For the very first issue of TSJ, Steve Pezman (with all the quiet guile of Zatoichi, the Blind Samurai) arranged for a sit-down with proto ball-swinger Greg Noll and youngblood Brock Little. It was like a TED talk, but not canned and lame.
The two chargers had never met. Their age disparity kept them from pacing the cage and snarling at one another. That, and respect. Pezman was the ultimate foil: informed, savvy, and experienced in the terrain.
You’ll find the read holds up remarkably well. Poignantly, the younger man has passed on, felled by cancer. Noll abides. Enjoy.
Out of the millions of surfers in the world since the early 1960s, at any given time there are maybe only two or three who live for riding the really huge one. The wave that comes along maybe once or twice during a man’s prime.
Twenty-four-year-old Brock Little and fifty-four-year-old Greg Noll are two of that kind from different eras. Each, in his own style, has been the man who went for the epic wave during his period in the window of life which allows that rarified pursuit.
Little and Noll had never met prior to this occasion, but they knew of each other. They sensed that a special bond existed and knew that a time would come when they would meet. It was destiny. It happened, somewhat ironically, during a surf industry trade show in San Diego on September 7, 1991, in a hotel room next to the convention center. It should have been at the Seaview Inn in Haleiwa over pitchers and puu puus, but that was not to be. As it turned out, Brock waited in the room for over 45 minutes while I went to extract Greg from his Da Bull booth at the trade show. Greg and I went up in the elevator and I opened the door. Brock stood up, they looked and self-consciously grinned at each other, then Noll said something like, “Aww shit,” and gave Brock a bear hug.
What is presented here is essentially a transcript of the two-hour conversation that followed, eavesdropping on a first-ever meeting between two classic archetypes of a rare breed. They were, at first, uneasy with the scene…
Brock Little: This is weak, you know. What I originally wanted to do was someday just drive up to your house and knock.
Greg Noll: Honest to God, is there a big rush for this? Here I am at this show talking to all these people who don’t know…you know, and my mind’s just turning into diarrhea. And then suddenly, I’m sittin’ here talkin’ to a guy that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, like it’s a fast-food deal or something.
Steve Pezman: Well, relax. We’ll get some beers…
Greg Noll: Naw…
Brock Little: Yeah, not now. But I’m into hanging out and drinking beers.
Greg Noll: (Grinning) I’ve done my share of that.
Steve Pezman: What’s the difference between your days and now?
Greg Noll: What’s the difference? There is no difference! Somehow or other, the genes get messed up so that there’s a few guys over the years, for whatever their reasons, that want to catch a wave at Waimea that’s maybe a little bigger than somebody else catches. Whether it’s Brock Little or Buzzy Trent or Greg Noll, the time period doesn’t count. We’ve just got different bodies. Mine’s all old and used up. His is fresh and ready to go.
Brock Little: Yeah, but I think I’m different from the other guys. There’s different breeds. Bradshaw and Foo live their own life. Roger and Darrick, live it, worship it, you know what I mean, it is their life. And then I’m doing it just because I get kicks out of it. I think that’s what you said about the first time you surfed Waimea, you were just a bunch of kids. Hanging out, you know, it was huge, the waves looked fun. I mean, you can’t surf anywhere else, and so you’re out there. That’s how it was the first time I surfed it. I was riding my bicycle home from school everyday, and it was like I was so tired of surfing those stupid little whitewaters. And Waimea kept on breaking and I went, “Well, why can’t I ride Waimea?” So I rode my bike to a friends house, borrowed a board, and just went surfing. And it hasn’t changed much. Except now, I gotta truck that my sponsors bought me. I can drive down in that. But you’re still just going surfing.
Greg Noll: Same deal. Same deal. Everybody wants to make something out of it and talk about some magical moment. And it really was the same thing. I mean, there we were trying to get the balls to get in the water for two years. Buzzy calling me a “pied piper” saying, “You’re going to drown like rats if you follow Greg Noll.” And then one day the surf was bitchin’—like some naked gal with her tits in the wind. You just wanted to pounce on it, you know? So we get our boards and went surfin’. Now, a whole bunch of years later, it’s a mystique deal. It was just a place that needed to be surfed, and just happened to be there in that time period.
Steve Pezman: But back then it was a thing that hadn’t been done, and now, how many? Five hundred guys have ridden there?
Brock Little: I don’t think that many…
Greg Noll: Yeah, but there’s only eight or ten that are riding it. That’s the thing people don’t realize. There’s all kinds of guys that want to go out in the water and clog everything up, but there’s only eight or ten guys…
Brock Little: That want it! You gotta want it.
Greg Noll: That have the mindset. That’s why he and I are having a little trouble right now. I’ve never met the guy before…
Brock Little: I know…
Greg Noll: But we have something in common. And he knows it and I know it. My deal just took place a long time ago and his is taking place now.
