Greg Noll sat on his surfboard a few hundred yards offshore at Makaha, on Oahu's west shore. He was alone in the water, just beyond the impact zone where the waves seemed to be detonating rather than breaking, and he was arguing with himself. As he watched the surf thunder nearby, he figured the odds of living through a ride were a little better than even, and these days he had a wife and kids to worry about. But he'd spent much of his life preparing for and dreaming about this exact moment.
The waves were bigger than any he'd ever ridden -- bigger, in fact, than any waves anyone had ever ridden. And they weren't just huge walls of mush; they surged hard and fast, hurtling down from Kaena Point in ghastly 200-yard slabs. The distant crash of lip on trough jiggled the water beads atop his board, something he'd never seen in his 15 winters in Hawaii. "They were horrible, absolutely horrible," was how Noll later would describe the waves. "The whole situation gave me a sick feeling."
For 30 minutes he bobbed in the safe deep water beyond the breakers, debating. And then he chose: better to risk death than suffer the lifelong agony of an opportunity squandered. So he stroked toward the impact zone, and resisted the urge to scramble seaward as a 35-footer reared up. He turned his back to the beast, paddled hard, pushed to his feet and dropped into surf mythology.
Noll's ride that day soon would become the pinnacle of lore in a sport awash in it. Many surfers can recite the date: Dec. 4, 1969. Today it still stands as the biggest wave ever ridden -- or, more precisely, the biggest ever ridden without the help of tow ropes and jet-powered watercraft.
Most surfers with a sense of history regard the ride's "biggest-ever" ranking as a tenet of faith, and it maintains that status even though no photos or film clips of the feat have appeared. Or perhaps it maintains that status because no footage has surfaced -- although a Zapruder-like version may exist.
"That wave has grown about 6 inches a year over the last 34 years," said former surfing world champ Shaun Tomson, who happened to be on the roof of a nearby apartment building that day with a Super 8 movie camera. Tomson was the only person who filmed Noll's ride. He claims he's misplaced the footage, but some believe that he simply refuses to release it.
"I think it's better that myths are shrouded in secrecy and the unknown," Tomson said. "That's what myths are all about."
Despite that missing highlight, listen for a sigh of relief among surf historians when Stacy Peralta's new big-wave documentary, "Riding Giants," opens the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. Peralta, director of the skateboarding documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," unearthed previously unseen film clips and several long-forgotten photos from that day at Makaha. Taken together, they seem to verify that the three-day stretch of giant waves in December 1969 deserves its label as the "Swell of the Century," and that history probably has not overstated the size or significance of Noll's wave.
The destructive child of three massive storms that merged in the Gulf of Alaska, the swell of 1969 generated waves up to 50 feet in Hawaii and 20 feet in California. At its peak, the storm featured an unprecedented 2,000-mile-long fetch of wind that stretched from the Aleutian Islands to just north of Hawaii , with the resulting swell energyaimed directly at the islands. "While it's been said that surfers from the period remember the swell of 1969 as bigger than it really was," Matt Warshaw wrote in the recently released Encyclopedia of Surfing, "satellite images, along with atmosphere-gauging millibar charts and on-the-beach photographs, all prove that the swell was, in fact, the most powerful on record."
"Riding Giants" includes shots of some of the 60 homes destroyed by the swell, and the boats tossed across Kamehameha Highway on Oahu's North Shore. Peralta also zooms in on a long-forgotten photograph of a wave that nearly hammered Noll earlier in the day of his famous ride. The image, taken by Larry Goddard and now under the care of longtime North Shore surfer Randy Rarick, shows Noll's 11-foot, 4-inch big-wave "gun" hanging in the upper fringe of a massive wall. It looks like a canoe on Niagara Falls.
Eyewitnesses -- including Tomson, Rarick and big-wave trailblazer Fred Hemmings -- have no doubt that Noll's ride was the biggest up to that point. Hemmings, now minority leader of the Hawaii Senate, ventured into the water at Makaha that day but rode no waves. He strongly believes that Noll stands alone atop the record book.