The Photo That Does Not Exist
In December 1969, Greg Noll capped off a trail-blazing big wave career by riding “the biggest wave ever ridden.” Or did he?
Records were broken and legends forged at Makaha on December 4th, 1969. It is a more storied day than perhaps any other in big wave surf history. The “greatest swell of the 20th century” uprooted trees, trashed houses and hurled boats onto the Kam Highway. It annihilated the North Shore but lit up Makaha where Greg Noll bullrushed the wave of the day. The feat was later declared the biggest wave ever ridden, an unofficial record it maintained for over twenty years. No one knows exactly how big the mythical wave was because, as was reiterated recently in the documentary Riding Giants, “not a single shot or frame of footage exists.”
Noll’s great Makaha wave is one of the most celebrated waves in American surf history, the interest in it heightened because it was never captured on film. Only thing is there were multiple cameras at Makaha in 1969. Tracks cofounder and surf filmmaker, Alby Falzon had several. Falzon hawk-eyed the action all day from an apartment overlooking the point. He watched the swell build, the first guys paddle out and the last guys get washed in. When he wasn’t looking directly at the ocean, he was squinting through his 500mm lens or making adjustments to his 16mm film rig. Falzon shot rolls of film that day including, he maintains, a three shot sequence of Noll’s famous wave.
That’s an interesting story all by itself but what’s uncomfortably fascinating when you look at a real-life representation of the wave that has been comprehensively eulogised for forty one years now, you are forced to look again. Something is not right. It doesn’t look that big.
Chance, fate or the gods were at work to accommodate Albert Falzon so cosily at the crossroads of surf history. Earlier in ’69 he was filming for Bob Evans in South Africa and had become friends with a young Shaun Tomson. Shaun’s parents invited the Australian filmmaker to stay with them in Hawaii the following winter in an apartment so close to Makaha you could peg a rock from the balcony and hit the waves. Albie was happily ensconced at the digs (along with Australian surfer David Treloar), when the biggest swell in recorded history turned up. Suddenly, right outside his window, the best big wave surfers in the world were gathering for a session that would be discussed for decades.
“The swell had peaked overnight on the North Shore, but it wasn’t getting into Makaha in the morning,” Albie recalls. “We drove to the North Shore but there were roadblocks and police turning people around. It was mayhem, shit everywhere. The North Shore was completely wiped out. We drove past all the cars to the front of the roadblock and told the police we were an Australian news crew. They let us past and we drove down and saw the destruction and we saw Waimea Bay – a total washing machine.”
“When we got back to Makaha there were lines starting to break out the back,” Albie continues. “It was only double overhead in the morning but it was building all the time. I set up my cameras on the balcony and alternated between the two throughout the day. The sets were coming through every 13 minutes. I remember that because Ernie [Thompson] was timing them. There were eight or nine waves in a set. And they just kept getting bigger and bigger as the morning went on.”
According to Falzon, a dozen or more guys surfed that day including many of the established big wave surfers of the day. Most of the retrospective attention, however, is given to Noll’s famous big wave. The Encyclopedia of Surfing describes it as a 35-footer and the largest wave ever ridden until then and for at least the next twenty years (ie until the tow era). In the documentary Riding Giants an illustrated depiction of the mythical wave is closer to 60 foot.
In Noll’s biography Da Bull, Life Over the Edge, co-author Andrea Gabbard sums up the wave’s standing in (American) surf lore.
“Those who were there that day at Makaha claim that Noll took off on the largest wave anyone has ever ridden. As it turned out the police roadblocks, the distance of the swell from shore and the presumed scarcity of rideable surf prevented this historic day from being preserved on film. Maybe it’s better that way, to leave it instead to surf legend, to be passed on from one generation to the next. One thing is certain: the size of the wave will not grow in the telling. It’s already too big. And that’s no bull.”