Brock Little: It’s not a big deal. It’s not! I don’t get off on going, “Yeah (growling), I rode Waimea.” It’s not that kinda shit. I mean it’s out there. I love it! I might catch a big wave and I might not. I don’t know, the only thing I wanna know is how big was that fucker at Makaha you went on?
Greg Noll: (Laughing) I don’t know.
Brock Little: Yeah I know. I don’t want to ask you because you can’t know. I mean I’ve caught some big waves too, but you don’t know how big it is. It was as big as this, as big as that. What?
Greg Noll: Talk about that day at Makaha, I really don’t know. I mean in that situation everything starts to go in real slow motion mode. Your mind goes into a haze and you go into another dimension.
Steve Pezman: You feel like you’re in danger?
Greg Noll: Oh, fuck yes. Some guys say they’re not afraid. I always was. In fact, in my case, I always felt a little fear was healthy. It’s probably what kept me alive.
Brock Little: When you’re young, you’re not…I don’t think.
Greg Noll: Yeah (grinning) that’s neat, cause you think you’re invincible.
Brock Little: That’s it!
Greg Noll: Then you get old and fat. You’ve won a few fights, ya know, and you think, “Ah, bitchin’, nobody can put me in the hole.” But when you get a little older, you can just get the shit beat outta ya.
Steve Pezman: Hey, you guys are both willing fighters.
Brock Little: A little bit, I guess. He’s “Da Bull” and that’s his style, and I’m a matador.
Greg Noll: I’ll tell you the difference. We’ve both got the balls, he’s just smarter than me. I did my fighting in the bar, he does his in the ring. It took me til I was 35 to figure out Waimea. He’s done it when he was 24. He’s just way ahead on the whole deal. He’s got ten years on me from when I was his age. What’s he gonna be like in ten more years if he’s at this stage now?
Steve Pezman: Is the line riding big waves different now than it was?
It was so bad. I had to sit in the channel for 20 minutes with my hands folded, going What are we going to do about this?” —Greg Noll
Brock Little: Ah, for sure it’s different for me. No doubt. If you’re going to catch a 26-foot wave, you don’t pick a different line. You just take off, cause there’s no time to turn. But on twenty footers you can take off on a 9’6” now and turn at the top of the wave and have a way better angle than those guys used to have.
Steve Pezman: Greg, can you describe your big-wave board? You know, length, width, weight? Did you even know?
Greg Noll: A good big-wave board is like a classic lady. You never forget either of them. 11’6’ by 22½” wide, 3⅝” at the thickest point, but it was just an old hunk of shit compared to what you guys are riding today.
Steve Pezman: What did it weigh?
Greg Noll: I was the first one to start using aircraft-grade spruce for center strips. I could put a ⅜” strip of that down the center of the board and it was like and inch and a half piece of redwood, strength-wise. So I could reduce the formula of the foam, and for a board that size, I could get it down to 32 pounds, which was unheard of, however, my earlier boards were in the 40 to 45 pound category.
Brock Little: My boards are totally different.
Greg Noll: What does one of your big-wave boards weigh?
Brock Little: I don’t know. I know they’re 9’6” and they’re about 3” thick, between 20” and 21”, and the thing is they’re always changing because at Waimea you break a board every other session practically, cause they’re so light now. Whereas those guys rode the same board for years.
Greg Noll: He’s right. I had a board for about three years one time.
Brock Little: With my boards, I get new ones like it’s going out of style. I mean, like you never even learn your measurements cause you’re always trying to improve and you say, “Hey Gabe, make this one a little thinner.” Or whatever. So it’s not like we’re trying to get variable.
Steve Pezman: What are they glassed with?
Brock Little: Just two sixes on top, two sixes on the bottom, and somethings a gloss coat, sometimes unfinished.
Steve Pezman: The economics are different now.
Greg Noll: The mindset is different now. In the old days, if you were a surfboard manufacturer and you broke a board in half it was a real burr on your record. I mean it was heavy. Now, nobody gives a shit. I really don’t want to get into this, but I got into a major altercation with another board manufacturer and had to leave the island over a broken board in the window of his shop, and that’s how serious it was in those days. Now, guys are smart. Now, they’re after the board that’s gonna do the best job, and if they have to go through two or three…
Brock Little: We’re so bad, we’re so spoiled now. I guess it’s not really bad, it’s just how it is. We’re lucky. I do the same thing he did, but now I get paid for it. It’s my trip. I really don’t give a shit. I’d do it all anyway but…I’ll take it.
Greg Noll: (Cracking up) Hey man, I’d have taken it too!
Brock Little: I mean I always think that if something happened to me tomorrow, man, I killed it. But then I go, God, I’ve killed it for just a while. Look at him (indicating Greg), he’s still living it!
