Bull Droppings

Picking up after Greg Noll.

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I’m not sure where my passport is. I’ve lost my kids’ birth certificates many times. I’m clueless where either of my college degrees currently are. But for the last six years, through four moves, I’ve known precisely where I could find one particular scrap of paper. 

Written on it are Greg Noll’s notes for a speech he gave at the 2016 East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It’s just chicken scratch, really. Yet to me, on a very personal level, his notes represent a whole lot more. 

See, I was an inductee that year. Forty-five years old, a longtime pro surfer, then longtime surf writer. I’d met nearly every living legend in surfing and had never been inclined to snap a selfie with any of them. However, when I walked into the ceremony and came face-to-face with Da Bull, I instantly felt like a 13-year-old kid seeing his hero. I pulled out my phone and went straight for the photo. Foul-mouthed but always affable, the old codger obliged.

Noll opened the festivities by making light of being old, wrinkled, and fat—to rousing applause. He then shared a seemingly random conversation he’d recently had. A friend had asked him, “If you could go back and revisit your youth, which would you rather choose to ride: an absolutely perfect-in-every-way, 25-foot wave at Waimea or an equally perfect-in-every-way, 25-year-old, blue-eyed blonde from Sweden?” 

“Well, if I was 25,” Noll recalled responding, “I’d have ridden the wave in the morning, come in and taken a shower and combed my hair, then went for the broad.”

The whole place went absolutely nuts.

“Nowadays,” Noll said, wrapping up his yarn, “either one would kill me.” 

The crowd exploded even louder.  

As Noll waddled offstage, his speech notes missed his pocket and landed on the floor, near my foot. None of the other inductees seemed to notice the slip of paper, and I scooped it up as fast as I could while trying not to be noticed. 

Noll’s irreverent self-deprecation, condensed in shorthand. Courtesy of Jason Borte.

With Noll’s death last year, I felt the need to dig the relic up. And while holding the piece of paper in my hands, one thought in particular kept coming to mind. It wasn’t that in 1969 Noll tackled what was then considered the biggest wave ever ridden. It was that soon afterward, still in his early 30s and plenty able, he quit surfing. 


“Everything I had known as a young man was turning to shit,” Noll wrote in his autobiography about the crowds overtaking the waves he’d grown up riding. 

In the 1960s and beyond, the surf flicks, magazines, and thousands of boards Noll profited off of made him a living. But they also made him as culpable as anyone for the ensuing swarms. He liked to blame the beach party movies, but, on the inside, I feel like his own part in it all had to be eating away at him. If that was indeed the case, I can see why he opted to put himself out to pasture, leaving the Southern California coast for a trailer in Alaska first, then back to California again, except up north, to Crescent City, to fish commercially.

However, he never fully walked away. At least deep down.

“In my mind, I never quit surfing,” Noll wrote in 1989. “Surfing is a feeling that never leaves you.” 

Noll was spot on. Surfing really is a feeling. But it’s a feeling you get from going surfing. While he claimed to still be “that 12-year-old boy surfing at Manhattan Beach Pier,” he could’ve actually made himself a big-ass board and paddled out at Manhattan Beach Pier at any point during his retirement. See, it’s not about whether you can replicate some feat from your youth. It’s about actually being out there. 

My hope is that at Noll’s age or later, I’ll ride one final wave. Any wave at all. After that, I’ll keel over and die. And when they go through my belongings, I promise they’ll find Da Bull’s scrap of paper.