Greg Noll's legendary big wave at Makaha as captured by Alby Falzon

According to Alby Falzon, this photograph, captures Greg Noll's legendary "undocumented" wave. Photo: Alby Falzon


The Inertia

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.”

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  • Stu

    kooks, all of ‘em. Why did Noll quit anyway?

  • ctwalrus

    It’s a whole bunch of years later. why dig around with the legends of our sport? to do so serves no purpose. should we dig up the sexual or drug behaviors of our legends? it does no good…..Greg said it was the bigger HE ever rode…..thats enough for me, to take it any further is just a waste……..

  • BREW

    We shan’t dismiss the Hall of Fame career that Chuck Noll had. No one can take that away. No one gawdammit!

  • rightbunkatcha

    this articles a hoax and disrespectful. Dude was probably there on the wrong day. Multiple cameras? Where in the apartment shooting into the sun at surfers 1/4 mile out. Switching back and forth, changing out film, sure, you couldn’t have missed that wave buddy.

  • Barry

    I think an interesting point and distinction is raised here. Greg Never said it was the biggest wave ever ridden, others did, and for him, it must have felt like the biggest wave he’d ridden or he wouldn’t have said it. If you look at the first photo, it does appear that down the line, the wave is jacking and must have looked as though it was growing before his very eyes, which it probably was. Thoughts of, “how am I ever gonna make it past that?” probably were going through his mind, or should have been. So when he does make it to the bottom, even with the whole thing coming down, I’m guessing there was a sense of relief and amazement. Sure, there are pictures of Greg on waves that look bigger, but to him, looking at that wall that’s jacking in front of him, it probably looked bigger than anything he had faced before. Then again, I wasn’t there and it’s easy for me to say this 40 some years down the road. I’m not going to tell some kid that “Santa doesn’t exist” just because I’ve lost the ability to believe in him, but I believe Greg when he says “that was the biggest wave for him”.

    • DocWhite

      Barry – good response.  My son sent me this link, because he knew I rode that huge Makaha swell on 2 days in Dec 1969.  And I have a photo to prove it.  Greg Noll was out there along with george Downing and a couple others.  I rode only one wave before going to work (I was a Navy doctor at NAS Barber’s Point, and I lived at Maili Point just south of Makaha awaiting this huge swell for years!)  As you said of Greg Noll, this wave was the biggest wave I had ever ridden, and changed surfing for me forever.  In those days I was a Makaha “local” and rode the “point surf” and big north shore waves  whenever I could.  The Dec ’69 swell was indeed epic, and before tow-in surfing, was considered the largest swell ever.  Makaha was the only break rideable as the N. shore was totally wiped out.  I am so happy I was there when that swell rolled in!!!     ~Doc White

  • James

    The photographer is a jerk…..disrespectful at best!

  • Not Sure

    Complete bullshit…….just a jackass trying to knock The King off his throne…..I have a finger he can photograph…….guess which one?????

  • Jammer2001

    OK, so I got out the ruler, and at 6ft tall, the wave is 5 times his size to the top, even if he is squatting down and 5ft, that mkes it 25ft. BUT didn’t he wipe out? Can this be the wave if he is still standing this far into the ride?

  • Sam George

    Gentlemen, the journalist who penned this article should have done a bit more research before pushing “send.” The wave depicted in this photo is not the ‘Big One’. This was taken earlier in the session as the swell was building. Greg dropped to the bottom and wiped out—the same wave was photographed by Larry Goddard and ran in International Surfing magazine (another version ran in a 1969 SURFER.) The same issue of International Surfing also featured a shot of Greg’s 11’4′ stuck in the lip of the next wave in the set—according to Greg after this wipeout his board spun up and out of the whitewater explosion and, in what can only be considered a minor miracle, did not wash to the beach. Greg made the decision to swim back out to his board, a circumstance that led to him sitting way outside for almost another hour, trying to work up the mojo to take off on another set. During the making of Riding Giants I personally went over the Goddard sequence with Greg, as well as with Randy Rarick, who was there that day in’69 and watched Greg’s next ride from the beach. Both confirmed that Greg caught two waves that day. This is the first one.
    When you look at the photo of Greg at the bottom of the wave depicted here, it’s frickin’ huge, and Greg assured me that the ‘Big One’ was considerably larger, judging simply by the fact that he caught it way further out and up the point.
    Like everybody else I’d love to see a photo of that wave. Until then the legend will have to do.

    Sam George

    • Edy Hall

      Thank you Sam, for setting the record straight.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510297828 Marc Cilurzo

      so glad i read this

    • Iddison68

      I nearly caught a cold the other day. 

    • Iddison68

      I noticed that the ski tows you into at least 2/5ths of the wave before you free ride the rest at least that is how it looks on Mcnamaras Portugal giant. Is that such a pure wave. I don’t know. If you free paddle into a 35 ft wave would you agree that its a purer wave? Also there is the whole strap and wax thing. Wax is easier to lose. I would say that action on the wave was certainly fierce. If you cannot free paddle into a 70/80 ft wave you should not really bring a comparison to the table. If you need machines and straps then its a different surf altogether and to be frank at this point does not really hold any water regardless.