Steve Pezman: The places Greg rode in the 50s were basically Makaha, Waimea, Outside Pipe…
Greg Noll: Outside Pipe was a freak deal. It probably doesn’t even count. You know it takes such a special swell to hit that thing. Where I got it once almost doesn’t even count as a surf spot. Bradshaw tells me he’s been waiting for it for ten years. He’s been out there diving and located the spot. He went down to the reef and slid off the backside into blue water. Ten years, is that worth waiting for a spot? I mean it just happened to break that day, and Mike Stang and I decided, “Hey, let’s go surf it.” In fact, I always felt like the real challenge in the future would be the outer reefs, away from the cameras and all the bullshit. I guess there’s a whole bunch of reefs out there that can break on different swells.
Brock Little: Yeah. You never surfed Himalayas? Man, there’s some waves out there that break when it’s huge. And it’s pretty good cause there’s a channel.
Greg Noll: It looks to me like you can just wait for a big old day and go pick your spot.
Brock Little: To this day you can do that. I mean, Waimea sucks. You go to Waimea, it’s like putting on a show. It’s the money thing. And you know, I’ve gotta show up. Instead of surfing some killer outside reef, which is what it’s all about. Which is what you guys did. You know, the reefs that no people surf. It’s so much more fun when you’re out there alone, where it’s unexplored. There’s reefs all around out there.
Steve Pezman: There’s just a few guys chasing those spots?
Brock Little: When it’s big, there’s hardly any. Where I go out, I don’t see anyone. I go out a lot by myself. And then there’s a couple of my friends that say the same thing, “You’re always dragging me out.” The pied piper bit. Whatever. You can drag some guys out that you just hang out with. You know, like Todd Chesser, Shane Dorian, or somebody. I’ll drag them out, but it’s not like they’re all big-wave riders. I’ll twist their arms—“Come on!” And they’re going, “Aw geez,” you know, and I go, “You’re gonna blow it, you’re gonna feel so bad if you don’t go out.” And they go, “It’s stupid, it’s stupid.” And I go, “Look, you know you want to go, just go.” They’re guys I feel confident in. I’ve also sworn at guys, “Fuck you, you’re not gonna go out. I don’t give a shit, you’re not going out with me, kook! You’re not coming with me, I don’t like you, you’re not going out.”
Sometimes I have to fight my brain. Like, “C’mon Brock, get real here. You know what, you’re gonna live!” —Brock Little
Greg Noll: You get an asshole out there and you gotta worry about ’em.
Brock Little: Yeah, exactly! You only take whoever you trust. I mean on the outside reefs we’re two miles out—Waimea’s nothing compared to it, it’s different, the way the rips run—but you gotta have someone with you who’s in control of his emotions. If you lose your board and you’ve gotta swim two miles, you don’t want some guy panicking who doesn’t have it together. You want a guy who’s out there two miles and says, “Oh well, I’ve gotta swim two miles. Fuck! Right-on Brock, you asshole.” Not, “Brock! Brock! What do I do? Where do I go?”
Greg Noll: I’ve got a story that sort of a detail of what he’s talking about. You know, funny things happen when you’re on the beach. Guys can work out when they’re in California and psyche themselves all up thinking they’re gonna do this and that, and they kinda believe it. So they get themselves worked up and go to the Islands and all of a sudden all of this shit changes. When you get outside and this thing starts going (Noll makes sucking noises and big, feathering movements with his hands). One time we were going out at Pipeline, Mike and I, and it was breaking big, and we were with this kid who had been working out for it. And this guy was running back and forth between Mike and me, kinda keying off both of us. He says, “I’m gonna do it! Shit, I’ve been working out for 12 months. I can handle this. I’m going with you guys.” And we’re going, “Well, okay.”
Brock Little: Hey, you can’t really care. He paddled out, you know.
Greg Noll: So somehow this guys made it out through the shorebreak, and we got out and it was a Second Reef, and it was in the afternoon and the light was bouncing off the waves, and you could see Kaena Point off in the background. And this guys was just right on our ass talkin’, you know, trying to talk so fast he didn’t have to think about anything else. And this set came. And these big lines started (Greg imitates a feathering lip bouncing with his fingers), and these waves started making funny noises when they broke, growling and spitting and everything. And this guy sat on his board and said, “What am I doing out here?” He just snapped and started saying, “You guys are crazy, what are you doing out here?” And he turned around and paddled in. I think where he hit the goddamned beach you could see stroke marks right up to Pupukea Road there, and we never saw the guy again.
Brock Little: Yeah, in Hawaii, I’ve been surfin’ with these guys all summer long that say, “Brock, I’m after it, I’m gonna rush it this winter.” Even big, local, psycho guys that you think they’re not bullshitting. “Yeah no problem, see ya out there!” But you never see ’em. I swear to God they think they’re gonna.
