When I moved to Pacific Beach in April of 1970 they were still talking about it: the epic swell of winter 1969. To the locals I had just missed the swell of the century. A swell whereby three separate North Pacific storms merged to create near-hurricane force winds blowing across a broad stretch of the North Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii creating one of the most unique storms ever. Over the first few days of December, La Jolla Cover peaked at 20 feet, homes along California’s coast were destroyed by high surf and 30– to 40-foot waves hammered parts of Kauai and Oahu, with the North Shore being partially evacuated. Often remembered as the “Swell of the Century,” weather records have confirmed that the ’69 swell event was among the most powerful in history (Encyclopedia of Surfing):
“While it’s been said that surfers from the period remember the swell of 1969 as bigger than it really was,” Matt Warshaw wrote in the recently released Encyclopedia of Surfing, “satellite images, along with atmosphere-gauging millibar charts and on-the-beach photographs, all prove that the swell was, in fact, the most powerful on record. (Steve Hawk, 2004).
During that swell, with most of the north shore closed out and was flooded by giant waves, Greg Noll paddled out at Makaha with a few others and waited to surf what was at that time “the biggest wave ever ridden” and the last big wave of his career. A record which remained for over twenty years. A big part of the lore is that supposedly no photograph exist of the famous wave, which adds to its charm as a singular event (Owers, 2011, but see below).
I repost Noll’s story here, from Legends of Surfing, to remind us of the challenges these big swells present and the surfers that rise up to face those challenges despite tremendous fear. These are lessons we should never forget, which is too easy these days given our big-wave obsessed, media-fueled events which make it seem an everyday event. It is not. Because in the end it is just you and the ocean. To those that faced these early challenges, in my opinion, we owe a great deal of respect. I start with a quote from Noll on why he did it:
I thought to myself. ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll be eighty years old. Banging my cane around. Still pissed off that I’d gone chicken-shit on the one day I’d worked for all my life.’ So I really didn’t have a choice. — Greg Noll (Warshaw, History of Surfing)
Makaha, December 1969
“In many ways the winter of ’69 was the peak of my life,” Greg Noll declared. “I was thirty-two. I had built a successful career of surfing and making surfboards… As usual, we stayed with Henry Preece in Haleiwa. I had stayed at Henry’s house nearly every year, since I first met him and Buffalo Keaulana in the fifties, when I had first started coming to the islands. Here I was, fifteen years later, still coming to the Islands each season for the big winter swell.
“Henry’s little wood-frame house is about four blocks from the water, where you can hear the surf and feel it when it gets big. About two o’clock one morning, I woke up to the sound of a far-off rumble, rumble, rumble and the rattle of dishes in the kitchen. Half asleep, I thought, ‘Hell of a time to run the tanks though.’ Every once in a while, the Army would drive its tanks down from Wahiawa, through Haleiwa and out to Kaena Point. I got up to take a whiz, and suddenly realized there were no tanks. It was the rumble of huge surf, breaking from the horizon.
“I started pacing, tried to sleep, paced again. By sunrise my stomach was full of butterflies. My adrenalin was pumping. I was ready to go take a look at Waimea Bay. As soon as Laura and I got there, I could see that the whole North Shore was closed out. Solid whitewater as far as you could see. You can’t go out when it gets that big. For the most part, on the very rare occasion when it gets that big, it’s done all over the island.”
“Laura and I decided to go take a look at Makaha [on the west side] just for the hell of it,” continued Noll. “Every once in a while, when the North Shore closes out, Makaha Point still has rideable surf. Less often, when the North Shore closes out, Makaha does this wonderful, magical thing that I had heard about over the years from older surfers like George Downing and Buzzy Trent. If God sees fit to have that north swell come in at an absolute, perfect direction, Makaha gets unbelievably monstrous swells, as big or bigger than the ones that attack the North Shore, except they’re not peak breaks. These Makaha giants peel off from the Point in precise, seemingly endless walls.”
“In the fifteen years that I had been coming to the Islands to surf,” Noll went on, “I had never seen Makaha do its magic. Sure, I had ridden a number of big Makaha Point days when the waves were breaking twenty feet, but compared to Waimea’s hang-on-to-your-balls super-drop, Makaha Point surf just didn’t have it for me. I had heard the stories. Supposedly the really huge surf at Makaha only happens about once every eleven or twelve years. I had missed the day in ’58 when Buzzy Trent and George Downing rode some monster surf at Makaha. I was convinced that Waimea is where it’s at. The ultimate go-for-broke spot. There’s not a bigger place on the face of God’s earth to ride than Waimea. That’s the way it is and always will be, world without end.
