Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Greg Noll on Surfing as Art, Life

Adventure spoke to big-wave legend Greg Noll about his new book, surfing culture today, and why his most recent boards provide a link to the past.Text by Ryan Bradley Photograph courtesy Gibbs Smith
SPLASH BACK: Greg Noll hotdoggin' on a beach board near Manhattan Beach Pier, in California, 1956

You've been shaping surfboards for almost 60 years, why the book now?
Noll: There's so much interest in the boards now that people are collecting them and I said, "Well, we'll make a book and it'll be easier for cataloguing …." As I came together with Drew [Kampion], it grew to involve the people who rode the boards over the years and the history of the Hawaiians.

And for the last 15 years you've been making replicas of the solid wood boards that the ancient Hawaiians rode. How did this come about?
Noll: I'm not active in the water anymore, at least not on a board. This is my way of staying involved in surfing, to understand our history. I've gone into the Bishop Museum [the Hawaiian museum of cultural and natural history in Honolulu] and lied my way into the archives and took measurements of the boards found in lava tubes that were found buried with ancient Hawaiians. I enjoyed the history so much that we started making the boards as a tribute.

Is this also, in part, because of your own connection with Hawaii?
Noll: Growing up in Manhattan Beach [in the 1940s], the islands were like some enchanted land. They were all we thought about. When I was fifteen, I went. We lived like rats in a hut on O'ahu on two bucks a day eating peanut butter sandwiches. There was a real connection with Hawaii—when I went to San Onofre California] as a kid, guys played ukulele and sang Hawaiian songs. You don't see that now. The whole thing is in fast motion; it's kind of lost that tradition. Although old guys have a tendency to say everything was perfect in their day, I'm not trying to say that. We screwed up a lot.

How so?
Noll:Well, you look at guys today and they're in much better shape than we were. [Today's] contests may breed problems and contempt, but they enable guys to get sponsors. Then they get to spend their time in the water instead of working some nine-to-five job.

Do you feel disconnected from today's surf culture?
Noll:No. Kids come up and shake my hand and say, "Thank you." I try to explain that they don't need to thank me. I was basically just a fun hog all my life … a guy who was doing exactly what he wanted to.

There are times, when I go along the North Shore [in Hawaii], and I see the crowded conditions. People are struggling for waves and getting pissed off. I think back to the time when we were basically the first guys on the North Shore. Whenever a carload pulled up with some boards on it, we were stoked just to have some company. To see guys punching each other out on the waves now, that is distressful to me.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS: Greg's son, Jed Noll, evens out the rough outline of a balsa wood board with a skil-saw.

Your son, Jed Noll—who is also a shaper—must provide some connection as well.
Noll: I'm very proud of my son for picking up this tradition—for slowing down and honoring his roots. You don't spend the kind of time we do on these boards unless it's in your blood, and you love what you're doing. For me, it just probably doesn't get any better than to be able to collaborate. I'm 70, my son's 32, and we're like two little kids out there giggling over a piece of art.

Apart from giggling, what is the shaping process like?
Noll: There's a lot of sitting around and thinking, especially at first. When I shape a board I have to see the thing in my mind before I pick up a plain or a tool.
WITH THE GRAIN: For his handmade surfboards, Greg Noll draws on traditional methods and materials used by Hawaiians more than 200 years ago.

You quit shaping in the 1970s, what brought you back to it?
Noll: My heart is so much with the ocean. I fish and dive. Every once in a while, if I can find a place where nobody will laugh at me, I'll get out and fall off a surfboard. But the shaping of these boards and honoring the tradition is my way of being a part of it. It's a way of keeping myself focused on a really special time of my life.

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