Greg Noll: Well, the point is that it’s just a whole lot different in the water. I mean you can sit in a corporate office and figure out your profit and loss and all the shit that makes sense on paper, but when you get in the water, man, your brain goes into a mental freeze and the whole thing goes into slow motion, and these things start suckin’ out and it’s just a different world. And unless you’re had enough waves like he has (indicating Brock), and you’ve got that shit behind you, your stuff kicks out of gear and the brain just goes beserk.
Brock Little: There you go. Sometimes, and I dunno if you do, but I have to fight my brain. I just have to go, “C’mon Brock, get real here. You know, you’re gonna live! You’re gonna make it!” You’re just in the middle of nowhere, you know. Fuck it if those waves are breaking on you! You know what I mean? You just start being rational on yourself. That’s what I do.
Greg Noll: What he’s saying is the key to the whole deal because if you blow it and allow yourself to go nuts, there goes your oxygen, there goes your cool, there goes your ability to get the most out of your body, so that when you go down, if you’re in a frenzy, man, the wave can kill you. If you’re comfortable and relaxed…
Brock Little: Comfortable and relaxed is the whole deal…
Greg Noll: That’s the whole deal! Just keepin’ it cool upstairs.
Steve Pezman: So what’s the payoff?
Greg Noll: The payoff, for me? Better let him answer that (laughing).
Brock Little: What’s the payoff? (Cracking up) Just the greatest high! The greatest! It’s the ultimate high!
Greg Noll: The other big thing to me was always being in a situation where I was around the guys I respected the most. The guys who surfed good-sized waves. And you know, like I’d never met him, but that respect just goes right on through (nodding at Brock). Those special eight or ten guys. The magazines don’t have to tell you who you are. To know you’re in that group, and to know that you’re part of that deal…
Brock Little: Oh, it’s such a bond. The real guys can feel it. It’s such a strong thing. Another thing I wanted to say: I heard that if you didn’t catch the biggest wave, well, you felt bad when you came in. I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t. I’ve seen Darrick on lots of waves that were bigger than mine on that day and come in high as a kite and just said, “I couldn’t believe you went for that wave.” You know what I’m saying? Just paddling over it, I thought, “Oh my God, that was insane.” Because I don’t get that competitive with whoever I’m surfing with. It sounds more like they (referring to Greg and his era) were way more competitive, way more hear-headed about who’s boss for the day. It seems like ego clashing, I dunno. What? (Looking at Greg).
Okay, this is it. And if I don’t catch one of these, I’m gonna be an old man going, “God, I wished I’d done it.” —Greg Noll
Brock Little: Yeah!
Greg Noll: Four months later, I came back to the Islands. I paddle out—Waimea was breaking. I don’t even have a chance to say, “Good to see you,” before he goes, “What the fuck happened to you on that wave.” (Cracking up) It’s been workin’ on him all that timGreg Noll: I’ve gotta be honest. I’ve just got to say that I have sensed that same thing that you felt, with Mike Stang or Jose, or when Ricky or Peter got a big wave. But the biggest high, the ultimate high, was to go away known’ that…
Brock Little: You rode it!
Greg Noll: Yeah! There’s only one thing better than watching your friend catching it.
Brock Little: (Laughing) Okay, okay. Yeah.
Greg Noll: The biggest wave of the day. And it’s when you go away with it in your pocket. That’s the way I always felt.
Brock Little: But when somebody I respect does it, I feel good about it.
Steve Pezman: Is big-wave riding really going anywhere? There’s just a few people who really have a passion for it. Are there young kids in line to replace you guys, or are you the last of a breed?
Brock Little: They’re coming up. But it’s not that changed now. Okay, maybe there’s a different line, but we haven’t really changed anything from when (pointing to Greg)…
Greg Noll: I think they’re better.
Brock Little: Ah, not much.
Greg Noll: I think it’s hard for him to talk about, but my day has come and gone.
Brock Little: I’ll argue with that.
Greg Noll: I think that the equipment’s better, they’re catching bigger waves, and they’re doing more with those waves.
Brock Little: I dunno. I’ve heard a lotta shit about him (indicating Greg). This guy was a fuckin’ “looney tune” from what I’ve heard! The people on the North Shore talk about you, and they talk about Jose Angel, you know, the older guys hanging out talking’ big waves.