“Was I wrong!
“Still, there was nothing to do on the North Shore, so we headed to Makaha, taking the road that led around Kaena Point. We figured the worst thing that could happen is that it would become a good excuse to see my old pal Buffalo, do a little beer drinking and talk stories Hawaiian style…”
“I felt the intensity of twenty years of surfing bigger and bigger waves pent-up inside me that day,” Noll said of December 4, 1969. “As we approached Kaena Point we noticed several places where gigantic storm surf had already washed across the road. I told Laura to walk across the bad spots while I drove the car across. I held my door open, ready to bail out if a wave hit the car.
“As soon as we reached Kaena Point, I knew this day was going to be different. Terrifying waves of fifty feet or bigger were pounding the end of the island [Oahu]. We stopped at a couple of places to take pictures. One memorable photo from that day shows a giant wave dwarfing a couple of beach shacks in the foreground. SURFER magazine printed it in its March 1970 issue with the description, ‘Kaena Point at forty, fifty, sixty or seventy feet.’ That day, the waves demolished several shacks on Kaena Point and nearby areas as well as a great portion of the road.
“As we got nearer to Makaha Point, I said, ‘Holy shit. It’s happening.’ Makaha was doing its magic.”
“Usually,” Greg Noll continued, “no matter how big the north swell is, by the time it gets around to the Makaha side of the island [west], it dissipates or you’re looking at full-on stormy, windy, nasty weather. The horizon off Maili Beach, south of Makaha, becomes what the old-timers call Maili cloudbreak. The rate of speed of big swells creates wind and spray that rains down on the ocean. On this day, the water was nearly as smooth as glass, beautiful, and the waves were so big that they literally put the fear of God in me.
“The radio began to broadcast evacuation orders for people in homes on Makaha Point. The police had just started to put up barricades on the road, but we made it through and out to the Point. And there it was, not just rideable Makaha — great, big, horrifying Makaha.”
“You couldn’t even see the break from the normal place on the beach,” Noll described. “You had to get back up on the hill above the beach. On a normal, smaller day, the break comes off an inside reef. On a big, twenty-foot Point day, the break comes around the Point in a long wall and forms into a huge section referred to as the Bowl. The unique thing about Makaha is that under perfect conditions, waves will hold their shape at twenty-five feet or — so the stories go — bigger. Today, that’s what it looked like, bigger.
“The waves were breaking on a set of reefs I didn’t even know existed, just inside where the blue water began. They looked like they were breaking out twice as far as usual. I started going into a mental freeze-up at this point. A haze settled over my brain like I was in a dream.”
“There was just a handful of guys out in the water,” continued Noll, talking about that big day at Makaha, December 1969. “Along the shore and on the hill above the beach, people were already lining up to watch. With the break so far out, it was almost impossible to see the surfers in any detail, let alone take clear pictures.
“I got my board waxed up, started looking things over, setting up a plan. I saw that the cross-current was raging, so I knew that, to survive, I would have to swim like a sonofabitch for the Point or I would end up way down the beach, past Clausmyer’s house. This house marks the place that is your last hope of getting in in one piece before the shore turns to solid rock. On a big day like this, if you don’t eat it in the surf, the rocks can easily get you.
“I got waxed up and headed into the water. It was surprisingly easy to get out. People have asked me, ‘How in the hell did you even get out?’ Most of the breaks that would have been normal Makaha waves were just backed-off soupy slop and not that difficult to paddle through. It was like that almost out to the Point. Beyond the Point is where the waves were actually breaking…”
“I paddled way over to the left of the bowl,” continued Noll, “then headed straight out for a long ways past the break before I could paddle over to where a group of guys were sitting. They all were well-known big-wave riders, including Fred Hemmings, Bobby Cloutier, Wally Froiseth, Jimmy Blears. I had surfed different places with these guys for years. You could tell that this was no normal day. Usually, we’re out there laughing, joking, giving each other a hard time. When the surf gets really big, all that bullshit goes out the window. At Waimea, for instance, when the surf starts coming up, guys’ attitudes would change. Peter Cole would get a little more hyper, Buzzy Trent would start talking faster, Pat Curren would get quieter. Peter likes to joke about how I’d start hyperventilating extra loud to try to psych guys out.
“Today it was serious business. No laughing, no joking. Some of the guys were glassy-eyed and there was talk of calling in the helicopters. Since that morning, when many of the guys had first paddled out, the surf had been steadily building. Now, it was at a size where all but the most experienced big-wave riders call it quits.”
