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SPORTS WEEKEND | OUTDOORS

Surfer's Addiction a Heart Breaker

February 21, 1997|PETE THOMAS

I was introduced to Todd Chesser a year ago, an hour before sunup at a Baja California toll gate on Mexico 1 near Ensenada. He and a few fellow surfers had rendezvoused there before catching a boat to Todos Santos Island, Baja California's answer to Oahu's infamous North Shore.

Chesser had taken a redeye from Hawaii, arriving at 3 a.m., then met his friends, got in a car and driven to Ensenada, hoping to get to Todos Santos in time for a giant swell that was expected to come roaring in from the north. After surfing Todos Santos, he would

return home and catch the same swell when it began pounding the shores of Oahu.

But Chesser never made it into the water at Todos Santos. The swell never quite materialized. The waves were only 10-12 feet, which impressed the heck out of me but seemed to depress everyone else. Two of Chesser's friends jumped in and caught a few of the mushy peaks, not wanting to have gone through all of their trouble for nothing.

But Chesser just sat there, bundled up at the bow, munching Power Bars, telling jokes while scanning the horizon for signs of a swell that wasn't coming.

"This isn't even worth getting wet for," he said, when asked why he wasn't paddling out to join his friends in the lineup. "I'm not going to freeze for this."

It was then that I realized that, for Chesser and others who spend their winters chasing monstrous waves wherever they might be, surfing is no longer merely an entertaining way to spend a day, a form of expression or even a way of life.

It is an addiction, for which there is no cure. The thrill is proportionate to the danger involved. The greater the risk, the greater the rush.

A few days ago, while surfing the Internet, I was clicking through the online pages of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (http://starbulletin.com) when a headline caught my eye: "Surfer Chesser Dies."

The story said Todd Chesser had been pronounced dead at Oahu's Wahiawa Hospital after having been pulled from the ocean, unconscious, near Waimea Bay.

Despite the closing of North Shore beaches because of dangerous surf, Chesser and two others had paddled out to a spot near Waimea Bay to ride thunderous breakers measuring 20-25 feet from the backs, with faces closer to 50.

Chesser reportedly was caught inside, stood on his board and dived down to try to make it under one of the waves. But it held him under so long that by the time he surfaced, he was either semiconscious or unconscious.

The other two surfers saw he was in trouble and paddled to his side, but another set rolled in and scattered the group. When the set cleared, Chesser was nowhere to be found.

A search was begun and lifeguards later found his broken surfboard. Beneath it was Chesser, tangled in the rocks near Waimea. He could not be revived.

His death occurred a year after that of Ventura's Donnie Solomon, who drowned after going over the falls at Waimea Bay. And Solomon had died a year to the day after Mark Foo, a famous professional surfer from Hawaii, got buried alive by a mammoth breaker at Mavericks, a big-wave spot in California near Santa Cruz.

In the first two instances I thought, "These guys were asking for it." But this time, I was able to put a face and personality on the victim, which changed my thinking.

Chesser was an articulate young man, well liked and highly regarded by his peers.

He was an only child. His father was killed in an automobile accident when he was an infant, after which his mother, Jeannie, decided to get a fresh start and move to Hawaii with her only child. They were close. She was working as an announcer at surf contests; he was getting paid by sponsors to be seen riding big waves.

At his services Monday afternoon, on what would have been Chesser's 29th birthday, at Alii Beach Park in Haleiwa, many of surfing's biggest stars were in attendance, among them world champion Kelly Slater, Johnny Boy Gomes, Brock Little and Shane Dorian. All gave touching, tearful accounts of their experiences with Todd.

Jeannie Chesser was still in shock and was nearly overwhelmed by the show of emotion.

"Jeannie looked so tiny and frail and I hurt for her," Carol Hogan, a family friend and owner of a water-sports publicity firm, told The Times after the memorial.

"I think anyone who has children actively involved in life must always be concerned about their safety--I am no exception, with a triathlete son and a daughter who swims long-distance races and is a flight attendant. I wanted to just go over and hug her and let her know how much we all care, so I did. But I don't think anyone can ever know, until it happens to them, what it's like to lose a child."

Chesser's fiancee, Janet Rollins, fought back tears as she explained that she had expected to be greeting the same crowd under much happier circumstances on Aug. 2, their planned wedding date. She called upon the eight who would have been Todd's attendants and presented each with an etched vase, the gifts he had planned to give his groomsmen.

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