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On Falling, Part III

How wipeouts have helped shape the evolution of surfing. A five part series.

Greg Noll admitted that he wasn’t a great performer like Phil Edwards, but then again, he weighed 230 pounds. “When you surf bigger waves, you’re blowing through the chop, paddlin’ like shit, keepin’ the spray out of your eyes, and driving to the bottom. It’s not as finely tuned,” Noll said. “And that was a huge advantage on that day we surfed the outside, outside Pipeline. It was breakin’ so far out. If you’ve ever stood there and looked out at the blue water where the reefs end, it was breakin’ just inside that. It was way outside.”

On the inside, the heaviest section, Noll felt his board begin to lift, gain altitude, and catch air—before he completely “ate shit.” The brutal swim to shore took another hour. Making it in was a stroke of luck.

The swell was so big that the shorebreak itself presented some serious problems. Noll and his buddy, Mike Stang, studied it for a long time. Getting out looked impossible. It was during this time when Severson snapped the shot of Noll in his black-and-white striped trunks, holding his elephant gun before the massive ocean walls like some legend come to life. To Noll, the photo was just a picture of “me looking at the shorebreak and trying to figure out how to get past it.”

At the outset, Noll and Stang paddled for an hour “just trying to get off the beach.” Once they found a path through whitewater closeouts across Second Reef, the pair discovered that the really big waves came much less often. Clouds darkened the sky but swaths of sunlight broke through every once in a while. Noll and Stang spent the next hour trying to line up among shifting sets. A “white elephant,” Noll called it. Finding themselves dangerously close to the impact zone, they scraped for the shoulder. “It was a really awesome break, it was beautiful,” Noll remembered. “Long, beautiful mountains of water.” A towering set wave then eased up enough to allow Noll to paddle into it. Once on his feet, to Noll’s terror, the wall of the wave grew and grew as he slid faster and faster in an all-out speed-run for some kind of exit. On the inside, the heaviest section, Noll felt his board begin to lift, gain altitude, and catch air—before he completely “ate shit.” The brutal swim to shore took another hour. Making it in was a stroke of luck.

Earlier that season, Phil Edwards watched Noll take another serious beating at Pipeline. Noll came up laughing; he said he liked it. Edwards was disgusted. “You know, you’re a bull-headed son of a bitch,” Edwards said. That comment was overheard, and the moniker “The Bull” stuck. “It was Phil that bestowed that anchor around my neck,” Noll complained. The nickname that most assumed to capture Noll’s hard-charging nature was actually based on Noll’s predilection for falling. In this regard, even the photo Severson shot of Noll set before his task—the image Noll later bought and continues to sell with his signature for $20 a pop—is a document in the great story of falling: of attempt and failure and attempt and success.


Part I: Mike Hynson
Part II: Mick Campbell and Danny Wills

THURSDAY | PART IV: Mike Parsons
FRIDAY | PART V: Shane Dorian