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Riding life's wave

Greg Noll in his work studio at his Hiouchi home. Noll, a Crescent City area resident for more than 30 years, is a world renowned surfer and shaper who just turned 70. He is now in Hawaii for his birthday celebrations, which include two large parties to honor his birthday, along with the birthday's of two close friends, both renowned Hawaii surfers. (The Daily Triplicate/Bill Choy).
Greg Noll in his work studio at his Hiouchi home. Noll, a Crescent City area resident for more than 30 years, is a world renowned surfer and shaper who just turned 70. He is now in Hawaii for his birthday celebrations, which include two large parties to honor his birthday, along with the birthday's of two close friends, both renowned Hawaii surfers. (The Daily Triplicate/Bill Choy).

By Bill Choy

Triplicate Sports Editor

Only 12 men have been on the moon and only a small few have reached the top of Mt. Everest.

Greg Noll is that type of person.

In 1969, this well-known surf icon caught a wave that at the time was believed to be the largest wave ever surfed.

A Crescent City area resident for more than 30 years, Noll is known as a pioneer in big wave surfing and is considered one of the most daring surfers of his generation.

He's considered one of the greatest board shapers ever, with his surfboards some of the most desired and costly in the world.

Noll, who is nicknamed "Da Bull" for his aggressive, straightforward approach to surfing, is one of the featured surfers in the surfing documentary "Riding Giants."

"Surfing Magazine" has referred to Noll "as the Chuck Yeager of the surfing world."

Last Sunday, Noll celebrated his 70th birthday.

Reflecting on the milestone, Noll said he's still shocked that a "fun hog" and an "old shape hack" like himself has been able to make such a memorable mark in life.

"It's been a total amazement," he said. "It's all been really nice. I never expected it. I feel so lucky to be living the life I have."

On his birthday on Feb. 11, Noll took is easy, spending time at the harbor and ocean in Crescent City, hanging out with his wife Laura and eating at their favorite Mexican eatery.

Birthday celebration

The real celebration begins on Sunday in Hawaii, where hundreds of people will celebrate his birthday on Oahu, where he accomplished many of his surfing feats and where many of his dearest friends live. The celebration is so massive there will be two separate parties that will occur. The events also will celebrate the birthdays of two of his close friends, legendary Hawaii surfers Buffalo Keaulana and Henry Preece, who he has known since he started going to Hawaii to surf when he was a teen in the 1950s.

Friends from all over the country are flying in for the event, including a surfboard shop owner from Alaska.

For Noll, there's nothing like being around his large circle of friends and family.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "It's the best. I've spent so much time in the islands."

What's important

Even with all his accomplishments, Noll said he is most proud and grateful for his friends and family.

He has been with his wife Laura for more than 40 years and said he would not be where he is today without her love, support and assistance.

Noll has four children, two from a first marriage, and numerous grandkids.

His son, Jed Noll, who lives in Dana Point, frequently comes up to Del Norte County to help his father craft surfboards.

"The path I have chosen in life was not based on financial rewards," he said. "My children, my wife, my friends and my family are more important to me than anything else in life."

And that's a major reason why Noll stays in the Crescent City area – for the "genuine" type of people that reside here, the small town atmosphere and being near the ocean.

"You just don't get that in other places," he said. "For me, being here is just a comfortable, warm feeling."

Noll could never imagine not living near the water and said if he moved inland, he "probably would shrivel up and croak."

Memorable wave

In his workroom, where he creates his surfboards, piles of wood are neatly stacked, and several surfboards hang proudly from the walls in his studio where he crafts around eight to 10 boards a year.

In the middle of the room hangs a bright yellow board, worn-out, covered with numerous bumps and scratches but still quite an artfully designed board.

This well-worn vintage board could easily be considered one of the more famous surfboards in surfing lore.

This is the board Noll rode at Makaha in Oahu, Hawaii, in December 1969, when he caught what many people considered up to that point, the largest wave ever surfed.

The estimates of how big the wave actually was wildly fluctuate, with Noll saying he has heard numbers from 30 feet up to 80 feet.

The waves that day were so large, homes in the area were being evacuated.

All he knew that day was the waves were massive, as he sat on his board, deciding if he would attempt to ride one and considered his chances of surviving the attempt.

In his mind, he came up with 50-50 odds.

"I came pretty close to dying on that board," he said.

A few years back, a surfing magazine insured the board for $40,000 so professional surfer Brock Little could take it out to Makaha to ride and compare the board to today's surfboards, Noll said.

The surfers in the water backed off from Little so he would be able to catch waves out of respect for what he was doing, which meant a lot to Noll.

"What they did made me cry," he said.

Do what you love

Noll is humbled everytime someone comes up to him and thanks him for his contributions to surfing and helping it become what it is today.

"It's not a sport, it's a lifestyle," Noll said.

To him, he was just a guy enjoying what he loved to do, and did not worry about social expectation that to be truly successful you had to wear a suit and tie and be a doctor or lawyer.

He knew from an early age his calling was somewhere in the waves that greeted him each day growing up in Hermosa Beach in Southern California.

Shaping boards

Noll said he has tremendously enjoyed his time making surfboards and is pleased so many people hold them in high regard. This includes many owners and executives at several well known surf related companies such as Billabong and Quicksilver.

Noll has been amazed at the thousands of dollars his boards fetch – especially the vintage ones he made years ago.

In the early 1970s, before he moved from Southern California to Crescent City, he recalled selling many of his boards for $25 a piece.

"If I had any insight, I would have put them in deep freeze," he said.

The past few years, Noll has branched out to other artistic endeavors, such as making sculptures that are shaped like surfboards out of wood.

He recently collaborated on a book "Greg Noll: The Art of the Surfboard," which was written by well known surfing author Drew Kampion, which is scheduled to be released in April.

Noll said he has been asked for years his thoughts on surfing and thought it would be good to put it in a book, and to give people a comprehensive history of surfing.

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