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Chasing Mavericks: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer
based on surfer Jay Moriarity and his surfing mentor Frosty Hesson

Jonny Weston
South Carolina, USA
Jay Moriarity
Born: June 16, 1978
Birthplace: Georgia, USA
Death: June 15, 2001, Maldive Islands, Indian Ocean (drowned while free-diving)

Photo by Bob Barbour
Gerard Butler
Born: November 13, 1969
Paisley, Scotland, UK
Rick "Frosty" Hesson
Born: September 6, 1949
Birthplace: San Francisco, California, USA
Leven Rambin
Born: May 17, 1990
Houston, Texas, USA
Kim Moriarity
Born: July 16, 1976
Abigail Spencer
Born: August 4, 1981
Gulf Breeze, Florida, USA
Brenda Hesson
Birthplace: Annapolis, Maryland, USA
Death: Dominican Hospital, Santa Cruz, California, USA (aneurysm)
You just gotta appreciate everything. And that's one of the most important things in life, is just really appreciating it, because, you know, we only get to do this once, and it's not for a long time, so, enjoy it. -Jay Moriarity

Questioning the Story:

Did Jay really meet his mentor Frosty when Frosty saved him from drowning when he was a boy?

Young Jay Moriarity
Jay approached Frosty as a young surfer (right). Inset: Actor Cooper Timberline as young Jay.
No. In the Chasing Mavericks movie, a young Jay gets swept into the water after saving Kim's dog. Frosty then paddles over and rescues Jay. In real life, the rescue never happened. Jay first met Frosty in 1990 when he was twelve and approached him at his van at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz to ask Frosty to teach him about surfing. -Making Mavericks

Was Jay Moriarity's father really absent from his life?

Yes. Like in the Chasing Mavericks movie, the true story confirms that the real Jay Moriarity's father, Doug, was absent for most of his childhood. As in the movie, his father worked in the military, serving as an Airborne Ranger. Jay was born in Augusta, Georgia but moved to the Pleasure Point area of Santa Cruz when he was eight. Following his parents' separation, he took to the ocean to help deal with a difficult family life, eventually meeting his mentor Rick "Frosty" Hesson.

Was Jay really Frosty's only pupil?

Top: Jay Moriarity and Frosty, Bottom: Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston
Frosty and Jay (top) were close friends just like actors Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston portray in the movie (bottom).
No. The real Frosty Hesson had worked with dozens and dozens of young people, teaching them both about becoming great surfers and great people too. Despite agreeing to teach Jay how to surf, like in the movie, Frosty did not train just anyone for Mavericks. "If not for his passion and eagerness to do the work," writes Frosty, "I would never have let the kid anywhere near Mavericks." -Making Mavericks

Did Frosty really make Jay write essays?

Yes. Before he allowed Jay to paddle out at Mavericks, the real Jay Moriarity completed 55 essays for Frosty, mostly on the subject of surfing. Each essay was at minimum two pages long. Then a lengthy two-hour discussion would take place, often after revisions to the original essay. They mostly talked sitting in the front seat of Frosty's van, but sometimes the essays would require them to head to the beach ( Jay's widow Kim remembers the essays, "[Hesson] didn't think he would do it," says Kim. "Well, he did it and went above and beyond it. That's when Frosty knew he was serious." (Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Did Jay really work at a Pizza parlor?

Yes. The Chasing Mavericks true story reveals that the real Jay Moriarity worked part-time at Pleasure Pizza on the east side of Santa Cruz. The actual pizza shop served as a shooting location and is featured in the movie.

Was Jay really as nice a guy as the movie portrays?

Jay Moriarity
Jay is said to have almost always had a smile on his face.
Yes. Even more so than the movie portrays, Jay had an infectious personality. He is said to have almost always had a smile on his face and you couldn't help but smile too when you were around him. "'d never know he was this famous big-wave guy," says his widow Kim Moriarity. "He would treat you like you were his brother or his sister. He was just incredibly real. In a world that's so fake, it's hard to find a person like that who has all that going for him, yet had no ego." -Santa Cruz Sentinel

"He had a vision of who he wanted to be and the ceaseless determination to make it happen—you could see it in his bright blue eyes and the killer grin that drew everyone to him," writes Frosty Hesson.

Bob Pearson, a legendary Santa Cruz surfer who designed boards for Jay, recalls the young surfer in a way that many who knew him remember him, "Jay taught people how to live," says Pearson. "We all learned from Jay." Driving around Santa Cruz, you'll undoubtedly see the "Live Like Jay" bumper stickers that recall his undeniable spirit.

Did Frosty Hesson's wife Brenda really die of a stroke?

Yes. Frosty Hesson's second wife, Brenda, who was the mother of two of his three children, passed away of a stroke.

Did Frosty really let Jay tackle Mavericks after only twelve weeks of training?

No. Unlike the 12-week training program depicted in the movie, the real Frosty Hesson worked with Jay for nearly four years before he let him take on the big waves at Mavericks. Frosty had been training Jay for two and a half years before Jay even brought up the possibility of Mavericks, and it would be another year and a half before Frosty let him paddle out at Half Moon Bay. -Making Mavericks

How old was Jay Moriarity when he first surfed Mavericks?

The real Jay Moriarity was sixteen when he first took on the legendary waves at Mavericks. "To say that Mavericks isn't for kids is doing it an injustice," writes Frosty Hesson. "It's hardly for people." -Making Mavericks

Did Jay Moriarity really have an insane wipeout at Mavericks?