Greg Noll: The deal with Jose was that he lived there day and night. I mean I couldn’t take the Islands full deal because my whole thing was intensity. And I felt like if I lived there all the time, I couldn’t maintain the intensity. So what I had to do was get away from it. Get all worked up and then take all this intensity out over a short period of months, and then get outta there and work up to the thing again. And Jose just there, and he didn’t have the same mindset. But he was out everyday, grabbing a turtle, or doing something when the crowds weren’t there and there were no cameras. And the guy was just in incredible shape. And he had a—God, who knows what’s in another guys mind—a very quiet, deep, burning competitive side to him. Never a chest thumping deal, which was bitchin’ about him. It was always a super quiet deal. But we’d play little games on each other. Like one time I went surfin’ with Jose , and I had to catch a plane at one o’clock. It was sort of right at the last minute and I had it all figured out when I could go in and get my shit, get on the plane, and get outta there. Anyway, this big closeout comes, and I knew I was going to get fuckin’ pasted on this thing. We’re the only two guys in the water. And this wave came and it was just feathering from outside, and we’re both sittin’ there kind of looking at each other, and who’s gonna chicken shit out and paddle over it. Well, right at the last instant I just blew him out by spinning around and saying, “I’ll see you next year.” And I dropped into this fuckin’ pit and somehow the wave hit a hole and backed off a little bit, and I managed to dig my fingers into the rails and belly slide the soup all the way to the beach. e. Why I did it was to psyche him out. If he wasn’t there, I woulda never done it. And he’d do things like that to me. We were playing with each other’s brains.
Brock Little: Have you ever met Darrick?
Greg Noll: I met him for just a short period of time. He came to my daughters birthday party.
Brock Little: He’s an intense, driven guy.
Greg Noll: Like he looks at the world through different binoculars.
Brock Little: He does. He’s the kind of guy who won’t ever say anything. Like, he caught this closeout one year. 1988, you know, you’ve seen the pictures of it. And he just paddled back out with, like, this little smirk on his face. And I was going, “What the fuck did you do? What the…How could you go on that?” You know, it was insane. It was one of those waves that was ugly and gross and it was just, like, you know, no problem. He just went.
Greg Noll: So having the respect of the people I respect is almost as important as a relationship with a woman or something. I mean, I almost take it as important as my family relationship.
Brock Little: Well, they’re you peers. You gotta have the respect of your peers.
Greg Noll: And there’s guys that I may not go drink a beer with or that I don’t particularly care to socialize with, but having their respect and them mine is real important. I don’t know what the fuck that’s got to do with anything, but there it is. You know? You know what it is? We’re sitting around together in this room trying to explain what it is that motivates a big-wave rider, and it’s never gonna happen. It’s never gonna come out on this tape. I’m never gonna get it across to you. He knows what I’m talking about. I know what I’m talking about, like it’s thick as butter. But you can’t put it into words.
Steve Pezman: Well, it’s as close as most people who read this will ever get. What’s Waimea, the wave, like now compared to the 1950s and 60s.
Greg Noll: Well, the question I’ve been asked is, “Does it wall up across the whole bay now?”
Steve Pezman: We used to think maybe you could ride a 30-foot wave there.
It all narrows down to one wave every two or three years that you’re right there for. But it’s the wave.”—Brock Little
Brock Little: Thirty-feet is such a relative thing, you know.
Steve Pezman: Well, I think of the size categories as 15 to 18 feet, 18 to 20 feet, 20 to 25 feet, 25 to 30 feet. Like, when you talk about Darrick’s wave, I think of that one, just from the photo, in a 25-foot-plus category.
Brock Little: I call that one 28-feet. That’s my little story.
Greg Noll: You know, this wave size is a funny deal. Like to me, it’s not so much feet. They get to a certain point and everybody’s taking off on ’em, and I guess they’ve got some height, and then all of a sudden…big sets. And they look a little different—did you ever see an elephant that’s just old, gnarly, and it’s got kinda ratty looking hair on it—and they come around the point…
Brock Little: Yeah, yeah…
Greg Noll: And they’re black and nasty! All of a sudden some of you go, “Geez,” and you don’t want any part of ’em. They want to leave ’em alone a little bit.
Brock Little: (In an excited voice) That’s the one, you know. If you don’t have it all here (pointing to his noggin), you just go, “Oh, missed it!” You know (laughing).
Steve Pezman: Of the real big waves that have been ridden, maybe there’s a dozen or so over the years that stand out in the lore of the sport as the biggest. And they’re all in a similar category. Probably in that 25 to 30 foot range, somewhere in there. I just wonder if it’s physically possible to ride a bigger wave than that? I mean what do you need? You need a…
Brock Little: A boat. Twelve foot.
Steve Pezman: Yeah. You need to paddle to get down across so much water, get so much speed, that it seems like, with the size deal, it’s not like someone’s gonna go out and ride a quantum leap above what’s been done.
Greg Noll: I don’t think so.
Brock Little: They don’t break. If that wave ever broke, it’d be five miles out.
