Editor’s Note: Disruptors is a series that examines the most groundbreaking–and in some cases, heart-wrenching–moments in surf and outdoor history.
Date: February 13, 1997
Location: Outside Alligators, North Shore, Hawaii
“People say that Taylor (Knox) and I paved the way for the professional freesurfer but honestly, to me, Todd was the original freesurfer.” — Rob Machado, The Momentum Generation
In HBO’s well-crafted Momentum Generation, the story of North Shore charger Todd Chesser’s deep influence over a group of gifted young surfers acts as the film’s narrative string. On its own a fitting tribute to a surfer who rode waves for the right reasons.
Born in Florida, Chesser moved to Hawaii with his mother Jeannie, a talented competitive surfer in her own right, in 1971 after the death of his father in a car accident. Slogging along on several semi-pro circuits like the Bud Tour, the young Chesser eventually eschewed the trappings of competitive surfing for the more wild big wave arena, where he helped pioneer breaks like Alligators and Himalayas. SURFER magazine once recognized him as one of the best living wave riders not on the professional tour.
But as deftly outlined in the doc, his greatest feat was perhaps the influence he had over the crew that became the Momentum Generation (thanks Taylor Steele)–a crew of course whose fast, above the lip approach defined 1990’s surfing. The film follows Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, Rob Machado, Benji Weatherley, Ross Williams, Pat O’Connell, and Kalani Robb as they fight for legitimacy at Pipeline, where professionals then, and now, are judged by their ability to navigate the heaviest wave in the competitive world or otherwise. Chesser helped push all of these talented surfers to greater heights—sometimes with love and other times with tougher love, goading them to show courage at maxing Pipe, and humility when they gained unprecedented notoriety “He was just a good example to stay true to ourselves and always remember what’s important,” said Dorian in the film.
Each of the gifted surfers profiled in the HBO documentary credit Chesser for helping their careers. Unfortunately, the ocean sometimes has a say. Chesser paddled out with two friends on that February day at Outside Alligators with the waves bombing. Waves us normal humans would have a seriously hard time comprehending. He was caught inside, and as his friends noticed he was in trouble and started paddling towards him another set came in. His body was found later that day on a rock outcropping near Waimea Bay.
Chesser was 29 years old.