They were called the ‘momentum’ generation, the surf crew who broke the sport out of its niche and into the global mainstream, fuelled by rivalries like the one between the famously focussed Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. The story of how a bunch of friends shared a North Shore beach house, then came to dominate world competition surfing, drifted apart, then come back together is told in new movie ‘Momentum Generation’, produced by Robert Redford. Of all this band of brothers Shane Dorian was, perhaps, the most influenced by ‘big brother’ figure and uncompromising big wave charger, Todd Chesser. When Todd was was tragically killed surfing a North Shore outer reef in 1997, his influence lived on, as Shane Dorian exclusively reveals to RSNG...
RSNG As part of the ‘momentum’ generation of surfers you travelled the globe competing in on the World Tour – do you think that the spirit of surfing is competitive?
SHANE DORIAN, BIG-WAVE SURFER ‘No, I don't at all. I think that's like an aspect of surfing and I think it's part of human nature to want to prove to yourself that you're good at something; I think that's normal, but I think the spirit of surfing is not currently competitive at all. I fell in love with surfing just because it was an outlet for me. It was a way for me to get away from school and stress and my parents and all that stuff. I've never really thought of surfing just as a sport; it's more of a lifestyle.’
RSNG What does the ocean mean to you now?
SD ‘It means everything to me, man! The ocean's given me everything. Almost every really close friend I have I met through surfing. It's kept my family together; I would never have met my wife had I not started surfing. It's how I share time with my family now; my son and my daughter both surf and we go to the beach all the time. It's like a thing in my life that's a common thread for everything.’
RSNG In terms of your competitive career, what was the biggest lesson that you learned from it?
SD ‘We went through some periods where it became hyper-competitive with our crew, when we were all on tour chasing world title and it was really stressful and some of us didn't talk for years. But now coming out the other side of it, we're all very close. We're all really, really good friends and get to hang out quite often. I think the main lesson is, after it's all said and done, that the competitiveness doesn't really matter in the end. It's more about our friendships. I think it puts what is really important in perspective.’
‘Big wave surfing is like being a racing car driver – it's actually more dangerous to be conservative’
RSNG You can see in Momentum Generation that Todd had a massive influence on all of you?
SD ‘Yes, for sure, he had massive influence on me. He was extremely wild. He was pretty young. He was pretty radical; he was very opinionated and he was very sure about the way he felt and thought. He basically taught me everything I knew at that point about surfing big waves, and girls and how to deal with money, and all these major things in my life that were happening… He was like that big brother that took me under his wing and he wanted all of us to do our best. His dream was always to become one of the world's best big wave surfers. Then when he passed away, I think subconsciously I felt like I needed to do that for him.’
RSNG You can now stake a convincing claim to be the world’s best big-wave surfer, so what did Todd teach you about facing big waves?
SD ‘He was very simple, man! He just wanted to go out there and absolutely go for it 100%, leave nothing left. He was pretty radical and very risky back then. There were no safety measures in place, there was no safety plan and a team of people to help watch you or anything like that. When the waves were big you just grabbed your board, you waxed it up and you'd paddle out wherever the waves are big, and you’d charge. Over the years I've had to unlearn some of that stuff. It was so dangerous – I had to unlearn that as I got a little bit older and I had a couple very close calls myself.’
RSNG What was your closest call, would you say?
SD ‘I was surfing Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, which is a really big wave spot just south of San Francisco in 2010. It was the first time I ever went there – the first day, I got a bunch of really great, huge waves. My confidence level was through the roof but on the second day I had a bad wipe-out and fell, and I got held under for three waves. I ended up losing consciousness and nearly blacking out completely – I just barely survived.’
‘I got rescued and really it was a very, very close call. Had I been underwater any longer it would've been really bad. That for me was a real turning point. After that I came up with the inflatable wetsuit vest. That thing has been really, really good for me personally and really good for a lot of people in the surf world now… having that really bad wipe-out, that really changed my perspective on risk versus reward.’
RSNG I guess you have to have the mindset of absolute confidence to even go out there no matter what safety precautions you have in place?
SD ‘Yes, you can't be hesitating whatsoever. It's very similar to a race car driver or something like that. It's actually more dangerous to be conservative.’
RSNG You say in the movie that you've had three experiences of the perfect wave. Would you care to describe one of those, just so we have a sense of what it's like?
SD ‘Sure, probably the best wave I've ever caught was out at Jaws, Hawaii, in 2012. It was early winter and it was this swell that came up really big in the evening. It got really crowded because it was big and it was really glassy, it was clean, there wasn't much wind. There was a flurry of really huge sets and they kind of cleaned everyone up.’
‘A lot of people broke their leashes and broke their surfboards, and they got washed in. It went from 35 people to two people in five minutes – there was only two of us in the line-up. There was my friend, Mark Healey, he was on the lefts and I was on the rights. I was sitting up the back and another really, really big set came and I was unscathed by that set because I was just far enough out to where I got over it.’