Steve Pezman: I men, guys talk about Kaena Point…
Brock Little: You can’t get out there. (To Greg) What’s the Kaena Point story? Give me that.
Greg Noll: I’ll tell you what I think about Kaena Point. Over the years, we’ve always had, and I’m gonna step on someone’s toes here, some Kaena Point rider who was gonna do it. But was more hype than anything else. For the most part, on those very rare big days that you get, there’s still all kinds of waves going unridden at Waimea and the outer reefs. I mean, why go out to Kaena Point? It’s all hype. The big waves right here in front of our noses are still going unridden on the massive days, am I wrong? I mean, let’s get those suckers ridden, then talk about Kaena Point, ya know?
Steve Pezman: Does Makaha still get as big as it was in the stories we hear about the old days?
Brock Little: I dunno.
Greg Noll: Really big Makaha is a white elephant break. I mean, when you say huge Makaha, it’s those very few days that, for the most part, the way I look at it, are about 12 years apart. And, that’s just about how often the come. But those days have nothing to do with normal Makaha.
Brock Little: 1982 was the last one.
Greg Noll: Was it?
Brock Little: Yeah! That was the year it was so huge, Waimea was closing out so they’d go surf Makaha.
Steve Pezman: So as far as a big-wave career goes, you might do your whole career and really big Makaha would never be one of those days, if your timing just happened to be that way.
Greg Noll: That’s what happened to me. I went out on the water and I realized that, you know, this is it man. If it didn’t happen for me here and now.
Steve Pezan: You realized that at the time?
Greg Noll: Oh, yeah! And it was like, “Okay, this is it. This is the time in my life that it’s gonna happen, and if you don’t catch on of these fuckin’ things, you’re gonna be an old man sittin’ in a chair some place going, ‘God, I wished I’d done it.’” That was probably the thing that put me over the edge. You had to just go crazy on the thing and just go into a different brain-set. I mean, like he’s talking about this brain-set that you have on the outer reefs, and the big days and everything. You have to go into a brain-set for those days, and this day at Makaha was like one step above that.
Brock Little: God!
Greg Noll: It was so bad Brock, and I don’t talk about this, that I had to actually paddle over to the channel for about 20 minutes and just sit with my hands folded and go, “What are we going to do about this?” You know?
Brock Little: Wow! That’s so fun!
Greg Noll: (Chuckles).
Steve Pezman: Well you two guys come to it from different places, but when you’re actually doing it, your heads in the same place.
Brock Little: Well, he’s in the Doerner, Erickson league.
Greg Noll: Know what I think? I think guys explain it differently, but I think it’s a narcotic—the high is the same for all of us. It’s the best natural high that I’ve ever experienced.
Brock Little: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Greg Noll: And, I think what happens is that over a period of time, there are only eight to ten guys in the world that are willing to commit themselves to this high. Like in my case, it ain’t being anything exceptional, it’s just that I love the feeling.
Steve Pezman: Well, only a few people are in position to have access to that high, and then just a few of those even try to take advantage of it.
Oh yeah, I love it. Right now it’s like I’m paddling out. I got a little heart thing going. Because you’re living it. Right now he’s flashing on big waves and I am too. I’m flashing on the big fucking elephant. —Brock Little
Brock Little: It’s just fun. That’s the whole thing.
Greg Noll: Fun? Here I am, 54 years old, and I get to talkin’ to a guy like this, and I can feel fucking feel my skin crawling right now, you know? And, I mean when you’re an old guy and you’ve been away from it for a long time, and it comes back to you like it was yesterday! I don’t know anything else on the face of God’s earth that could be like that. Do you?
Brock Little: Oh yeah, I love it. Right now it’s like I’m paddling out. I got a little heart thing going. Because you’re living it. Right now he’s flashing on big waves and I am too. I’m flashing on the big fucking elephant.
Greg Noll: Yeah, like you catch all the 6 footers when you’re a little kid, then you want an 8 foter, then you want a 10 footer, then a 12 footer, then a 15 footer. And you want and 18 footer. And then, pretty soon, you surf enough 20 footers, you can’t really give a shit about a 15 or an 18 foot wave other than to just go out and keep in shape. So when that elephant—that big, black fucker—comes winding around the point, you’re ready. But then, like you’re talking about, somewhere along the line, man, all the shit starts coming together to where you can’t catch the thing cause of the board. You know, how big a board are you gonna go for? Then the physical impossibility thing starts to come in, and you start splitting hairs on those big buggers, you know.
Steve Pezman: Then there’s those guys that do the outside reefs on those big, long gliders.
Greg Noll: When you cheat at cards, do you ever feel like you’ve really won the game?
Brock Little: Hey, let’s put it this way, all those Outside Reefs guys who are gliding, they haven’t ridden anything close to what Darrick or whoever have ridden at Waimea. They haven’t!
