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We Could All Learn a Thing or Two About Beating Back Fear from Surf Legend Greg Noll

He was the first famous surfer and first name-brand extreme athlete. But his true legacy is how he showed the rest of us to stop being so scared of the unknown.

“I was a really young skinny kid, and I got my ass kicked from the time I can remember,” legendary surfer Greg Noll recalled in Stacy Peralta’s 2004 documentary Riding Giants. “I went to school and had my ass kicked. I went to high school and had my ass kicked. In some ways, maybe there was something there that drove me to want to pursue big-wave riding, to make some kinda statement. Y’know, I’m not a psychologist, I don’t know. All I know is once you get into it, there’s an adrenaline — a stoke — and that high is so addictive, that once you have a taste of it, it’s very difficult to not want more.”

By always seeking out more — by proving that a human could pull themselves up and over walls of water as tall as a six-story building and then drop down the face of that liquid edifice, surviving the freefall into the jaws of a sea monster — Noll set the mold for all the extreme sports to come — from skateboarding to snowboarding to flying wingsuits. Nicknamed “Da Bull” for his style, he was the first famous surfer. The first famous big-wave rider. The first name-brand extreme athlete.

He was born in San Diego, but he grew up in Manhattan Beach, a hilly beach town in L.A.’s South Bay. At 11, he already had a job. He saved up his meager pay to buy a used surfboard from the older guys at the beach. The year was 1949, and so, the roughly 90-pound boy bought a 110-pound redwood slab that had been carved down into a surfboard. The surfers of that era would soon switch to lighter balsa wood for their boards, but when Noll first started surfing, it was basically like riding a giant front door. The pain that came with learning to surf on it kept most people from ever getting in the water. Those who did dare to hop aboard were proudly unhinged, the early adrenaline junkies.

When Noll’s family moved back to the San Diego area — to a coastal community named Windandsea — he quickly joined a bunch of the other kids bucking against the staid conventions of 1950s America. “When I was 12, we were going to this big bash at Windandsea,” he says in the interview below. “I talked the older guys into piling in with them, and there were a couple of older gals — I mean older, these guys were 18 or 20 and I’m 12. We go down to Windandsea, and I get out of the car in the parking lot. You could hear the music, guys are out surfing and it’s a big lu’au type thing. We start to walk down to the beach, and there’s some guy banging a gal right on the hood of a car. Our guys were all stoked and everything; they brought their guitars so they started playing the guitar and clapping. God, I’m 12 years old soaking this all up — here’s this gal, and she’s kinda lying there, head back, and she looks down and sees me and she winks at me. I thought, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, I’ve died and gone to heaven. This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life. This is it.’”

“For the first time ever, [America] had a group of guys who didn’t give a rat’s ass about dropping out of the basketball team and football team and just giving the whole thing the finger and going, ‘I don’t give a shit about that I want to go surfing,’” Noll told Peralta in Riding Giants. “Here we are a bunch of scroungy surfers who the shittier you dress and the funnier the language you talk — which nobody understood half the stuff we were saying because it was all surf jargon — the more it would piss off society.”

All of which is to say, before the Beats made it cool to slouch into coffee shops and bang their bongos, before the Hells Angels became a neo-barbarian nightmare and the sign of a morally-decaying nation and long before the hippies turned on, tuned in and dropped out, there was the Beach Generation of 1951.

“We didn’t have any restrictions in those days, man,” Noll explained to Billabong for a mini-documentary about him. “We just went balls-to-the-wall. We fucked up, y’know. If somebody needed punching, they got it. If you had to go to jail, you did. All this bullshit about being a good citizen and working hard and going to college — forget it. Catch as many waves as you can, enjoy yourself, drink hard, screw your brains out. Just don’t lose sight of that feeling, man. When you go out in the water and you take off on a wave, you reach out and that thing’s breaking in your hand, and you’re just barely squeezing through the tube and you’re getting a thump — then you go in, you lay down in the that hot summer sun and you take a big scoop of sand and pull it up to your chest. Fuuuuck, man. What feels better than that?”

To pay for his new way of life, Noll shaped surfboards. He sold enough of them that he opened a shop. To sell more boards and pay for surf trips — especially after he relocated to Hawaii — he started making surf films. “If I wasn’t surfing, I was shooting film,” Noll often remarked. From 1956 to 1961 he made five films that all had the same title — Search for Surf. They featured himself, his friends, his surfboards and the power and beauty of crashing waves.

Soon enough, Hollywood took notice of Noll and surfers like him and their free-living lifestyle. “What screwed it up was that Gidget stuff — you know when Gidget came along and, shit, everybody wanted to surf,” Noll once lamented. What had been a community of a few thousand diehards metastasized into two million casual surf enthusiasts throughout the country. Lineups grew crowded, the talent pool diluted and the number of kooks and hangers-on steadily increased each summer weekend. Noll, however, still found ways to stand out — never more so than in 1969 when he rode a 50-foot wave, a record at the time, at Makaha on Hawaii’s North Shore.

He paddled out all alone, intentionally heading into massive storm waves as his good friend Buffalo Keaulana, along with a few other surf legends, helplessly looked on. They all knew his chances of survival were roughly 50/50. For a documentary from The Surfer’s Journal, Noll remembered the battle he had with himself that day: “I had to let a few sets go by and I had to paddle off to the side and I said, ‘Y’know, what do I wanna do here? What’s the idea? Do you wanna give up the whole show for a wave? Is this kinda stupid, or what?’ Then I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t do this, I’ll be 80 years old, sitting there banging my cane on the ground that I was a chickenshit and I let the wave that I’d worked all my life on go by.’ So I really didn’t have a choice. I paddled back into the lineup and one of the big sets came in, and I went down the thing and that was it. I mean, once the decision was made, the rest was mechanical. It happened.”

Fittingly, Noll did live on till his 80s, dying earlier this summer at the age of 84, with I’d imagine very few chickenshit regrets. After all, he had freed himself in the water, and then lived like a legend on land. In doing so, he showed the rest of us that our fears can be overcome if we’re willing to step into the unknown, and just say, “Whatever happens, fuck it, this is gonna be fun.”

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