended with a punchline so raunchy even the testosterone-riddled audience groaned.
Noll began surfing and shaping surfboards in his early teens. His mentor was Dale Velzy, who shaped and sold balsa surfboards underneath the Manhattan Beach pier, and is credited with opening the first surf shop, up the street from the pier.
In 1954, at 17, Noll dropped out of Mira Costa High school, and moved to Hawaii, where he was the only haole among 1,700 Hawaiians at Waipahu High School.
Phil Edwards, the first surfer to ride Pipeline, gave Noll the nickname Da Bull for his pioneering big wave surfing at Waimea and Makaha. Like Pipeline, the waves were previously thought to be unrideable. But Noll’s most significant contribution to surfing, though overshadowed by his big wave riding, may have been his influence on surfboard design.
“When we first went to the Islands in the 1950s, we were riding our South Bay beach boards, and we had a helluva time. It was just natural that we started to taper in the nose and tail to make the things more streamlined, plus we made ’em a little longer. We hit on that semi gun shape after the first or second winter, as I recall,” Noll told former Surfer Magazine editor Drew Kampion for Kampion’s 2007 Da Bull: The art of surfboards.
The gun’s flat bottom was designed for paddling speed and its narrow tail helped keep the big, single fin from breaking free of the wave, Noll explained.
The first cover of Surfer Magazine, in 1960, pictured Hawaiian Jose Angel riding a 10-foot-10 Greg Noll semi gun on a giant Sunset wave.
In 1969, Felipe Pomar won the World Championships on a Greg Noll semi gun. The following winter, Ricky Grigg won the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational on a Noll semi gun.
“It wouldn’t be going too far to say that board won the contest. I was just the lucky guy who happened to be on it,” Grigg told Kampion.
(Grigg, who grew up in Santa Monica, also won the inaugural, 1955 Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race, from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Pier. Noll finished third in the race, despite overshooting the pier, after getting lost in the fog, and paddling to El Segundo, before following the coastline back to the Manhattan pier.)
He retired from big wave riding in characteristically dramatic style.
“Noll was 32 when he dropped into a churning 35-footer at Makaha on December 4, 1969, jumping off the back of his board just as the giant wall exploded around him,” Warshaw writes in the Encyclopedia of Surfing. “It was thought to be the largest wave ever ridden up to that point, and remained so for more than 20 years. It was also Noll’s last big-wave hurrah.”
“That day at big Makaha,” Noll recalled in his 1989 autobiography, Da Bull: Life Over the Edge, “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.”
In Stacy Peralta’s 2004 documentary “Riding Giants,” Noll recalled that day with cinematic, and cunning candor.
“I had a real hard time trying to gear myself for these things because I knew the chances of surviving one of these waves was about 50-50. I’m thinking to myself, am I giving up the farm for a stupid wave. I had to paddle 100 yards outside the wave, and sit on my board with my head down and kinda go into another gear.”
“That day the monkey was off my back, and my life took a turn,” Noll told Kampion
The year 1969 coincided with the short board revolution.
“It was a whole new deal that, to me, was repulsive. I didn’t understand it,” he says in Kampion’s book.
Noll had built a shortboard a decade earlier, in 1960. He called it the Blob.
“It was definitely ahead of its time. Guys used it, but they couldn’t really appreciate it that early on. If it could have clicked, the shortboard era would have come a lot sooner. Actually, I think it came within a tick of starting something. Dewey Weber came down to the Manhattan pier one time and didn’t have a board with him, so he used it, and he rode the crap out of that board,” Noll told Kampion.
The disruption upended the Golden Era board builders. Weber closed his shop. Stoner sold his. Bing licensed his name to Mike Eaton, another Hermosa board builder who had moved to San Diego. Jacobs took a Skil Saw to the longboards in his gallery-like shop so they would fit in a dumpster. “No one would ever buy a longboard again,” he told local surfer Joey Lombardo. Jacobs became a commercial fisherman, but returned to shaping during the longboard resurgence in the early 90s.
Noll attempted to make the transition with a new shortboard model. But his disdain for shortboards was evident in the name he gave it — the Ironing Board.
Noll told his shop manager, Eddie Talbot, and his shaper, Pat “Gumby” Rayan, to stop wasting time diddling with new shortboard designs.
“R and D means Ripoff and Duplicate. Go to Dewey’s shop and copy what he’s doing,” Talbot recalled Noll telling him.
In 1971, a tax agent visited his Cypress Avenue factory.
Talbot thinks it was for workman’s comp withholding, but it could have been the IRS.
“One day, this lady comes in,” Talbot recalled, “and says ‘We’re shutting you down.’ I said, ‘The F… you are. She had three armed agents with her. They chained shut the factory. I sat on the front steps that day and had to tell Rocky Sabo [a pro surfer] and everyone else who had boards in for repairs that they were locked up.”
Da Bull was done. He offered Talbot the business, but Talbot declined the offer. It came with too much debt.
“I told Greg that Gumby and I were going to start our own business and call it Sea Freedom.
“He said, Eddie, put your name on the door. That way when you’re sick, and tired, and pissed off, and feel you can’t take it anymore, you won’t quit because your name is on the door.
“I learned a lot from Greg. Mostly what not to do,” Talbot said.
Noll’s most lasting legacy to surfing came with one last, defiant statement before he moved to Crescent City to, like Jacobs, become a commercial fisherman.
“Greg told Gumby and me to grab all the foam blanks, barrels of resin and bolts of fiberglass that were left in the factory. before the taxman came back.”
“I was living in a studio apartment behind Jama used cars on Pacific Coast Highway. Over the next year I made enough selling those supplies to garage shapers to open ET Surf in ‘72,” Talbot said.
In 1983, an ET shop rat, turned shaper and pro surfer, Dennis Jarvis, left ET to open Spyder Surf. Today, ET Surf may sell more surfboards than any other surfboard shop in the country, many of them shaped by Ryan. Spyder Surfboards is a close rival, and has two stores in Hermosa Beach, and one in Manhattan Beach
Talbot, Ryan and Jarvis all became Hermosa Surfer Walk of Fame inductees.
Noll, unlike his fellow 2003 Hermosa Beach Walk of Fame inductees, continued to burnish his already mythical reputation with two books, an annual surf contest in Costa Rica, and frequent surf industry and surf documentary appearances.
During the ‘90s longboard resurgence, Noll resumed production of his most famous model, Da Cat, an all black board named after “surfing’s black knight,” Mickey Dora.
The reissued Da Cat was so popular that a young Ventura shaper made counterfeits, and was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department’s art fraud division.
Noll, when he told the story, proudly noted that the “art” fraud division made the arrest. He declined to prosecute, he told the police, because, “Man, if I was his age, I’d probably have been doing the same thing.”
Even at his 2003 Hermosa Beach Surfer’s Walk of Fame, Da Bull was still Da Bull.
“The cops wanted to throw me in jail or run me out of town,” he said “And now they want to give me an award.”
Source material for this story comes from the Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS.Surf) ER