Greg Noll: But those guys who do it on a sailboard ot a jet ski, I dunno, I give those guys a tremendous amount of credit. But in my eyes, there’s nothing like the feeling of going out there under your steam and not having a helicopter there or whatever. You know, you’ve gotta pay the bill if things don’t work out. You start cheatin’ with all those little deals, and when it comes time to pay the bill, the tab ain’t so high. But we’ve never (nodding to Brock) about taking advantage of all the easy ways out.
Brock Little: What?
Steve Pezman. The safety nets.
Brock Little: Right. Right. I don’t give a shit. I’ll take ’em if they’re there. If they’re not, I don’t take ’em.
Greg Noll: Well, the final deal is, man, that the big tab is your life. You give that up, who knows what’s on the other side. Nobody’s been there and back to tell me about it, anyway.
Steve Pezman: (To Brock) Have you ever felt in grave danger?
Brock Little: Yeah. It was at Waimea, a big closeout set. I got caught inside by about seven waves. Finally, by the fifth wave, I was just going, “C’mon Brock, this isn’t working.” I started seeing stars, you know, red stars. And, basically my body just totally relaxed. It was like, “Wow, all right.” I mean it was weird. And if you just stop fighting, you go, “Okay, this is what it’s like to die.” Then you say, “God, you’re in trouble here. What are you thinking that way for? Start making it to the surface, you idiot!” So I said, “Okay,” and popped to the surface. And there was like two more waves. But I think after that close experience, I could feel what it was to go soft and I just quit doing it. I didn’t even come close on the next two waves. Another time, just totally different from that one, was at an outside reef on a really big wave on par with the one I caught at Waimea, the closeout one that I fell on. On both of those waves, just eating it and falling, I sort of had the sense of my life passing before my eyes, even though, actually, the Waimea wave wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. And the one at the outside reef, the big wave, it caught me with the lip right on my head, and it was just huge. Right before it caught me I was going, “Fuck, I’m gonna die.” It hit me like a punch and it gave me red stars because it kind of landed behind me on my head. And it was cool, because I was all dazed from the punch. I had that high.
Greg Noll: (Laughing) That ain’t so bad.
Brock Little: Yeah! I was, like, buzzing. Know what I mean. You know, you get popped up and go, like, “Whew.” I must of been under for a hell of a long time, because the next one was right there, but I wasn’t really fighting—like the ultimate relaxed state of mind was being punched. I came up still buzzing from the hit. Another wave? “Whew, okay!” Those are the kind that give you your flash of life.
Greg Noll: I got hit one time at Waimea. The board went down and I hit my head. I hit so hard, I put a big pressure ding in it. And when the board washed in, there was hair stuck in the thing. I completely went out under water. And I remember when I was a kid, I used to have bad nightmares, and I could wake myself up from ’em. So I remember being underwater and starting to come around, and I’m going, “I’m having a nightmare, it’s time to wake yourself up.” And as I started coming out of it, I realized that I was in the water, that it wasn’t a nightmare. It was a reality situation. It was really a bad wipeout. I had a concussion. Later I went to the doctor and asked him, “Hey, why didn’t I drown?” And he said it was just a conditioned reflex, that I’d done this thing so many times. But that was a shitty deal. I’ve got the board with the ding hanging in the garage. Every once in a while I go out and look at it. The hair’s not there, but the ding’s there.
It was as big as the wave I took off on, and I’m trying to pump up, you know, get ready for the big dive. I was pumping so much adrenaline that I could taste it in my mouth! —Greg Noll
Brock Little: That’s heavy!
Greg Noll: But as far as actual wipeouts, that wave at Makaha, from the psyche thing? The heart was just ready to jump out of the body when I went down, took a dump, and the set behind the thing…
Brock Little: Yeah…
Greg Noll: It was as big as the wave I took off on, and I’m trying to pump up, you know, get ready for the big dive. I was pumping so much adrenaline that I could taste it in my mouth!
Brock Little: Plus, it was even heavier because you gave that wave so much power by sitting out there for 20 minutes, and when you caught it, you’re going, “This is it, this is it!” And when you went you had everything going through you. And that was it! So you’re giving that wave so much power that you’re so adrenelated, so amped on it, that once you ate it, it was just like, “This could be it!”
Greg Noll: Well, I remember the thing going over the top of me, and I remember what hit me right away was there was no movement or anything. I mean when I felt the thing go over, it went, “Whomp!” Like it was a fuckin’ truck or something, and then there was no movement or nothin’. But my ears were ready to pop, and I had to clear my fuckin’ ears.
Brock Little: I remember reading about that. I liked that.
