It was in October 1957, at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, where he led a handful of surfers to a place where the waves can reach three stories high in the winter. The bay was said to be impossible to surf, and residents claimed nobody had tried since a young California surfer, Dickie Cross, had been killed there in 1943.
Grainy footage shows Noll catching a wave perhaps as high as 30 feet (9 meters), then somehow managing to stay standing as it pitches him some 10 feet (3 meters) or more straight down its face. From there, he moves outside and rides it nearly to the shore.
Years later, Noll would let out a cackle and an expletive as he recalled his first thought after finishing that ride: “I’m still alive!”
From then on, there was no stopping the surfer who was instantly recognizable in his distinctive black-and-white “jailhouse” shorts. He started wearing them, he once said, so people would know it was him on a wave and get out of his way.
In 1964, Noll was credited with being the first person to ride a wave at Oahu’s Third Reef Pipeline. In 1969, at Hawaii’s Makaha Beach, he rode what surfers who saw it asserted was the biggest wave anybody ever caught up to that point.
There was no definitive film footage taken that day, however, and in recent years, others have said the wave was no more than 20 feet (6 meters), not even as big as the ones Noll had surfed at Waimea. Still, no one who questioned the wave’s size doubted Noll’s skill or bravery in hauling his board into the pounding surf that day.