A fleeting moment with the big wave legend, in California.
Back in 2011, I travelled to the USA to attend the Quiksilver Pro in New York and the Hurley Pro at Trestles. While the contests were captivating it was the moments in between that proved to be the most memorable. The story below details a brief meeting with Greg Noll, followed by a party at his San Clemente surf shop with a handful of surfing luminaries. It first appeared in the Jan 2012 edition of Tracks.
DA BULL’S PADDOCK
I’m anticipating just another night of Mexican food and 200-channel American TV in my cozy hotel room at the Calafia Inn when I get a call from San Clemente-based photographer Jason Murray. “Hey Luke, they’re having a party down at Greg Noll’s shop. Greg’s going to be down there and you should go check it out.” Once off the phone, I jump straight on the pushbike the hotel’s loaned me and ride 10 minutes down the hill looking for the Da Bull’s paddock. Just as I pull up on my two-wheeler, I see the unmistakable barrel-framed, figure of Greg Noll leaving the building. He’s on crutches and not looking quite up to tackling maxing Waimea. As Greg climbs into his suitably large SUV, one of his support crew tells me that he’d recently had an accident while cleaning his boat. He’d fallen from a height and cracked ribs and injured his back. Although he was eager to take part in the re-launch of his shop and brand, he just wasn’t feeling up to hanging in there all night.
Despite being a little disappointed I didn’t get to meet the man who tamed Waimea, I head inside anyway. It’s instantly apparent that the shop is a kind of nirvana for surf nostalgia tragics. Rare and beautifully made boards from different eras hang delicately alongside some of Greg’s iconic guns, while adjacent to the counter there are several rows of vintage skateboards. Classic prints and artwork with Noll as the subject adorn the walls and of course, the understated and stylish clothing range features Da Bull’s distinctive jail-house-stripe trunks. The multi-roomed space, which blurs the line between surf museum and shop is definitely worth checking out if you are ever in San Clemente.
It’s not long before I find myself chatting to a dapper character in a pistachio-coloured suit. The little green man chats at a rapid pace and soon launches into a story about being on a straight-laced US surf team years ago in Australia and coming across Tom Carroll’s brother Nick. “We were having a beer with the Aussies when our coach came over and told us we couldn’t drink, let alone with the competition. Then he told Nick he shouldn’t be drinking either and Nick just looked up and said, ‘fuck off, you’re not my father.’ I had to respect him for that.”
Later someone tells me that the debonair chap in the green suit is in fact Tom Morey, the guy who invented the body-board. It’s one of those moments of inner turmoil in a surfer’s life. I’m not sure whether I just met Satan in a green suit or a Californian surf entrepreneur who couldn’t help but run with his good idea. I come down on the side of Morey because he makes good company at a party and in no way seems to have an inflated view of himself. Someone else introduces himself as the son of another member of Californian surf aristocracy and I sense there are other people in the room I should know the identity of. Fortunately, there’s nothing pretentious about the scene and I drift towards that back-lot where they’re serving free beer and a reggae band is playing. Someone invites me to go surfing the next day and I have a long chat with Greg’s son Jed, who is helping his dad re-launch the Greg Noll brand. “These guys – Greg and his friends – they are all crazy,” the guy behind the counter tells me before I walk out. They are the best guys to hang out with. That’s why it makes me laugh when I see certain people in the surfing world taking themselves so seriously.”
Leaving the party I’m struck by the sense that these Californians haven’t forgotten how to have fun with their surf culture. They love talking story and encourage the big characters to be the individuals they are. Those factions of the surfing world, which at times seem under threat from a suffocating compulsion to be ‘cool’, could afford to take note.