Todd Chesser: the life and legacy of a timeless surfer

June 22, 2020 | Surfing
Todd Chesser: one of the most influential surfers of the 1990s | Illustration: SurferToday

Todd Chesser was born in Florida on February 16, 1968.

At the age of three, he moved to Hawaii with his mother, Jeannie, after his father was killed in a car accident.

Jeannie was a talented competitive surfer. She finished fourth in several national and world championships between 1973 and 1980.

In 1986, Jeannie Chesser was named female athlete of the year, and in 1992 she was crowned US champion.

Her son also ranked fourth in the 1990 Professional Surfing Association of America (PSSA) tour.

But he quickly realized competitive surfing was not his thing. Instead, Todd turned to free surfing, big wave riding, and writing.

In 1994, he described how he nearly drowned surfing Himalayas, the infamous North Shore of Oahu surf break.

Todd got caught inside by a 20-foot set and nearly lost his life at the outer reef break.

"If you know the basic, the danger is minimal," he once wrote in an article, referring to the risks associated with big wave surfing.

Jeannie Chesser: Todd's mother was a talented competitive surfer | Photo: Chesser Archive

That Day in 1997

On February 13, 1997, Chesser was supposed to fly to Maui to perform a stunt scene for the movie "In God's Hands."

However, he decided to stay in Oahu because the surf was firing. At 9 am, Todd paddled out with Aaron Lambert and Cody Graham at Outside Alligator Rock.

Two hours later, Todd Chesser drowned after getting caught inside by a massive 25-foot set.

His friends said he tried to dive down to make it under one of the waves but was held down for a long time.

Aaron and Cody reached him, but another wave rolled in, and they lost him. Later that day, Todd was found unconscious at Waimea Bay.

The regular-footer was pronounced dead at Oahu's Wahiawa Hospital.

Chesser passed away three days before his 29th birthday. He was engaged to Janet Rollins. They were planning on getting married on August 2, 1997.

A life vest could've saved his and other's lives in extreme surfing arenas.

However, unfortunately, high surf safety gear and protocols only arrived and became a norm later with the turn of the millennium.

Todd Chesser: an agile, powerful surfer | Photo: Chesser Archive

An Influential Surfer

Todd "Cheese" Chesser was a talkative, smart and clear-eyed young man with a cheerful personality and a sarcastic laugh.

With skinny legs, an upright, confident stance, and trademark rail turns, his style could easily be recognized at a distance.

The Floridian-born wave rider hated tattoos. He thought they were useless and stupid.

Everybody on the North Shore knew him. Todd excelled at Pipeline and prevailed at Backdoor.

In six-foot waves, he was an agile power surfer; in XXL waves, "Cheese" was a fearless and hungry athlete.

Todd had a huge influence on the surfers of his generation. He challenged them to step up their game and test their skills in maxing conditions.

Chesser was one of the stars of "Momentum," the iconic 1992 surf movie by Taylor Steele.

Every year, the Volcom Pipe Pro presents the Hard Charger Award in memory of Todd Chesser to the surfer charging and bringing inspiration.

Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater says his Floridian friend is one of the persons who influenced him to chase large swells.

"Todd was a true, one-of-a-kind human and friend. We are all left with an irreplaceable void but so many fun times," Kelly Slater notes.

"If you had a chance to meet Todd or watch him surf giant Off-The-Wall by himself or paddle out solo to an outer reef, you know what kind of guy he was."

"He was always leading the way for all the young guys behind him and putting pressure on the old school chargers to step up their game."

Hawaiian big wave surf, Dave Wassel, has fresh memories of Chesser's go-to attitude.

"The first time I saw Todd Chesser, he was surfing massive Phantoms," Wassel once revealed.

"The second time I saw him, he was streaking naked through the streets of Waikiki. The next time I see him, I'm going give him a huge hug and say 'thanks for watching over us.'"

And maybe make a toast with a Guinness, his favorite beer.

And if there's a moment that depicts Todd Chesser's spirit and bravado, it can be seen in the film "Under the Same Sun."

Getting barreled on a broken surfboard says everything about his character, temperament, and persona. It's Chesser's signature attitude.

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