By Glen Martin | Apr 22, 2021
San Clemente, California
More than 60 years ago, Greg "Da Bull" Noll made water sports history, redefining what is possible on a surfboard. In 1957, the California native surfed 25- to 30-foot waves at Waimea Bay on Oahu's North Shore, stunning even seasoned locals who had long considered such behemoths unrideable.
In 1964, Da Bull -- so named for his muscular physique and extremely aggressive riding style -- was the first surfer to catch a giant wave on the outside reef of the island's fearsome Banzai Pipeline, and in 1969 he snagged what was at that time the largest wave ever ridden, a massive wall that reared up at Oahu's Makaha Point during a monumental winter swell. Some witnesses that day said the wave was 35 feet; others eyeballed it at more than 50 feet. In any case, the record stood for more than 20 years.
Greg, however, was more than the founding father of big wave surfing. He was also the living embodiment of the "waterman" -- the rubric applied to a person who is wholly at home in the ocean, swimming, surfing, or paddling in all conditions. Growing up in Manhattan Beach, California, he learned to surf at 11. He was a member of the Los Angeles County Lifeguards, and a competitive paddleboarder. He also learned to shape wooden and polyurethane surfboards from legendary board maker Dale Velzy. He started developing his big wave chops off the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula, ultimately perfecting them when he moved to Hawaii in 1954 after graduating from high school.
Greg made what he rode, and his fellow surfers admired the "guns" -- the big wave boards -- that he designed, and he found there was a ready market for his offerings. In fact, he was purveying boards under the Noll Surfboards logo in 1951. In between catching gargantuan waves, he expanded his business dramatically. By 1965, he was turning out 200 surfboards weekly from a 20,000-square-foot factory in Hermosa Beach.
But in a way, it all ended at Makaha in 1969. That giant wave, the record that stood for almost two decades? Yes, Greg rode it, but it still pounded -- and almost killed him -- at the end. It capped his career in more ways than one. When he finally fought his way through the soup and the rips and crawled up on the sand, he realized he was ready for a change.
So Noll and his family moved to Hiouchi, a tiny hamlet on California's Smith River near the Oregon border. He switched vocations, and for the next 20 years he made his living through commercial fishing. But Noll Surfboards never really died. Greg continued to shape boards, and his son, Jed Noll -- who learned the craft from his dad as a youngster -- expanded the brand, and now runs the business out of San Clemente in Southern California. The company's focus, however, is different from what it was in the 1960s. Instead of manufacturing 200 surfboards weekly, Jed Noll makes around 200 a year. The emphasis is on artisanal -- indeed, bespoke -- quality.
"Craftsmanship is all-important to us as a company and to me personally," says Jed. "For the polyurethane boards, we do everything except blow the foam. We shape and glass each one in our shop. And it's a source of personal pleasure for me, not just the foundation of our business. It really keeps my creative juices flowing. I enjoy every step of the process."
Jed and his contract team work on the polyurethane foam boards, while he produces the wooden boards with his dad, who is now 84. The foam boards sell for between $800 to $1,200, while the wooden boards are priced between $6,000 to $12,000.
"We make between eight to 10 wooden boards a year," says Jed. "Most are homages -- replicas of classic and famous designs. Each design has been picked by my dad for its significance to surfboard evolution, from ancient Hawaiian boards to the balsa wood boards of the 1940s. Each represents a specific era."
The wooden boards are exquisitely beautiful, the highest artistic expression of surf ethos. Most are used for display, but they're true surfboards and are crafted to perform well, says Jed. "We do have customers who surf them. Some want a classic wooden board that they can take out a few times a year, and others may just want to surf it once and then put it on a wall."
Noll is a seminal surfboard brand, one that has great historic and emotional significance for serious surfers. So it should come as no surprise that the secondary market for Noll boards is extremely strong. Older Noll boards in good condition are sometimes priced in the mid-five figures.
The "Pipe Gun" -- the legendary board that Noll used to surf the Banzai Pipeline in 1964 -- is featured in an iconic photograph of Da Bull gazing at the massive sets pounding in, and it remains in the family. If it came up for auction, it would probably fetch between $100,000 to $150,000. "Not that we'd ever sell it," says Jed. "It's a big part of our family's history."
Owners of vintage Noll boards come into the San Clemente shop fairly often and want to know what their boards are worth, says Jed, "and I can't even tell them. I direct them to appraisers who keep current on the market. For us, it's still all about the surfboards -- making one Noll surfboard at a time. We don't compete with anyone. We're not planning to expand to 600 boards a year. I just want to make very high-quality boards that maintain the traditions of our family and the brand. And I want to be able to spend time with my family, coaching my kids at sports -- and doing some surfing myself. I still try to get out a couple of times a week."
Challenges: "Surfboards typically require a lot of petroleum-based materials, and the big challenge for us is getting away from that," says Jed. "Environmental sustainability is important to us as surfers and businesspeople. There are alternatives out there, and we're exploring them and always looking for new sources. But we still have to use some petroleum-based products at this point. Finding the right balance -- and moving that balance point in the right direction -- remains a major challenge for us."
Opportunities: "Right now I'm working on something that's very exciting, but I'm not really in a position to talk about it yet," says Jed. "I will say that we're always looking at new materials and new production techniques. We're always pushing forward on solutions that aren't simply good for business, but are better for the environment."
Needs: "At this point, I'm happy to say we have no immediate needs," says Jed. "I know the COVID epidemic was hard on many manufacturers, but if anything, it accelerated our business. The beach was one of the few places people felt safe to visit, and that ramped up the demand for surfboards. We've set up our business so I do the work I want, and we have a number of talented independent contractors we use who can work to our specifications. Our supply chains are also secure. So we can be flexible on production, responding to demand as it occurs. We've been offered a lot of opportunities, and we've passed on many of them. But I'm comfortable with our production level, and I'm comfortable in my own skin. Again, it all comes back down to the surfboards, to making that individual board. That's what has kept this family going since 1951, and that's what keeps us going."