Greg Noll: And then slowly the goddamned grind started, and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And by that time I’d probably gotten pulled in close to 200 yards and the next set had dissipated, pretty much. But that first one was a bitch. That feeling—you ever go by a big fuckin’ truck really close? And you feel that wind thing? That’s how that wave went by me.
Brock Little: Gosh. Wish I was alive. Wish I coulda seen that!
Steve Pezman: And you’d only get that situation maybe a couple times in you whole big-wave career?
Greg Noll: Once! If you’re lucky! I’m not coming on or anything. I’m just saying that the misconception is that Waimea or Makaha break big all the time. I mean, shit, really good Waimea only occurs, what, every couple of years?
Brock Little: Well, once a year if you’re lucky!
Greg Noll: Once a year, if you’re really lucky! It just doesn’t happen very often. These big-wave days are rare.
Brock Little: I’ve kind of started keeping track of the really big waves each year. Last year there were two sets. The year before that was the Eddie Aikau—there were two. Then the year before that, there were four. So there were two plus two plus four rideable closeout sets where there was a really big old wave. So that’s like eight closeout sets with maybe three waves each, and you ain’t going for the first one cause there’s always two behind it! So that leaves only like 12 to 16 huge waves a year that are even rideable. And to even catch one of those, you got to be on it. You got to be fuckin’ there! You got to want it. You’re a little bit out of place and you just go, “Whoops, missed it.” I mean, you just got to be, “Grr, I’m going to be in the right place!” And do that narrows down to like one wave a year that you’re actually right there for—not even one wave a year! One wave every two or three years, but it’s the wave, the closeout set wave that they go, “Man, he went for it!”
Steve Pezman: So, you’re whole deal is aimed at this one wave.
Greg Noll: And then you’ve got to have the right sized board.
Brock Little: Oh yeah, all the variables.
Greg Noll: That question you were asking earlier, what’s it going to take to make this next move? It’s gonna take a guy like him, to have the right board that’s going to catch a big wave to begin with. If you don’t catch the fuckin’ wave to begin with, everything else doesn’t count. Then, you’re gonna have to be in position—this is in my mind anyway—where you’re gonna have to commit to staying outside. Because when those big sets are coming, you can’t try and scramble out to them. You’ve wasted your oxygen. You’re never right on “the spot” anyway. So to make all that shit happen, first, you’ve got to have the commitment up here (taps his head). Then you’ve got to have the equipment to do the job. Then you’ve got to make a commitment to sit, maybe thirty years outside of everybody, on this so called fuckin’ spot that many never happen that whole day. And, you may have blown off an entire day of surfing at Waimea while all your friends are catching big waves and never catch the goddamned thing.
Brock Little: I haven’t done that. I haven’t grown that much. I’m still a little rat catching all the waves. But about what I said, and this happens to me all the time, I’ll catch like the first 20 footer of the set and I’ll be paddling out and there’s a 25 footer. I mean, I’m moving in a circle. So that means my odds are worse. I mean, if I’m going in circles, I’m having a session, you know, and it’s like, well actually, I’m out there to catch a really big wave, but, fuck, i hate sitting. I hate sitting. I mean, when you get older you sit. That’s the rumor. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The thing about Waimea now, I dunno if it was different them, it’s almost like there’s one takeoff spot, know what I mean? And the big waves, the way you catch those is that there’s still those guys and they’re paddling way the fuck out there. And the way you catch the big one is sitting right here (pointing down), know what I mean? The guys now all shoot outside cause they don’t really want any part of it, and if you keep you position inside, that’s how you catch ’em. I don’t know, maybe in the old days you sat out there, but nowadays, it’s like, “Okay, hold back, hold back.” Cause everybody’s headed for the horizon. But the thing now is there’s a lot more pretending. You know they’re going to be as far out of the picture as possible. So when those guys are paddling out and we’re all holding our position, I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna be okay.” I mean, I’m the furthest one in by, like, ten yards when the big waves come. Just cause almost everyone else is paddling out over ’em.
Greg Noll: Well, maybe the lineup has changed these days but it still seems to me like the bigger waves break further out.
Steve Pezman: Maybe the equipment difference has changed the lineup a bit. Either way it’s that rare rogue wave that’s the cornerstone of both your careers. And if the truth be known, your favorite hunting ground is on…
Brock Little: Outer reefs. And there are way more waves than that one out there, but there’s only one place that gets any credit. Only one place where there’s photographers. You know, there’s only one place where the media concentrates on.
Greg Noll: Nowadays the narcotic is on the outer Reefs.
Brock Little: Yeah! Totally!
A moment of silence ensues—the hotel room is charged with the energy of the rap that’s come down. It could go on and on but we can feel the end of this session. After a bit we all leave the room, go down the elevator, and walk back towards the convention center. It’s a reentry into the hype and jive of the surf market but an afterglow exists in each of us that will take some time to fade.