Bull Riding

Riding the death-wish waves: big-wave surfing pioneers Greg Noll, left, and Laird Hamilton

It's hard to decide which legend is bigger--Greg Noll or the famous wave he battled like some Hemingway character decked out in striped board shorts and a scowl. Noll is a surfing god and long since retired, but both of those things are due as much to his lifetime spent in the water as they are to one fateful ride.

By the late '60s, Noll was 32 and big--about 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Big enough that all that surfing couldn't keep his midsection from growing somewhat soft. But the rest of him--his mind, his resolve, his balls--were as hard as his long board. They called him "the Bull" for his charging, thick-headed approach to an otherwise Zen-like pursuit. He'd point his board toward the biggest badass waves to roll his way and just go. Maybe scream "fuck it" or employ another of the curse words that did, and still do, frequently slip from his mouth. But either way he'd go--flinging himself into all sorts of dangerous situations without giving it a second thought. That's what made him special or, at the very least, different.

Surfing was booming by December '69, but only a few people, maybe eight or 10 in the world, were doing what Noll was doing. Only a handful were riding big waves--massive swells of wind-whipped water larger than most buildings. When a raging, unprecedented storm smacked into Hawaii's now-famed North Shore, most people took cover or watched the violent waves crash from faraway (and presumably safe) distances. Instead of running from the tempest, Noll hopped in his car and drove along the coast, drooling. The storm was fierce enough to close out almost all the good surfing spots, including one of Noll's favorites: Waimea Bay. He was undeterred. He kept motoring along, searching for who knows what...a wave that wouldn't kill him, maybe? He finally stopped at Makaha Point, grabbed his board and paddled out while a few random people watched dumbfounded from the shore.

What happened next is open to interpretation, because no video cameras were there to document it. But that hardly matters to surfers. Some say the wave was 30 feet. Some say it was bigger. Everyone agrees that, regardless of the actual size, it was certainly the largest wave that any surfer anywhere had ever attempted to ride. Noll, all alone out there, dropped into the beast and hung in for as long as he could before nature decided to slap him off his board and into the unforgiving, churning water. It took him 15 minutes to make it back to the beach and safety. That was the last time Noll ever rode a big wave.

"That day at Makaha was like looking over the goddamn edge at the big, black pit," Noll wrote in his autobiography. "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."

It was a defining moment--possibly the most significant thing to happen to surfing. Almost immediately Noll's ride became lore, quickly morphing from reality to history to mythology, a kind of "can you believe it happened 'cause I sure can't" event that changed the game. Only it's not a game. It wasn't like when Wilt Chamberlain dominated the low post, so they widened the lane. Wilt never had to fear death because of his profession (maybe he feared it because of the hunnies, but not because of basketball). Few athletes do. With the exception of the nutcases who drive their race cars around in circles at dangerously fast speeds, who else confronts death on the regular in the name of sport or passion? That's what Noll and his day at Makaha did for surfing. He took it from a leisurely pursuit, from an excuse to wear a tan, to something that demanded respect because of the challenge. Because it could kill you.

"Oh, I dunno now," Noll says years later. He's in town to help promote a brilliant movie about the history of surfing and, in particular, big-wave riding appropriately titled Riding Giants. He's older now, more introspective. His hair is grayer, and his belly is bigger, and maybe he's a little more modest. Which is natural. Fortunately, he's still tough; the years didn't temper his spirit--or his tongue. "Maybe it was all bullshit. I'm full of bullshit, and if you tell those stories long enough, they become bullshit, too."

Of course, it wasn't bullshit. It gave birth to the modern era of big-wave riding. There are more of them now, more surfers in Noll's image. Instead of eight or 10 in the world, that number has increased...now there are maybe 50 of them. Jeff Clark is one of the few. He appears in Riding Giants along with Noll and a few other hotshots, including the most famous big-wave rider ever: Laird Hamilton. (Hamilton is responsible for the newest evolution in big-wave riding, a phenomenon known as "tow-in surfing" where a Jet Ski is used to get surfers going fast enough to haul them into waves that are anywhere from 40 to 60 feet high.) The cinematography in the film is amazing, but it's also chilling. At the screening, I spent half my time oohing and ahhhing and the other half recoiling in horror and thinking that these guys were the craziest sumbitches/athletes I'd ever interviewed or seen.

"It's a mind-set," Clark says, looking at Noll. Clark, like Noll, made his mark by doing what no one else wanted to do. In 1975, at the tender age of 17, he was the first to ride Maverick's, a big-wave spot 25 miles south of San Francisco off the coast of a sleepy little town called Half Moon Bay, California. Today, Maverick's is revered as one of the most treacherous and impressive waves in the world (partly because of the huge rocks that sit ominously close to where the waves break). "What Greg did, he did it because he had the feeling inside him. It's hard to explain. The movie does a great job showing you what big waves are like--the tension, the energy. But that's not the whole thing. Big-wave riding, it's not like a sport. Not really. It's like another dimension almost. It's the ultimate thrill."

"It's like some fucking Matrix shit," Noll adds succinctly.

This is what happens when they talk about big waves. They get this distant, rheumy-eyed glaze, and they talk about how surfing is a way of life, how they learned lessons through the ocean and liken the water to a beautiful woman. On one hand I envy them, and I tell them so, because the lives they've led, the lives they remember, make them smile wide with contentment. They embraced the sun and the water and the adrenaline--especially the adrenaline--and who wouldn't enjoy that?

On the other hand, I think they're insane.

"Oh, we gotta get you out in the water," Noll says to me. "Jeff, don't you think we should get this guy out in the water? He'd love it, wouldn't he? Shit, you've got that look. I think you'd love it."

I'm not sure if I should be flattered or frightened.

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