‘This next set came and I was just in the perfect spot. Then this wave came in; it was as big as any wave I've ever seen in the ocean at that point – probably 60ft on the face. I was in the perfect spot and I was so terrified because of the size of the wave, but I knew I had to try to catch it because it looked like the perfect wave. It looked it wanted me to ride it, if that makes sense? It looked like it had the green light even though it was so giant.
‘I felt like I had to surf 100% of my potential ability level just to make it down the face of this 60ft wave’
‘So I turned around, put my head down and tried to paddle into it, and I somehow caught it and I had a really technical late drop. It was just one of those most exhilarating things. I felt like I had to surf 100% of my potential ability level just to make it down the face of this wave. I barely made it down the face and I was going so, so fast; the max speed that the board could handle, that I could control.’
RSNG What was it actually like to ride?
SD ‘I came off the bottom and the wave started getting hollow, and I got this really huge tube ride, inside the curl of the wave. All the water was moving up the face at this crazy, rapid rate and I just felt like I was on this edge between this perfect wave that I was riding, that I had to ride absolutely perfectly or else I was going to fall and get really hammered. It was probably only about eight or nine seconds long.’
‘I felt like I rode that wave perfectly and I felt like the wave itself was the best wave I'd ever caught. It was one of those moments where at the end of the wave, I had this this fleeting feeling like, OK, that was in life as far as my ability level goes and what I'm supposed to be doing. That's what I was supposed to do right there. Every little surfing experience in my life had led up to that moment and it all came together.’
RSNG That's the thing, isn't it; whenever you do something like that you always think, well, what could I do next? But it sounds like you just answered that question with that wave?
SD ‘Yes. I did, I had that opposite feeling. I had that feeling like, OK, that was a pinnacle for me. I don't really need to try and ever top that, which is a good feeling, as a human, to have had.’
RSNG Your style is paddling into big waves waves; what are the challenges of that as opposed to getting a tow from a jet ski?
SD ‘With paddle surfing you need decades of experience because it's not just the riding of the wave that’s technical; it's the positioning in the line-up, having no one to zoom you around on a machine to put you in the right spot. You've got to really read the ocean, you've got to react to what's happening in real time and then you have to put yourself in a really, really dangerous position to catch those waves. Then, once you're in that position and the wave comes to you, you have to be able to completely commit and put your head down, and paddle perfectly into that wave and then ride it really, really well. It's much harder to ride a board that is big enough to paddle into a huge wave.’
RSNG Can you explain why it is so much more dangerous to paddle into a big wave?
SD ‘Most of the people that are towing on a really big day, they're wearing an insane amount of flotation – tons of flotation foam all around their bodies because they don't need to paddle. It's like skiing, where you're basically behind a jet ski and then you hold on to a tow rope, and then you get towed into a really big wave; you never have to paddle. But when you're paddle surfing you have to have a super high level of flexibility to be able to paddle fast. So you can only wear a very minimal amount of flotation. So right then and there, that's a huge difference.’
‘Then you also have a much higher probability of wiping out when you're paddle surfing. If you watch Jaws on a really good day you'll see so many people falling because it's really, really hard to do. It's really hard to take off and successfully ride a giant wave, whereas if you watch a tow surfing day at Jaws you very rarely see anyone fall.’
‘Paddle surfing into big waves at Jaws separates the men from the boys’
RSNG Paddle surfing at Jaws really is that serious, then?
SD ‘Yes, it separates the men from the boys, it really does. It's a lot scarier and a lot more terrifying and dangerous to try and paddle into a truly huge wave. When you're towing into a truly huge wave it can be really dangerous, but it's far less technical and it's just easier to do, it's as simple as that, but it is fun and exhilarating. A place like Nazaré, I've seen big waves all my life and it's even shocking to me to see how big the waves are that those guys are towing into.’
RSNG Surfing seems to be getting even more popular – do you hope that this is going to raise awareness of ocean pollution around the world?
SD‘As a surfer you love to travel – get on a plane and go to Fiji or Tahiti or Indonesia or somewhere else. Then every now and then you get to a location where you're really excited to go and the beaches are covered in plastic and trash and there's tons of pollution. It's a real eye-opener. It's so easy to get sick and so it really puts things in perspective when you travel for surf because you're right; you're completely exposed to where all the trash goes.’
RSNG What is the thing that you remember the most fondly from travelling around the world with Momentum crew?
SD‘We're all in our 40s now and I just look back and just go, 'Wow! I can't believe that we actually did that.' We graduated high school and we were instantly thrown on tour. We were all growing up together at 18 years old, with a credit card and no parents and no coach. There was no one looking after us or telling us to go to sleep early because we've got to surf the next day. There was no one to tell us not to go party with girls. There was no one to tell us to be responsible. We were winging it and it's just a fun way to grow up, to travel the world non-stop for ten years with our closest group of friends. I feel incredibly grateful for that experience.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Momentum Generation out now on digital release…
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow the author @mattfitnessray