“I sat there with the guys for at least forty-five minutes,” recalled Noll, “watching these big, thunderous giants coming down out of the north, from Yokohama Bay, towards us. At times they looked so perfect you’d swear you were looking at waves at Rincon or Malibu, only these waves were thirty feet high with a lip that threw out thirty yards or more. At other times the waves broke in sections of two or three hundred yards across. They were horrible, absolutely horrible. As they peeled off towards us, a giant section would dump, and we’d count, ‘One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three…’ then, BOOM! The wave would bottom out and, even though they were a quarter to a half-mile away, the impact of the breaking waves was so tremendous that it made beads of water dance on the deck of our boards. I’d never seen that happen before. The whole situation gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“And the surf was still coming up! A few guys caught waves off the backside of smaller sets, hit the channel and paddled in. Nobody was going for the big ones…”
“The bottom line,” underscored Noll, “was obvious to every one of us out there: if you took off on one of the big waves and missed it, and there was a bigger wave behind it, you’d get caught in the impact zone where your chances of drowning were probably about eighty percent or better. If you paddled for one of these monstrous bastards and you didn’t get to the bottom, but instead got caught high by catching an edge or hesitating for even a second, you’d tumble down the face of the wave and the whitewater would just eat you alive. It would be like going off Niagra Falls without the barrel. It looked to me like my only chance was to paddle as though the devil himself was on my ass, then get to my feet and drive as hard as possible straight down the face of the wave. If I could at least get to the bottom before the lip folded over, then maybe I’d have a chance of drilling myself a hole at the bottom of the wave, and the mass of the wave would pass over me instead of pummeling me along until I just ran out of air.
“I analyzed the situation a little longer and gave myself better than a fifty-percent chance of surviving one of these monsters. I just figured I had an edge, since all my surfing had been devoted to big waves. My motivation was also competitive. Deep down inside I had always wanted to catch a bigger wave than anyone else had ever ridden. Now, here was my chance. After a lifetime of working up to it, the time had finally come to either shit or get off the pot. The chances of this type of surf occurring again might be another eleven or twelve years away, and out of my grasp.
“Even though I had put a lot of time into riding big waves, I knew there was no chance of actually riding one of those waves all the way through. Not the way they were folding over in such huge sections. The best I could expect would be to get down the face to the bottom of the wave, make my turn, then put it in high gear and get as far as I could before the whole thing folded over on me. Then I’d have to take my chances on the swim in. Getting in would be half the danger — if I survived the impact zone, I’d have to fight my way through that strong side current and into the beach before I reached the rocky shoreline.”
“By this time,” Greg Noll went on, “the crowd in the water had thinned way down. I paddled about fifty yards away from the other guys to sit and do some more thinking. That’s my whole deal. I can wait. Like Peter Cole and Pat Curren, I’ve always been willing to wait for the bigger sets. I always preferred to wait it out, catch fewer waves but, I hoped, bigger ones…”
Noll got down to the essence of what it all meant to him: “What it came down to was that I realized that I’d come all this way all these years, for this moment. This ‘Makaha magic’ was only going to happen once in my lifetime and that time was NOW. The next time it happened I’d either be hobbling around on a cane or dead of old age. In either case, I’d forever miss my one chance to catch a wave this large.
“I’ve always had one kind of approach to surfing big waves. That is ‘Don’t hesitate. Once you decide to go, GO. Don’t screw around.’ You get into more trouble trying to change your mind midstream — or mid-wave — than you do if you just make a commitment and go for it.”
“I spent about half an hour going through this mental battle,” Noll admitted, “before I came to my decision: ‘I want to do this. It’s worth it to me.’ Above all, if I let this moment slip by, I knew I would never forgive myself. As cornball as it sounds, this probably was as close to the moment of truth that I would ever get.
“I paddled back to my lineup. I was oblivious to the fact that I was now the only guy left out there. All my thoughts were focused on catching THE WAVE. The wave that might be my biggest and my last. Finally, a set came thundering down that I thought looked pretty goddamn good. ‘O.K.,’ I said to myself, ‘let’s give this thing a shot.'”
“Every board I built for big waves was designed to catch waves,” Noll explained. “That meant that each board had to include three main things: length, flotation and ample scoop in the nose. The scoop enabled me to point the nose down the face of a wave and paddle hard without worrying about the nose catching a little water and causing me to hesitate. You can lose a good wave by having to pull back at the instant of takeoff, just to prevent the nose from going underwater. I wanted enough scoop in front so that when I laid that sonofabitch down and started grinding, I’d never have to hesitate.