  • Kirkowers

    You could be right Sam. But you weren’t there and neither was I. Falzon was there and he’s adamant he photographed THE wave. Shaun Tomson was there and he agrees Alby shot THE wave. David Treloar was there and he also agrees Alby photographed THE wave. Randy Rarick was there and he agrees that it was in fact THE wave. Worth reporting I felt. Kirk Owers

  • Chris Ahrens

    I was at Hookipa Park just after the North Shore was wiped clean–Jaws was too big to measure and so was Hookipa. Honolua was really big and cured any big wave appetite I might have had. Later heard Kieth Paul got hit by a set at Makaha and had to swim up five strokes just to hit turbulence. Heard nothing about Greg at that time. Fast forward 35 years and I’m feeling like a poser at some big wave reunion. RR is commenting on GN that he had ridden the world’s biggest wave. I overheard Fred Hemming’s classic response to Paul Strauch–He’s still riding it. I don’t need surf legends to fill the gap in my life. All the respect in the world to Greg, but he, like every other legend is just someone who happen to stand on wax better than most. Sat next to Pat Curren at Riding Giants: after a beer to cool off, he looks up and says, “I didn’t know Greg Noll ever led me anywhere. Be happy with your own life, friends. My takes worth nearly nothing since it’s taken from the safety of a beach on island far away from the big show.
    God bless

    • Stu

      well said, Chris. All this hero worship of guys who surf well is baffling to me. Noll is old, fat and hasn’t surfed in decades – sort of like the Elizabeth Taylor of surfing. Even more baffling is that guys like Sam spend their entire lives reliving this stuff like it really matters. Crazy.

  • Saft

    This looks like a Waimea Bay Wave. In riding Giants they said that Waimea was mexed out that day and Greg had to go around the point to surf.

  • Dane

    I have nothing but respect for Greg Noll. Even if you call him a showboat, self-promoter, etc. you must also look at the way he has talked about himself in recent years. As young guys trying to make a living out of something still very new, people had to do what they had to do. In most recent interviews I have seen/read, Greg Noll is absolutely self-effacing, almost dismissive of what he accomplished in those days. He knows he (along with many others of the era) were just a step in the path to where big wave riders are these days. Interesting article, if not unnecessary. And Stu, you’re the real kook.

  • Larry Goddard

    Howzit, guys!

    I just came across these comments by accident. My name is Larry Goddard, and I watched the surf on that fateful Thursday, Dec 4th day from the front of the Makaha Shores Condominiums. I was timing the waves and the sets, and was the one who told Alby Falzon that the bigger sets were arriving at 13 minute intervals. I ran out of film just before Greg took off on that huge wave…Oh well…

    Alby had just finished a roll of 16mm film and was about to change it out for a fresh roll, so when Greg started paddling, he jumped on the 35mm Nikon, which he had set up on the other tripod, and shot a multi-shot  motor-drive sequence of Greg’s drop-in. Those slides are now useless, contaminated with fungus. What a shame…

    So, the ‘Legend’ continues to grow over time. But it WAS a big wave…at least 45-46 ft. My camera was about 39 ft above sea level, and the wave was 5-6 ft ABOVE the horizon! That’s BIG!

    If any of you saw the movie “Riding Giants”, you saw 5 of my still photos (slides) that were shot before Greg’s final drop-in on a closing-out wave. You can read the details on Jed Noll’s website at:

    http://blog.nollsurfboards.com/?p=33

    Aloha!                         Larry Goddard, (Honolulu, Hawaii)   Still surfing at age 76… Too much fun to stop!

    • Eewright

      Larry,

      Hey I’m Eric above you. If you read my comment I’m frustrated that no one got any film footage of those waves back in December, 1969. 

      So i want to ask you did you see the swell when it peaked at midnight December 2′nd? Alan Weisbecker says the waves were just unbelievable in height Did you see any of those waves as they came ashore on December 1′st during the day and peaking that night at midnight? If you did please give me your insights on what you witnessed.  I sure would appreciate it.

      Also Larry do you know anyone that got any film or photos of those waves on the North Shore when that swell hit on December 1′st, 1969?

  • Eric

    My frustration is’nt about Greg Noll’s wave, but about the biggest waves ever to hit the North Shore 2 days earlier when the swell peaked at midnight December 2′nd and NOONE got any film footage of those waves. I realize you can’t film at midnight , but according to eyewitnesses the swell built all day on December 1′st before peaking that night. The waves went from 3 feet in the morning to 60 feet by dusk on December 1′st, 1969. And NOONE got any film footage of those monster waves. Only Noll did any justice to the size of the waves as you can see in “Riding Giants” when he photographed the biggest wave ever at Kaena Point on December 4′th. That wave is over a 100 feet high and this was on the 4′th not the 1′st when the swell was peaking. No telling how big the waves were on the 1′st. Some eyewitnesses at Kaena Point when the swell was peaking said they saw 60 to 80 foot surf. Which means the wave heights were in the 150 foot range. Unbelievable.

  • Iddison68

    Thinking a bit more about Gregs effort on that wave. For some reason, though such reason I wish not to advance for the praise of men, I am thinking that Greg though the wave is a little smaller than McNamaras effort in Porto may have the edge simply because he went at that giant virtually naked. I mean think guys how many fights to you want to go into naked? He had no straps on his board no wetsuit no machine or surfmate. Will McNamara take another porto Hi rise on a 60′s longboard, boardshorts and carnuba? Just a thought. Truth be told I would have to seriously weigh the cost on that one myself as that is a condition that in my view presently, ups the keeps somewhat, what.

  • Tom Bulger

    I learned how to surf Makaha Point from Buzzy Trent along with Doc White. I was surfing Makaha that morning, rode one big wave until it closed out. It was my final day in Hawaii and was my ultimate wave as a surfer. I was a skinny goofy foot 17 year old kid

  • kerry

    What about the Shaun Tomson home movie of the wave…reputed to exist somewhere in Shaun’s closet?