Thoughts on the nature of surf sonics.

I never could figure out what “surf music” had to do with riding a wave, other than hitching its appeal to the then-growing wave of surf enthusiasts and the whipsawing of its outer reaches in the far beyond. Surf music, and its specific sound, was introduced as merely part of the fabricated flood of “surf” products by non-surfing people, and soon became a dominant component of the lifestyle’s generally perceived identity.

Surfing, being a wave dance, does have a powerful relationship to music, just not so much what was billed, and ultimately later became tied to, as surf music. For me, at the time surf music became a thing, what actually permeated the feelings of the ride was jazz. I recall Wes Montgomery’s 1965 album Bumpin’ and Herbie Mann’s 1961 live recording of At The Village Gate as having a certain magical effect on our brains when we envisioned ourselves traversing a wave in stylish and rhythmic trims and moves. I even played those and other similar tunes in my mind when I paddled for one, although I left it behind when the ride actually began, being too absorbed in the act itself to fabricate a soundtrack to accompany it.

And what is wrong with surf music in that latter role? Perhaps, unlike jazz, it is too didactic, simplistic, and predictable to truly articulate the nuanced aesthetic of the wave dance. Admittedly, though, we did crank it up on the radio when in route to the beach.

An interview with Greg Noll and Brock Little.

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. 

 

Preeminent marine hull designer Joe Quigg on the roots of modern surfing. From TSJ 20.6.

Where historical surfing is concerned, you’d cover a lot of water trying to discover a more important landfall than this question-and-answer session from 1997 between our publisher and Joe Quigg. Pezman’s “no big whoop,” arch-casual approach belies his profound knowledge of the territory, making him the best possible foil for the taciturn, foundational surfer-shaper from Malibu. This long text document sails by quickly so don’t be afraid to devote a few minutes. There’s enviable return-on-investment for anyone interested in the very foundation of Hawaiian and Californian surf style. —Scott Hulet


Joe Quigg arranged for us to meet in a quiet place: the small magazine storage room at Aina Haina Public Library on Oahu’s south shore. I had intended my time with Quigg to yield background on his historic black-and-white photographs of exploring the Malibu to Rincon stretch of the California coast, circa late 40s, early 50s, and his vistas of First Break Waikiki. Joe had something else in mind. While his words were soft-spoken, they were anything but quiet. Joe has become increasingly disillusioned—no, make that dismayed—by recollections published over the last decade or two that he feels twist surf history to suit various uninformed or inaccurate views. Also weighing heavily on his mind is the belief that others have taken or been assigned credit for foundational design innovations that belong to him and to those who preceded him.

Be clear that Quigg is not someone who craves the spotlight. In recent years, partially due to the reportage in question, he seldom comes out into the surfing public, choosing rather to maintain an active but private world, largely insulated from a sport that has misunderstood him. Yet, as a man grows older, it’s hard to sit back silently and watch versions that differ from what he has experienced firsthand become accepted as fact. Self-described as one of the few remaining historical figures who has personally observed the last seven decades unfold, it was time to set the record straight. —SP

STEVE PEZMAN: You made a unique photo record of a time when the sport was being defined and the California coast explored and understood as a surf resource. [I’m on my photo caption quest and haven’t yet caught on that Quigg has his own agenda.]

JOE QUIGG: [Joe plays along for awhile.] Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good lens. I finally got a little 300mm that, for a Speed Graphic, isn’t much magnification. I studied at Art Center and was a Photographer’s Mate in the Navy during WWII. I made those images after the war. You know, I was there [at the beach] for so many years. Can I just go ahead and chat? In fact, you might as well record, even if you don’t print what I’m going to say, just so you’ll know.

SP: Absolutely, go wherever you want. I’ll move the recorder closer to you.

JQ: I haven’t said anything profound yet [laughing].

SP: I know, but you might.

Anything I say to you on this tape, I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t prove it. I’ve got all this stuff as evidence. I brought all this stuff so that you know I’m not bullshitting you.

JQ: So, you know how long I’ve been surfing? Not too many have been at it for seven decades. I dug into this box full of junk. [Quigg has arrived with a folder of old snapshots, 8×10 prints, hand-drawn sketches, and pages torn from magazines]. I did have an entire huge barrel full, and the termites got into it. Anyway, I was born in 1925. We moved to Santa Monica when I was about three. My mother loved to swim so she began taking me down to the beach, and I started making these little boats and paipo boards in my father’s garage. [Joe pulls a sketch out of the pile of stuff on the table]. I just dug this out. I didn’t do this for you exactly….

SP: I know you illustrate your thoughts as you talk. It’s great stuff.

JQ: Well, Severson does this kind of thing, but I can’t draw. I studied photography. But to give you an idea, my mother and my brother loved to go to the Del Mar Club here [pointing to an early aerial photo of Santa Monica]. So I’d go scampering out here [the beach] with my little paipo. I was only 3 or 4 years old. I hadn’t learned to swim yet, so I’d go sliding in the whitewater. That was in 1928 or 1929. I’d watch the lifeguards and surf guys that hung out there.

SP: There were just a few breaks being surfed then?

JQ: San Onofre and Palos Verdes became the first well-known breaks. Hermosa and Manhattan got popular a bit later. Groups of guys would come and go. Years ago I was at this party, and an older guy brought out some Don James footage of Venice that showed Bud Browne jumping off Crystal Pier. He used to lifeguard there. A gang of paddleboard guys rode out there and they couldn’t ride very well. Then they tore the pier down. But there was a bathhouse and some rentals there. I remember a picture in a restaurant dated 1905 of people standing around with these boards. They’d wade out and [scoot in on them] like I was doing here. Ours were homemade, but this one [referring to a picture of Joe, Jack Quigg, and Anslie Moon at Santa Monica Beach dated 1932] looks like it was commercially produced. [Now looking at a Don James photo.] This is my brother and the guy across the street, Ed Fearon. As teenagers they started working at the Bel-Air Bay Club. They were my idols. These two boards here are heavy redwood, but the rest are all balsa and actually really light. My point is, everybody gives Simmons credit for inventing the light board when the pre-war Swastika boards were already balsa/redwood laminates and showed a trend toward lightness. It’s too bad Zahn and Peterson are dead. Zahn idolized Peterson and would have dragged all that history out of him. Pete made me these two boards [pointing to the photo].

This plywood, when you took it off of the glue jig, it had memory and it would smooth everything out. Like a computer, the plywood would clean up the whole process. So these smooth-rocker boards surfed real well, even with the boxy pintails.

This guy, John Stinton, made these two. Let me tell you, this group of guys that hung out at State Beach and worked at the Bel-Air Bay Club were moving ahead, and they went through redwood and gave them up for boards they called “Stinton Spinners” because they were so light—a very thin veneer of redwood over super-light balsa. See, both Peterson and Stinton were into making light boards…that’s Dick Reed with a balsa/redwood Swastika with hardly any [redwood] out toward the edge. [Leafing through the photos again, Joe stops on the vista of Santa Monica.] There was a paddleboard club right there and the paddleboards were mostly Blakes, but there were a couple of balsa-filled box boards too. Blake’s boards leaked—weighed a hundred pounds. They were the very worst! Peterson made much lighter plywood paddleboards. The lifeguards preferred them for rescues.

SP: Some historians feel that Blake had a tendency to patent things that he didn’t totally invent. Pete is said to have laughingly responded to Blake’s fin patent with a comment like, “Ah, hell, I had a fin on my first
 surfboard!”

JQ: I asked Pete that very question not long before he died, because Blake kept claiming he had invented the fin. I remember as a child in the early 30s, even then there were old-looking boards with fins in the lockers. What I think happened is, like boat work, some people tend to think that if they mass-produce a thing, then they’ve invented it. If they refine it a little, they’ve reinvented it. And Blake did make a bunch of refined fin castings for his paddleboards. Amongst them was a cast aluminum fin, and he also had an optional wooden fin that was shallow and about a foot long.

SP: There’s an image from Blake’s scrapbook showing the aft of a Blake paddleboard with a metal fin bolted to it. It looked like a water-ski fin, and printed over the picture in his hand it says, “First fin, 1934.”

JQ: See, I think he convinced them to give him a patent on a cast aluminum fin, and from then on he just assumed the title of “first fin.” It would be more accurate to say he invented the first aluminum fin. But.. so I asked Peterson and he said, “When I was 19, I had a fin on my board.” That’s what he said. I don’t think Blake had even come west yet. Anyway, I want to make it clear to you that light balsa boards started well back in the 30s. A lot of these older guys, now in their eighties, are getting stories published and a lot of it is [wrong]. See, right after the war, the group of kids that came to the beach didn’t know anything about before the war. To them the world of surfing started in 1949. Leslie Williams was that way. [The “Birdman” was writing a series of recollections and had sent them to Joe for his comments. Joe’s reaction was one of extreme agitation.) He wasn’t there during that old era. He can’t relate to anything I tell him or write to him. [Quigg’s attitude toward Leslie has since mellowed as Leslie has indeed done more fact finding and altered his stories accordingly.] I wrote all that stuff down—took a week to do it. Mailed it to him. He wouldn’t use it.

They were trying new finishes, looking for harder paints, trying for lighter boards before the war. I think it was Ralph Kiewit who found this toilet seat enamel that was supposed to be strong stuff.

SP: He kept it. He reveres your stuff.

JQ: Oh, well, I revered him in that letter. Anyway, I’ll continue with my speech here. [Leafing through the photos.] And then this one. In high school I palled around with Dave Sykes who lived at Malibu right next to this house that my brother Jack, Ed Fearon, and Don James rented. Sykes was the best surfer I had seen at that time because he lived there and surfed all day, every day. He could just glide and glide. [Finding another shot of Sykes.] After this, he went in the merchant marine [during the war] and came back bigger and heavier, all grown up. The same thing happened to Ricky Grigg when he went off to Stanford and came back. He was never the same again. You know how some child surfers are so rubbery? David Nuuhiwa was a classic, just wild as a kid. Then, 20 years later, of course, he was heavier set, still a good surfer, same as Ricky was still a good surfer, but [not the same].

SP: What defined a good surfer?

JQ: Well, see, I clearly have my own idea. When I was 6 and 7 years old, I watched Peterson ride at the Santa Monica pier. He lifeguarded there and jumped in from the pier. He was just magic to me—so easy, so talented, and such a great athlete. He did water-stunt work for the movies. He could do anything. Watching him, I just fell in love with the whole thing. He was so perfectly controlled, every thread in place, his hair all combed, and he just stood there so smoothly. I’d be fishing and watching him. Lorrin Harrison would come up to see Peterson. He was a little wilder in his mannerisms and his personality—the way he surfed. He’d wave and jump and tear all around. When he was young he was quite a wild guy. Peterson was a better surfer, but he didn’t try to be wild like that. I thought Gard Chapin was the living end. When I started going to San Onofre, Hermosa, and Palos Verdes, I’d see him there and he would come up to Malibu and just run circles around everyone. Pete Peterson, Tulie Clark, Gard Chapin, Bud Morrissey, they were my heroes as I grew up. [Looking through Tom Adler’s Don James book, San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1941, finding the photo of a Topanga Beach cottage with boards out front.] See, those redwoods actually were red cedar. Light cedar is stronger than redwood. At that point it was considered very macho to be able to go out and ride big waves with a big, heavy board. One mistake people might make would be to presume that these Stinton Spinners were solid redwood. See, the thin veneer of redwood let him use lighter balsa under-neath, but by the time Simmons came into it during WWII, these guys were all gone.

Some people tend to think that if they mass-produce a thing, then they’ve invented it. Or if they refine it a little, they’ve reinvented it.

Bob’s first board was a redwood with a piece of plywood on the deck he bought from Gard Chapin. Gard’s boards were heavy. A friend of mine had gotten a balsa board from Bud Morrissey, and one time when Bud happened by I said, “Gee, I thought you just made redwood boards?” He said, “No, I’ve made four or five of these all-balsas.” That would have been late 30s. San Onofre guys put a long, straight taper on their boards, whereas Morrissey put more hips on his. A straight taper veers you off. That’s why I don’t like modern guns that are too drawn. See, this is a bad board [referring to one of the photos]. It’s got that straight taper. Pete Peterson shaped it and it had slanted rails. My brother bought it from him and I tried it out a few times. It was impossible to turn. [Indicating another board.] This Swastika’s got a “San Onofre” taper at the rails. [Joe starts putting a straight edge to all the board’s plan shapes in the photo and they’re all pretty straight until…] Oh, wow, look at that curve [on Ed Fearon’s board]. He was a pretty fair surfer when he was young. These guys in Don’s [James] book were trying to surf better. Gard Chapin could! Dave Sykes could! Tulie Clark could! A few guys could surf better, and I’d see them. I knew there was something better going on and that I’d better get with it. I had already learned all these lessons—that a round bottom with rails that long and straight just stuck. [Shuffling through the shots.] You know, it’s a funny thing. If you have rocker you can get away with a straight rail. You can carve on the rocker. Longboards now have a whole lot of rocker, and yet they have the [parallel] tanker plan shape, and the guys are turning them like crazy. The thing that I did was to introduce “flowing rail rocker.” In a Diffenderfer article in your magazine, he mentions that I put nice rocker in the rails. Gard Chapin was able to ride these long, heavy balsa/redwoods. He was such a wild man, he’d just dive into it harder, but he was also so talented. That’s another thing. Some people are just more talented than others. The whole sport has taken a turn toward wildness, what I consider high performance. See, these guys that wrote about Simmons were sorta kooks themselves. They didn’t really understand that Kivlin and I had started into a much wilder level, one that Rabbit Kekai had keyed us in to. Some people resist change. From Palos Verdes south, they were more backward, except for Windansea. But San Onofre, they’d just say [slipping into a codgerish dialect], “I’ve been ridin’ my board for 15 years. You guys makin’ all these new boards…” [Joe makes a sweeping gesture of dismissal with his hand.]

Rabbit Kekai had a turn where he’d stomp on the tail of that shortboard so hard that it would stop and it would land going the other way. It was weird, but he could turn a board. He was the best surfer all through the 40s.

“Burrhead” and Gard Chapin were exceptions. They surfed there a lot. I mean, they’re all neat guys, but the guys from my area that started before me had already begun searching for new materials. That’s where I got the idea. Don James and his gang were trying new finishes, looking for harder paints, trying for lighter boards before the war. I think it was Ralph Kiewit who found this toilet seat enamel that was supposed to be strong stuff [chuckling]. Ed Fearon ended up painting his board with it. Dave Sykes was into lacquer. Peterson was into lacquer, shellac, all that stuff. Sykes told me he put 15 layers of black lacquer on this board. [We’re looking at a picture of Sykes with a plan shape profile, dated 1942. On it Joe has noted “all balsa, no hardwood strips, at San Onofre.”] It chipped a little [grinning]. Times were different. Guys now think that surfing began when John Severson started Surfer magazine. When did you start surfing?

SP: In about 1957?

JQ: Oh, yeah. Well, I rented my shop in Newport on 31st Street in about 1959. It was going to be a boat shop. I was doing shape jobs for Hobie then. I’d bring blanks up there and shape them, but it really didn’t become a surf shop until 1960 or ’61.

SP: So, those pre-war boards represent the earliest beginnings of today’s surfing, as influenced by Rabbit Kekai riding short redwood hot curls at Queens. He and the Empty Lot gang and Lorrin and Peterson had been going to Hawaii since the early 30s.

JQ: There’s something about Hawaii that teaches you a lesson. A bit later, Peterson made the first fiberglass board. It was hollow. He pulled it off of one of his older wooden boards. I was in his shop a couple of weeks after he did that, and I noticed that the old wooden board had been glassed too. Pete made the all-glass board about a month before Simmons had gotten glass. Yep. Fact! There had been a New York boat show, and these boat people—salesmen, reps—had been to that show and seen the glass. A guy named Brant Goldsworthy brought Pete the cloth and resin. I don’t know the name of the guy who brought some to Simmons, but it came from that same boat show.

SP: It sounds like a simultaneous equation between the two.

JQ: Yeah. See, since I was a young kid, I’d been searching for better paints and going around to marine stores trying to find waterproof glue. When I got out of the Navy, the plastics industry was billed as the big future thing. I thought I might want to get into plastics, so I was searching for materials like foam and glass. Why were people so into Simmons? What was it?

We’d sit up all night long talking board theory.

SP: Well, he was a mysterious figure who died in the surf. The story’s dramatic and he was evidently a real different personality and interesting, bright and inventive.

JQ: Oh, he was.

SP: People that were around him became enamored of him, and he became a cult figure. John Elwell obviously sees him as the seminal influence. And Leslie Williams, another person who was…

JQ: …taken with him.

SP: He had fresh thinking and a pronounced way of doing things that contributed to the evolution of foiled surfboards. As far as being the “father” of the modern surfboard, many people who knew him do think of him in those terms.

JQ: Well, I knew him quite well, hung out with him pretty much, and we surfed in the same area up there. I’d run into him a lot out surfing, and I’d go hang out at his shop. I would say this about him: For someone to be that devoted was inspiring to me. I couldn’t handle his board shapes. They didn’t work for me.

SP: The wide tails?

JQ: Yes.

SP: Because his rails, and foil, and the rest of his plan shape, other than for the real wide tails, the boards were essentially advanced.

JQ: But, see, for his first five years he pushed and built solid, 120-pound redwoods. And the thing about Simmons’ math, Simmons only used that math on heavy boards. Simmons was reading the math books and reading the naval architecture books, and he was also hanging out with the new planing hull speedboat guys. He was trying to mix it all together in a high-speed board. I knew him quite well. Sometimes we’d sit up all night long talking board theory. I liked Simmons. He was a very inspiring guy. That’s what Simmons taught me. I got inspirational encouragement from Bob. He did contribute to my abilities, I suppose. He was so devoted, that was inspiring. But his Cal Tech math was all backwards. I’m no mathematician. I’m more of a hands-on trial-and-error man, and I don’t know what makes a light board go faster. I mean, I can’t explain it mathematically. I know from watching it, of course.

SP: A heavy board gains momentum.

JQ: Oh, sure, for tearing out across a flat-faced wave. I recall sitting at Makaha on a hollow point-break day watching Joey Cabell just laying tracks.

SP: Joey was always a light-board advocate. In the 60s, he rode Hobies that weighed 22 pounds when everybody else was on 30 to 35 pounds.

I had a style of bodysurfing the Wedge, where I’d drop in on my side, like it was a rail, and curve it to be the right shape to go up and down the wave. Most people plane with one arm back, one arm over, but I rode on my shoulder, like it was a rail. Rails are my big thing.

JQ: I remember Georgie, when he first started going to Makaha, he got hurt a lot and went a little more conservative, but he could do that. That particular hot curl board of his was fast in that inertia way, solid redwood, but thin and so streamlined. He loaned it to me a couple of times. It would get up speed and hold it, where a little 6-foot, 8-pound board would come to a stop. But that little 6-foot board is faster when there’s a hot athlete on it, developing acceleration when he needs to. You can’t do that with the heavy board. I don’t know how to explain that mathematically, but it’s a torque thing. [Picking up another photo inscribed by Joe: “Leonard Lieb and Dave Heiser at Makaha in ’49 with the first nose-rider type surfboard shaped by Joe Quigg.”] Gee, this is ’49, more than 15 years before they started inventing nose riders for Tom Morey’s contest [in 1965]. In case you want proof [fishing through his stack], there are people who would die for this—just kill for it! This is a letter from Bob Simmons to me, when I’m in Honolulu, dated June 7, 1949 [in which Bob is enumerating the boards he’s made and their weights while discussing the fact that he’s now going light]. Also, here’s a letter from Matt Kivlin in 1949, where it describes them starting their business with plywood-skinned foam boards. God, here’s some of Simmons’ math! I don’t understand it at all, but we were going to build a catamaran together at one time. Here it is, in Simmons’ own writing. In 1949, he started coming down in weight all through the year. I talked to Peter Cole about it. He named all these boards without having seen this letter. Bob had built a 55-pound board for Cole in 1948, then Dick Jaekel, 45 pounds, Tim Lyons, 43 pounds, George Beck, 40 pounds, Terrell, that must be Howard Terrell, 35 pounds, and a 34-pound for Buzzy. He ends up getting down to 30 pounds for himself.

SP: [I pick up another piece of paper with a sketch on it.] Is this your drawing?

JQ: Oh, no, this is a Simmons’ letter, his idea for the catamaran. We were going to build an adventure craft then sail it around the world and go surfing.

SP: Great concept.

JQ: This is an earlier letter from Matt: “These boxes have damn near parallel sides.” See, they were going to get rich. “We’re not going to call them ‘boxes’ because they work too well. We’re going to call them ‘fish rails.’” Let me tell you, before I left, Matt was trying to get Simmons to go into a money-making venture, making lifeguard boards for everybody in the nation. “They ride something like a wide hot curl board. You can turn them on a dime and they won’t broach.” Well, you can’t turn a hot curl [chuckling]. Nobody…Rabbit had a funny turn, but the thing that burns me, like, Leslie is jealous of Matt, see, because Matt wouldn’t invite him to the parties. So Leslie won’t write anything complimentary on Matt and that’s why I don’t want him to write about me. He fudges everything a little. Anyway, this was really Matt’s idea, to get rich on these plywood boards. And they were going to be boxy lifeguard rescue boards. “His [Simmons] academic gibberish, I can’t take it. I’m going to devote a little thought to building. Like you once said, it’s a good racket. I intend to go to some school, perhaps Art Center, and take modern architectural or industrial design.” He became a successful architect, and every time Malibu burns, he helps to rebuild it.

Some of these guys that wrote about Simmons were sorta kooks themselves.

It was Matt who started this idea of a plywood board that they could sell across the nation. They put balsa rails on it so they could get a little more shape, and what happened is that Simmons, when he did come in on it, took over. Peterson was manufacturing plywood rescue boards at the same time and shipping them all up and down the coast. They were going to compete against Pete, so they made them a little boxy at the start [Joe shuffling through the stack, finds the shot]. And Simmons made this glue jig that was kind of straight, like his concaves. But what happened, this plywood, when you took it off of the glue jig, it had memory and it would smooth everything out, so that these were the only smooth-rocker boards that Simmons had anything to do with. Like a computer, the plywood would clean up the whole process. So they surfed real well, even with the boxy pintails. Everyone was very novice then. The athletic level was quite low. I wanted to build lifeguard rescue boards when I was making my balsa boards, but Zahn was a big-shot lifeguard at the time, and he talked the Department out of it. I was trying to sell them tandem boards, which they all use now, but Zahn told them [slipping into an impersonation of Zahn], “Naw, all the lifeguards will go surfing all day and kill somebody, and we’ll be sued.” He could be mean sometimes. Anyway, Matt made some lighter ones off this jig. They surfed so well that we figured we’ve got a winner here. To hell with the lifeguards and rescue boards. Let’s put a square-tail on these things, and [suddenly] everybody was ordering one. Simmons told me he had hundreds of orders when I started glassing for them.

SP: What about your hollow, strutted, balsa-skinned paddleboards?

JQ: The first was originally 24 feet long [inspecting one of the snapshots]. I remodeled it down to 22 feet. It was so long and skinny it was impossible, so I was able to saw it down the middle, add a balsa center stick, and shorten the ends without damaging it. After I did that one—all hollow and strutted—I discovered that sheets of balsa wood bulkheads every foot worked better. It didn’t matter whether you cut holes in them or not. They were already so light that I could take all those sheets and put them on a scale and they didn’t even weigh a pound.

As you know in life, that’s the essence of quality—a guy who has the brass to step ahead and go for it, but he also has to have ability. Not like a guy who’s willing to go for it but is a screw-up. You’ve got to have the ability to back it up.

So the boards I built after that first strutted, airplane-wing style used bulkheads. [Joe continues sorting through the pile.] There were a lot of articles through the years, like Diffenderfer’s here, telling about his hollow balsa wood surfboard technique. I built those hollow paddleboards in the 50s. He had just come over here and knew about it because Sheppard was glassing for me at that time. Then, he writes this article about inventing hollow balsas. [Laughing] I ran into him years later and he just said, “Oh, God, I know, what’s wrong with me?” But he was also the first guy to acknowledge my rail rocker contribution in print. He goes way back—to Windansea. When a kid there named Buzzy Bent was 15 or 16, he was about as good as anybody on the coast. He and Burrhead came up [to Malibu] and ordered boards from me right after I made those first all-balsa girls’ boards. Over the first couple of months, it was those two guys alone who recognized the maneuverability in those boards—lighter and more rocker. Oh, there was already rocker, mind you. The Redondo guys had rocker in their boards. One guy from Hermosa, way back in the 30s, early 40s. So it’s not that I invented rocker. Gard Chapin would glue nose blocks on top that would curve up. [Joe is now fingering a 1997 ad from Surfer magazine about Hobie building a replica of the Hobie 1954 Makaha Model balsa gun.) He’s claiming the first pintail here. I’d made about five of them over a five-year period well before that. I thought, ‘Oh, to hell with it [laughing]. If he just doesn’t know, then I give up.’ There’s been a lot of stuff like that through the years. The same with concave noses too. Anything I say to you on this tape, I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t prove it. I’ve got all this stuff as evidence. [Pointing to a photo of a board.] This was flat nosed and the back end kicked up about 2 inches, a deliberate nose rider. So was this one [pointing at another board in the photo]. I made one for Phil at my shop out of foam that had a concave nose and kicked-up tail. See, nobody knows that. I brought all this stuff so that you know I’m not bullshitting you.

SP: I don’t get that you are.

JQ: Well, okay, but if someone challenges you, you know? Now this [selecting a shot of Tom Zahn in 1947], I feel these three guys [indicating another photo of Joe, Zahn, and Kivlin, inscribed “First trip, post war, leaving on the Lurline, 1948”] were largely responsible for the first complete combination of good stuff. That first board I built for Zahn was lighter, had nice rails, and a blended rocker. He’d put up money [for us] to try stuff, like the first paddleboard, and the first rocker board. He had that “let’s go ahead and do it” drive.

We learned to make an entire surfboard in a day. We could shape a board in the morning and we could get a board hot-coated well enough that we could go up to Malibu for the evening glass-off and try it out. Ideas were evolving that fast.

SP: Who shot the picture?

JQ: It was my camera, and the ladies that were with us shot the picture [chuckle]. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s my favorite picture. See, Simmons didn’t go to Hawaii until five years later. Tom was not that crazy about Matt. Matt was pretty wild when he was young, and Matt scared the hell out of Tom. Tom, being a health advocate all his life, was not a drinker.

SP: The story is, when Matt found out Tom had died, he said he might as well start eating mayonnaise again.

JQ: Yeah. Really? [Cracking up, then more softly.] Oh, God! So I consider these three guys [again indicating the photo of the three, off to Hawaii—referencing himself in the third person] as the key. Now mind you, Simmons was this powerful, guru figure, inspired everyone, and right after the war his wide boards helped guys to get back in shape, including myself. I rode a Simmons for six months and, fortunately, I broke it in half under the pier [slight show of mirth] and built myself a better, lighter, more maneuverable board. But [hushed as if he didn’t want to embarrass Bob] he built me a 120-pound redwood. My shoulder still hurts from carrying it! Still, I loved talking to him. But these are the guys that actually [pointing back to the photo of the three] went to Hawaii where Rabbit taught us how us how to ride. He was the best hot-dog rider, getting deliberately barreled, wave after wave, doing it on a shortboard when everyone else was just sort of going straight off. [Walt Hoffman recalls Rabbit’s older brother being even more radical.] At that time, Wally and Georgie were riding 11-foot boards. That’s why they chased bigger waves.

SP: George explained to me once that they didn’t have a beach they hung out at. They just drove around looking for big waves.

JQ: And he did. He was the big-wave king.

SP: Whereas Rabbit hung out at Queens, stayed on his turf, and the hot-dog culture started there?

JQ: Oh, yeah. Guys like Cabell and Allen Gomes came out of that. We went over and there was Rabbit, then we’d take it back to Malibu. He took me over to his dad’s house one day on that first trip. It was one of those plywood houses on stilts, and there were a bunch of redwood boards under there. I met his father. He was a handsome Hawaiian man. The kids along the [Waikiki] seawall, in those days, would cut down those big old Duke models, you know, in there where all the local kids rode their little cut-down redwoods—just anything you could paddle [with a soft chuckle]. The older guys didn’t want them out at Canoes, at the main outside breaks. Even Rabbit would tell them to get their asses out of there. Anyway, he had a turn where he’d stomp on the tail of that shortboard so hard that it would stop. When it came back down, he’d twist it, and it would land going the other way.

I shot a picture of Rincon on one of our 1947 trips, and I just went, ‘My God, look at that wave!’ I wanted to build a board for that. And that’s why I made the pintail.

It was weird, but he could turn a board. He was the best surfer all through the 40s. [Speaking of athletes.] You know how some of those old-time guys at San Onofre built little boards for their kids? Well, Peterson and I were down there one day in the 40s, and he went over and asked one of them [Joe slips into an impersonation of Pete’s distinctive high-pitched stutter], “Ccan I bbborrow yyour son’s bbboard?” He took this little teeny board out and rode the hell out of it. He was turning fast and going through barrels, stuff that he didn’t usually do on his big balsa board. He usually went pretty much straight in, posing like a Hawaiian king. Of course, later on he got into the modern equipment as it came along and rode like anybody else. See, I’m trying to lay groundwork for you. When I die, nobody’s going to be here to tell you what I just told you. [New shot.] This was one of the biggest days at Malibu I ever saw. Well, I mean, out at the Point it was. I took the picture, and this was [Joe looks closely] Buzzy Trent. And, to me, even as hot as this wave is for Malibu, the Simmons rode better there because they were all straight in the back, so they’d go faster if you stood right there [in the middle], and they’re long. We hadn’t gotten into fast turning. That was Leslie Williams’ thing. I’ve got to give him credit. He did get into the power turning before the rest of us. But, just like I’m telling you, these curved rails that I put on the boards…I had a style of bodysurfing the Wedge, where I’d drop in on my side, like it was a rail, and curve it to be the right shape to go up and down the wave. Most people plane with one arm back, one arm over, but I rode on my shoulder, like it was a rail. Rails are my big thing.

SP: And this board was significant [vertical shot of Aggie Bane, 16 years old]?

JQ: That’s the [“Girlfriend”] board that Leslie learned to turn on, and that’s my wife [laughing].

SP: You liked her turn?

JQ: [Cracking up.] Nooo! Well, she was the one. See, Matt brought all these girls up to Malibu, and she was one of them. And, as fate would have it [grinning self-consciously], the birds and the bees, and so forth. She and a whole bunch of them ordered boards from me, right when I was in the midst of glassing Simmons’ plywood boards. Those girls’ boards turned out half the weight of the plywood boards. The combination of those boards and Leslie Williams—they let Leslie do that power turn. Drop knee, exaggerated, horizontal. He discovered he could do that turn on a board half the weight with blended rail rocker. Matt and I had talked, and for years he had planned to make lighter, 20-pound boards [finding a photo to reference]. This particular board was actually a little bit wide. Some of them I made were. But, still, it was better enough that it really hurt the plywood business. And with Leslie doing those turns, I think you get the picture on the rails. I’m a rail man. Anyway, there’s one more thing I’d like to say before this tape runs out. How are you doing?

I had piles of this shit, and the termites ate it.

SP: I have another 20 minutes.