“Boards can do funny things at high speeds. If the board isn’t shaped right, or the fin is set even slightly wrong, the board can track or catch an edge, sending you ass over teakettle. I was very familiar with my board. I had made it for big waves and used it for three seasons. For me it was the perfect big-wave board. At eleven feet, four inches long with a one-and-a-half-inch scoop in the nose, it was a big gun for big waves…”
“The first wave in the set looked huge,” Greg Noll retold in his autobiography. “Something inside me said, ‘Let it go.’ As I paddled over the top of it, I caught a glimpse of my wave. It was even bigger. I turned and began paddling, hard. I felt a rush of adrenalin as the wave approached, lifted me and my board began to accelerate. Then I was on my feet, committed.
“You could have stacked two eighteen-wheel semis on top of each other against the face of that wave and still have had room left over to ride it. I started down the front of the wave and my board began to howl like a goddamn jet. I had never heard it make that noise. I was going down the face of the wave so fast that air was getting trapped somewhere and the vibration was causing an ear-shattering WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
“I flew down the face,” continued Noll, “past the lip of the wave, and when I got to the bottom, which is where I wanted to be, I looked ahead and saw the sonofabitch starting to break in a section that stretched a block and a half in front of me. I started to lay back, thinking I could dig a hole and escape through the backside of the wave. The wave threw out a sheet of water over my head and engulfed me. Then for a split second the whole scene froze forever in my mind. There I was, in that liquid green room that [Bob] Simmons [pioneering modern surfboard shaper from 1940s and early 50s] had talked about so long ago. I had been in and out of this room many times. Only this time the room was bigger, more frightening, with the thunderous roar of the ocean bouncing off its walls. I realized I wasn’t going to go flying out the other end into daylight. This time I was afraid there might be no way out.”
“My board flew out from under me,” Noll went on. “I hit the water going so fast that it felt like hitting concrete. I skidded on my back and looked up just as tons of whitewater exploded over me. It pounded me under. It thrashed and rolled me beneath the surface until my lungs burned and there was so much pressure that I felt my eardrums were going to burst. Just as I thought I would pass out, the whitewater finally began to dissipate and the turbulence released me. I made it to the surface, gulped for air and quickly looked outside. There was another monster, heading my way…”
“There have been many times at Waimea,” remembered Da Bull, “when I’ve lost my board while trying to catch a wave and had to dive deep to avoid getting caught by the whitewater, or soup, of the next wave. As a big wave passes overhead, it causes tremendous pressure to build in your ears and you have to pop them to clear it.
“Here at Makaha I waited for each wave to get within fifty to seventy-five yards outside me, then I dove down about twenty feet and waited for it to pass. When the first wave broke overhead, I popped my ears and waited a couple of seconds before I heard the muffled sound of rumbling whitewater. The underwater turbulence of the giant wall of whitewater overhead caught me and thrashed me around. These waves were so big and there was so much soup in them that, each time I went under, the pain from the pressure in my ears was almost unbearable. In waves like these, if you can’t equalize the pressure by popping your ears, you can lose an eardrum.”
“I figured the best I could do,” continued Noll, “was to try to remain oriented towards the surface and let the turbulence carry me away from the main break. By the time I cleared the impact zone, the waves had carried me inward about three hundred yards. I started swimming hard for the Point.
“I knew the current was bad and that my survival now depended on reaching the shore quickly. I reached for every ounce of strength I had left. I was still a hundred yards or so off the beach. I could see Clausmyer’s. I could see the rocky beach coming up. I was never a great swimmer, but on that day I had a real incentive to make it. I swam my ass off.”
“Even the shorebreak was breaking big,” Noll said. “I kept thinking, ‘If I don’t make it to the beach before the rocks, I’ll have no place to come in. Did I go through all this hell just to lose it in the rocks?’
“By now I was swimming almost parallel to the beach. I could see my good friend Buffalo in his lifeguard jeep, following me on shore. The current was so strong that the beach looked like it was smoking by me. I finally hit shore about fifty feet before the rocks began. I crawled up on the sand and flopped there on my stomach, just glad to be alive. Buff was there with the jeep and a cold beer. He got out, stood over me and shoved the beer in my face.
“‘Good ting you wen make’em, Brudda,” he said. ‘Cause no way I was comin’ in afta you. I was jus goin’ wave goodbye and say “Alooo-ha.”‘
Special thanks to Legendary Surfers.com for this story.
- The Photo that does not Exist by Kirk Owers, 2011.
- The Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw and William Finnegan
- Da Bull, Life on the Edge by Greg Noll and Andrea Gabbard
- The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw