Interview Feature by Alicia King
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Jeannie Chesser has lived in her sixty-nine years, that’s for sure. Grief and loss have been constants in her life, and so has the ocean. It’d be cliché to say that surfing has saved her, and yet there is truth in that. Here Jeannie talks about the lure of Hawai'i as a place and her need to create, as well as how she faced the tribulations of losing her husband; her only child, Todd; and her best friend, Rell Sunn.
Where did you grow up in Florida, and how did you get into surfing?
I grew up in Miami. I started surfing in 1963 when I was 14, on a piece of white Styrofoam at South Beach, which was kind of like a ghetto. But it had little ripples, and they called us the “ripple riders.” My best girlfriend got me into skateboarding and surfing. It was great. We were the only girls in our high school who surfed.
Why did you leave Florida?
My husband died in 1970 when I was 22 and our son Todd was two. I was like, “I want to get out of here.” Let’s go surfing. Let’s go see some real waves. And that’s what got me here. I flew here to Hawai'i in ’71 and stayed for a month. Then I went home to Florida, grabbed all my stuff, and drove across the country—me and Todd—and California was too cold, so we came to Hawai'i and shipped my car over.
And why Hawai'i?
Because it’s paradise. And they speak English here, sort of…sometimes. (Laughs.)
How did you know it was paradise? Had you seen pictures in magazines?
I’d seen pictures. I’d seen the movie Blue Hawaii with Elvis Presley at least 13 times. I loved it. It probably put the idea in my head. I figured, “Oh my gosh—that place is amazing.”
So you arrive in Hawai'i. How did you create a life there?
Well, I investigated Kauai, but it rained for three days straight there, and I was outta there. I’d seen a poster of Gerry Lopez surfing Ala Moana Bowls, and that’s what drew me to Oahu. Gerry was actually one of the first people I met surfing Ala Moana, along with Reno (Abellira).
I went to the North Shore first and that was when it was crazy—very much like the Wild, Wild West. People were getting beat up and killed. I came home one day, and the house had been ransacked and they had stolen my camera. I didn’t feel safe. So I took Todd and we moved to Waikiki, and I felt so safe in Waikiki. Now Waikiki is getting crazy—it’s so crowded.
Tell me about your relationship with Ala Moana Bowls.
Well, it’s a very high quality left and I’m a goofy foot. It’s one of the best waves on the South Shore, I think. I like it when it’s medium-sized. I don’t like it big. It gets a little unruly when it’s big and can be dangerous. Today was perfect: There were mostly medium-sized waves with a few bigger ones.
I’ve been surfing there forever—47 years, I think—so I pretty much know everybody. In the ’70s it was known as a gnarly spot—people were getting beat up every day. Kind of like the North Shore (laughs). If you got in the way or you didn’t know what you were doing—you’d get sent in, or pounded.
I like it because it’s not a beginner’s spot and most of the guys there are really good surfers, and we kinda try to regulate the activity that goes on out there. I can only surf early mornings now ‘cause my skin is fried, and I have skin cancer all over. So I go in the mornings, and I’m good to go and face the day.
What sort of boards do you ride these days?
I just got a brand new board. It’s a 6’0”, and I rode it today for the first time, and it was pretty fun. I pretty much only ride thrusters, because if you don’t, you might lose it, right?
So you raised Todd around Waikiki?
I would take him there, as the waves were really mellow. I would sit on the beach and watch him surf these little tiny waves, and then I would go, “Oh my God—that looks fun!” So I would go out too.
You formed a strong friendship with Rell Sunn. Do you remember when you first met her?
I was taking pictures that day, and I took some pictures of her. When she came in, I said, “Hey—I got some good pictures of you.” And we struck up a conversation, and that was it. Her daughter is the same age as Todd, and she was a single mum, so we just gravitated toward each other. It was a friendship that lasted 27 years, and we’d still be friends, but she passed away, so…(sighs).
You’ve endured much grief in your life with the losses of your husband; your son, Todd; and Rell. Has the ocean helped you cope with the grief, in a way?
Yeah of course. It’s a physical thing as well as an emotional thing—when you’re physically active, you kind of forget certain things. I also love to go dancing. And you forget. It took me a long time to get to where I’m at—where I can handle just going surfing. I love being with my friends and just staring out into the ocean. It’s very peaceful. The ocean is healing—that’s why people get baptized in water, I guess—to cleanse. I believe that. That’s why I wake up in the morning. I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I couldn’t go surfing.
Do you ever feel the presence of those loved ones with you in the water?
I ask Todd for waves all the time—“Just give me one wave. I just want to go in.” I’ll think of Rell too. They’re still there; it’s just they’re not always here.
Tell me how you got into painting surfboards.
I painted my own board and my friends saw it. Then they wanted me to paint their boards, and I eventually got jobs doing it for companies. I use a big car gun and mostly water-based acrylic paint. Lately, I’ve been putting the paint in a little cup and holding the gun in the other hand and spraying the board.
Have you always been creative?
I’ve always liked taking pictures. I paint and I sew and I make jewelry, so I have this creative outlet, and when I see a certain something I’ll take a picture and go, “Oh my god, that looks so cool!” I always feel that I need to be doing or making something. I have to make something, you know?
If you could describe something Todd taught you in life, what would it be?
To not take things too seriously. I try to have a sense of humor—just a natural sense of humor, because if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’d be crying all day, right? There were days when I was crying all day, but that part’s done so…gotta laugh! And he was never attached to material things. I’m attached to material things (laughs). I like stuff! I still like my stuff, but you know, it’s not that important. People are important. That’s something he taught me.