Of Water and Wood
Greg Noll and the Shape of the Ultimate Surfing Life
A few weeks back, in the afterglow of a special late-season west swell, the recently opened Dan Merkel Gallery played host to living legend Greg “Da Bull” Noll. On a night normally associated with college kids’ booze-soaked thrills, the most colorful character in modern surf culture held reluctant court in the back of the gallery. Flanked by his son and accomplished surfboard shaper Jed Noll and celebrated surf journalist Drew Kampion, the elder Noll, along with his lovely wife, Laura, was back in Santa Barbara for the first time in years to introduce Kampion’s new book, Greg Noll: The Art of the Surfboard.
For hours, the gallery buzzed with surfers of all ages and ilk, sharing shakas and smiles while waiting their turn to press the flesh with the 70-year-old Noll. Weary with a head cold, the man who helped pioneer Waimea Bay steadfastly signed copies of the beautiful new book, offering a genuineness rarely seen in this day and age of image-driven, shallow-end surf stardom.
At one point, a man, probably 30 years younger than Noll, approached with a poster. The picture was a grainy, though famous, black-and-white shot of Noll in 1969, fighting his way down the face of what, at that time, was believed to be the biggest wave ever ridden. The usual, “it’s an honor to meet you”-type of exchange ensued and, just as Noll was about to put his pen to the print, he looked up with a smile and set a trap for the unsuspecting autograph seeker, “Too bad there isn’t clearer picture, huh?” Before any real response could be ventured, Noll continued, “You know, if you want to complain, the lady who took it is right over there. She probably could have done a better job.” With that, he motioned across the room toward his wife, who, whether by pure coincidence or affectionate eavesdropping, was smiling back at him in a perfect dance of love and irritation. The moment-just like most things in Noll’s legacy-was refreshingly real and stuffed with the sorts of things we all live for but so often struggle to recognize.
It’s pretty much impossible to explain completely what Greg Noll has meant to surfing throughout the years. Akin to trying to explain the magic of flight by dissecting a bird, his legacy-though certainly unrivaled in its various parts-doesn’t become the stuff of lofty legend until it is taken as a whole. And, to that end, Greg Noll: The Art of the Surfboard is a sweet melody of a success. Weaving laugh-out-loud stories with vital history lessons and a stunning array of photographs both past and present, Kampion’s book proves to be much like Noll himself: honest, essential, and damn entertaining.
“I’m just a bullshitter-can barely spell my own name,” contended Noll. “Kampion’s the magician with words, turning the diarrhea that comes out of my mouth into something good to read.” While Kampion certainly is no slouch at spinning yarns, even the briefest reconnaissance into Noll’s past reveals the nuts and bolts of a very good story.
With a big frame, a big mouth, and a big attitude, there are few aspects of 20th-century surfing that don’t have Da Bull’s fingerprints on them. A big-wave pioneer back when surfboards weighed more than fifth graders, Noll, a self-described “life-long fun hog,” helped introduce modern surfing to Australia during the 1956 Olympics, was the publisher of one of the first surf magazines, Surfer’s Annual, discovered famed artist Rick Griffin, made five acclaimed surf films in the late 1950s, and provided the fodder for countless R-rated stories. And then, of course, there were the surfboards.
Starting in 1949 with a hunk of balsa wood in his parents’ backyard, Noll has been drawing lines across wooden and foam canvases ever since, making functional art of the highest degree. At its peak in the mid 1960s, Greg Noll Surfboards was the largest board-building operation in the world. And, after walking away from the surf industry for some 20 years to pursue commercial fishing in Alaska, Noll, along with his son Jed, continues to make some of the most beautiful and important surf craft in the world today at a workshop in Culver City.
Ironically though, Noll is perhaps more famous for something he hasn’t done. Since catching that moving mountain at Makaha more than 35 years ago, Noll hasn’t really surfed since. Remembering that day, Noll explained recently, “If you had asked me when I woke up that morning I would have told you, ‘I’m going to surf until I’m 80 and my arms fall off.’ But a funny thing happened when I made it into shore after that wave. I felt like I had just taken the biggest shit of my life and, man, was I relieved. That night, back at my house, I was even more relieved. I just never really needed to go back out there after that.”
Undoubtedly, The Art of the Surfboard is the perfect medium to explore the richness of Noll’s story and the intricacies of how it is, in so many ways, also the story of modern surfing. However, after reading it and talking with the author and the subject, it’s clear the book is less a recollection than it is a bridge-simultaneously presenting a passage back to surfing’s golden age through the eyes of one of its most gregarious participants, while also providing a means of keeping the tradition of handcrafted surfboards alive in the machine-infested, digitally driven brave new world of the 21st century.
The grit and texture of a surfboard shaper’s life are the backbone of the book and the seductively smooth curves of a glassed hardwood fin are its allure. But the pure bliss that comes from using your hands to create something that will deliver you and your friends happiness is the fundamental reason why this book matters.
As Noll put it, “The day we lose that connection between a shaper, his hands, and the surfboard is the day a lot of the magic of surfing will die.” Luckily, thanks to Noll and his son Jed, we won’t have to face that cruel death anytime soon.
For more info on Greg Noll: The Art of the Surfboard, which is available at surf shops and bookstores, see gregnoll.com.