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Waaaay overhead

On a singularly beautiful day in 1957, at Waimea Bay, — Hawaii, Greg Noll paddled out into the surf beyond the break where he — caught and rode a wave of such enormous size that all who stood on shore — watching were stunned by what they saw. At the time it seemed supremely — audacious. Now, looking back, it may also have been historical, for so — began what is now known as "big wave riding." Thereafter, for more than — 20 years, a small band of gnarly brothers made their way each November — to Hawaii's North Shore and waited for the Aleutian winter swells - those — incomparable giants born in the Gulf of Alaska - to arrive. And for 20 — years the members of that special fraternity rode those colossal walls — of water in relative obscurity. But no longer.

When Greg Noll, now a beefy senior ambassador to the sport, — is asked what there was about surfing that he found so compelling, he — hesitates, searching for the right words, unwilling to give a facile answer. — He acknowledges that it's a hard question and in the end admits there — is no easy response. Surfing, unlike many other sports, isn't just about — the mastery of certain skills involving balance, timing, and artful turns. — For those who have spent a life time pursuing the ultimate ride, it is — about much more.

Noll finally comes at the question indirectly by recalling — that as a young boy he lived in Manhattan Beach, in southern California, — just blocks from the Manhattan Pier. He fished off the pier, worked as — a bait boy, and often watched an ad hoc group of surfers on long boards — made of redwood and balsa wood, catching waves, gliding languidly toward — shore.

He had never seen anything like it. Finally, he approached — one of the surfers, asking questions, wanting to know what wave riding — was all about.

One of the surfers sold him what he called an "old beater — board" for fifteen bucks. It was a hulking balsa wood gun that weighed — more than he did, forcing him to pull it back and forth to the beach using — a small plywood dolly.

He spent a year, he says, "Killing sand crabs in the white — water," hammering the sand with the nose of the board. He struggled to — master the coordination so necessary to pick the right moment to launch — off on a wave, learning to stand up and maneuver, angling the board left — or right, keeping just ahead of the breaking crest. But once Noll caught — on and felt the surge of a building wave forming beneath him, its rolling — power pushing him forward as he fought to angle across its face, he acknowledges — that it was a transforming experience. That was when the sport all but — took him hostage, to the point of obsession, he admits, and has defined — his life ever since.

All that he has ever done, Noll says, has been framed — by wanting to be in and around the ocean. To spend luminous days sitting — on a board, eyes scanning the horizon, waiting for the next set of waves — to roll in, waiting for the next ride that will bring with it moments — of pure joy and soul-searing rapture unlike anything else in sports. Surfing — is a lifestyle and a philosophy and an attitude and transcends most all — other sports in its ability to encompass what a person is and does.

However, as Noll will be the first to point out, there — is wave riding and there is big wave riding.

It's the difference between jumping off a three-foot wall — and jumping out of a five-story building. There is an element of risk — in both, but catching and dropping down a 40-foot wave that is accelerating — toward shore at 22 knots requires not only supreme skill, reflexes, and — timing, but it requires a degree of courage that surpasses most other — sports and then some. Each ride is a roll of the dice, a blend of incredible — exhilaration and dry-mouth fear. Or, as Noll put it, "with each ride you're — tugging at the dragon's tail." Ultimately, it is the search for the unridden — realm and it is a quest that is both harrowing and unforgiving.

In December of 1994, Mark Foo, an elite big wave rider, — well-known on the mainland, beloved in the islands of Hawaii, was surfing — Maverick's - a big wave spot located just below Half Moon Bay, Calif. — A place renowned for its malevolent waves and treacherous reef break. — On shore a sizable group was watching, for Maverick's had gone big and — cameras were rolling. No one noticed anything unusual as Foo fell trying — to catch one of the smaller waves of the day (remember, this is Maverick's — and size is relative). He disappeared beneath a cascading crest, spumes — of white water lifting into the air. He never surfaced and it was hours — later before his body was recovered and brought to shore.

Danger, high risk/high gain, is what defines big wave — riding and it is the subtext to Stacy Peralta's new documentary film, — "Riding Giants." Though the movie takes a brief, hagiographic look back — at surfing, highlighting that bohemian group of wave riders who lived — to surf and surfed to live, ultimately the movie tries to capture the — essence of big wave riding. At any given time there is perhaps no more — than 100 surfers worldwide who possess the athletic ability and the redline — courage to paddle out and face these leviathans head-on. And what these — surfers do is worlds away from the halcyon quest for the perfect wave — featured in the 1966 classic, "Endless Summer."

Of course, sports physiologists can deconstruct big wave — riding. They can wax theroretical about the nature of extreme sports and — the emotional gestalt felt when dopamine and seratonin are released into — the blood stream. X-sports are, according to scholarly opinion, addictive. — Of course, surfers will be the first to tell you that surfing's a rush. — A tightly balanced dance or a heart-stopping freefall. Noll offered that — "there is no more exhilarating feeling than sliding down a wave. Its' — right up there with some of the best things I've ever done in my life."

But in the end, to surf is to have a synergistic relationship — with the ocean, where the rider and the wave, for a few magical moments, — merge and become one. There is no clock, there are no coaches, there usually — are no spectators. There is just the sublime: the ride, however long, — however dangerous. It all comes down to the ride. Or, as one precocious — little surfer said in the film, "Point Break," "Surfing's the source, — man. It can change your life." And it has.