JQ: Oh, because you’ve got enough background to see what I’m getting at. We can do another tape sometime. [Joe’s worried that I’m not getting what I came for.] Dale Velzy is what I wanted to get into. We saw eye to eye when I first got to know him. Our ideas ran very similar. The paddleboards, everything. As you know in life, that’s the essence of quality, a guy who has the brass to step ahead and go for it, but he also has to have ability. Not like a guy who’s willing to go for it but is a screw-up. You’ve got to have the ability to back it up. Velzy’s one of those guys. He never screwed up, of course [cracking up after realizing what he’s said]. But I’m pretty sure it was ’52 when Hap Jacobs and Velzy started their shop in Hermosa. Hey, one of the first things Dale did was make pintails…in ’52! You’ve been around long enough to see what I mean. A month matters. I mean a week can matter. In ’52, Matt and I learned to make an entire surfboard in a day. We could shape a board in the morning and with that sunlight catalyst the sun would kick it off, and we could get a board hot-coated well enough that we could go up to Malibu for the evening glass-off and try it out. Ideas were evolving that fast. Anyway, now there’s this huge, billion-dollar surf industry, and all I can tell you is how it started. It blossomed in increments. Suddenly a bunch of beach guys were getting better. Then, suddenly, a bunch of inlanders were taking it up, and it’s blossoming bigger and bigger. Right about then, Velzy starts attracting kids to the sport en masse. Right away he started making short, little boards that they could ride. See, Simmons and Kivlin didn’t build more than a hundred of those plywood boards that summer of 1950, and I probably didn’t build more than 50 or 60 balsa boards. It was Dale who kicked it off.

SP: Tell me more about your pintail boards.

JQ: Well, that’s another story. I didn’t invent pointed tails, more the combination of nice rails and nice rocker and low rails. I did make a very narrow tail for big waves. My dream was to ride a wave. [Joe is shuffling the photos again looking for a shot of the entire cove at Rincon on a great day.] Here it is. I shot this picture on one of our 1947 trips, and I just went [hushed], ‘My God, look at that wave!’ I wanted to build a board for that. And that’s why I made the pintail.

SP: This image of Rincon stimulated that narrow tail?

When I die, nobody’s going to be here to tell you what I just told you.

JQ: Yes, and my big-wave guns. Speaking of pintails [chuckle], this shows how I was trying to get across that thing at second point [Rincon]. That fin was terrible.

SP: It trailed too much.

JQ: The whole front of the board was too loose. The tail was too tight. So I sawed it right off. Anyway, it shows that I was doing raked fins early on [not in common usage for another 15 to 20 years]. This is one of Buzzy’s, and another one of the pintails I made for Jim Fisher [we’re checking a famous shot of Fisher at the bottom of a closed-out Makaha bowl]. Fisher’s on the pintail I sold to Mickey Dora. This is one of the earliest big-wave photos. Fisher was just a wild man.

SP: Which Dora stated was the best board he ever had. [Now we’re looking at the group shot in the Pit at Malibu with Peter Lawford.]

JQ: This is that group shot [I was talking about]. I was building Rochlen’s boards at this time. I built Lawford’s first board within a month of Aggie’s board, and Vickie’s board, and Claire’s board—all those girls’ boards. He saw it and got one right away, that month! I even took a picture of it. I can’t find it, too long ago, but I had a nice shot of him at Malibu on a head-high wave. Rochlen didn’t build boards himself until maybe ’53. I’m sure one of these is Rochlen’s board. I built it early. Lawford’s first board was built right with those boards in 1950, so this would be that summer. That was when my boards erased the plywood boards.

SP: Does that take us to the end of the chain of evidence?

JQ: [Joe giggles at my use of his legalese.] Not at all! I had piles of this shit, and the termites ate it. Why? Do you want to go home? [Trying for a summation.] So, Leslie Williams was for a few months the hottest turning guy, and then everybody learned to copy him. But for that brief period, he was the start of it [modern high-performance surfing]. Matt did beautiful turns, where Leslie did jittery little things—zip, zip, zip. Funny stuff. Matt was smooth [Quigg makes a cruising motion with his hand]. I just wanted to show you that Simmons’ 120- pound redwoods—and he didn’t go out with girls [still trying to illustrate how unorthodox Simmons was]. [Now, referring to a photo.] There he is, running me out on to the shoulder on his inertia board. I’m on my brand new little 9-foot balsa. That was the transition to the balsa board era. I’m interested in turning points, and I think Velzy getting all those kids started was the turning point. And then, John Severson, shortly after, came out with a movie that was all young kids, where Bud Browne had always made “Buzzy Trent at Waimea” movies, and they’d have this bugle music going in the background [Joe goes into an impression of horns blowing] while big waves crashed on the reef. You’d leave an hour later, and the whole movie would have been people eating it. What changed it was Velzy’s “ton of gremmies”—all those little towheads up and down The Strand.