Jay Moriarity Wipeout 1994
(Click to Enlarge)
16-year-old Jay Moriarity's 1994 wipeout appears in The New York Times and on the cover of SURFER Magazine.
Yes. Jay's legendary wipeout took place on December 19, 1994 when he was just sixteen. Watch the Jay Moriarity Wipeout Video. On that day, the sets that rose from the chilly 50-degree water were pushing twenty feet. Jay went straight to the peak and began paddling for a wave. When he got to his feet, the winds held him at the lip of the gigantic wave. That moment was captured by photographer Bob Barbour, later appearing on the cover of the May 1995 issue of Surfer Magazine (see photo). Jay then quickly found himself falling 30-40 feet toward the ocean floor. As the wave began to crash down, Jay disappeared. After being held under for more than twenty seconds (but not over 3 minutes like in the movie), Jay emerged unscathed. The same couldn't be said for his surfboard, which had been broken in half. After the photo was published along with the story, Jay became an instant hero to surfers around the world. Ironically, you'll notice that on the front of that same issue of Surfer Magazine, the headline at the very top acknowledges the death of professional surfer Mark Foo, who died at Mavericks just four days after Jay's wipeout.

Did Jay wipeout on his very first wave at Mavericks?

No. Unlike what the Chasing Mavericks movie implies, Jay had surfed Mavericks for eight months prior to his famous 1994 wipeout. He began surfing the waves at Mavericks earlier in that season. However, he didn't even have a full season at Mavs under his belt when the wipeout took place. -Making Mavericks

Did the real Jay Moriarity paddle back out after his huge wipeout?

Jay Moriarity Iron Cross Wipeout
Bob Barbour's "Iron Cross" wipeout photo helped turn Jay into an instant big wave superstar.
Yes. After surfacing from his legendary "Iron Cross" wipeout (named for the photo at left that shows his arms outstretched to form the shape of a cross) to discover that his board had broken in half, Jay retrieved his backup board and then paddled back out, spending five additional hours in the chilly 50-degree water at Mavericks. He caught eight more waves before he called it a day.

How long had Jay's mentor, Frosty Hesson, been surfing Mavericks?

At the time of Jay Moriarity's legendary wipeout at Mavericks, his mentor, Frosty Hesson, had been surfing the spot for seven years. -Making Mavericks

How did Rick "Frosty" Hesson get his nickname?

In researching the Chasing Mavericks true story, we discovered that Jay Moriarity's mentor, Rick "Frosty" Hesson, got his nickname from his blond turned platinum hair.

What makes the waves at Mavericks so big?

Surfing Mavericks Wave Diagram
The gigantic U-shaped waves at Mavericks form when the current is sent abruptly upward after encountering the large bedrock reef.
Located approximately 2 miles from the shore outside Pillar Point Harbor, just north of the town of Half Moon Bay, the Northern California surfing location known as Mavericks is a natural phenomenon. The magnificence behind Mavericks lies in the topography of the ocean floor below, specifically how the ocean water flows over the reef to form massive swells that can get as high as a 4-story building. What makes Mavericks special is that the bedrock reef rises from the ocean floor so abruptly that it turns ordinary waves into monsters in an instant. As the current hits the shelf, the water is forced upward forming the the gigantic waves. However, these waves only form when the conditions are right with relation to the force and direction of the current (from west, northwest). The image on the right shows the swell slowing and bending around the shelf of rock that juts out of the ocean floor at Mavericks. One of the most amazing things about Mavericks is that when the waves are at their biggest (fifteen, twenty or even thirty feet) they crash down on the North American plate with such force that they register on the UC Berkeley seismograph. -QUEST

Was Jay's girlfriend Kim really older than him?

Jay Moriarity and Kim Moriarity
Real Kim and Jay (top) in the years prior to his death. Bottom: Actors Leven Rambin and Jonny Weston.
Yes. The real Kim met Jay when she was 17 and he was 15.

Did Jay and Kim get married?

Yes. Jay and Kim eloped in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada, marrying on August 19, 2000. They had been married less than a year when Jay drowned in the free-diving accident. "I was just numb," says Kim of losing Jay. "I was upside down, turned around in the dark. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was lost." -Santa Cruz Sentinel

What are the details surrounding Jay Moriarity's death?

The real Jay Moriarity died on June 15, 2001, the day before his 23rd birthday, while free-diving in the warm, calm, clear waters of the Indian Ocean in the Maldive Islands. He was in the Maldives for a photo shoot for his sponsor O'Neill. As part of his strict training regime, he went free-diving off the coast of the island of Lohifushi. While diving, he often went further down the buoy rope than anyone else, as he focused on exercising the limits of his breath-holding ability. "He went down there, with no mask, no fins," says his widow Kim Moriarity, who estimates that Jay was 80 feet below the surface. "He was just sitting on the bottom, holding his breath as long as he could. Then he came to the surface, and I figured he had a shallow-water blackout before he got to the top." Kim wants to stress that Jay wasn't doing something reckless when he died, which is a common perception. Instead, she believes that he was practicing the sort of training that had made him such a successful big-wave rider. -Santa Cruz Sentinel

Did Jay's friends and fellow surfers really hold a memorial for him out on the water?

Frosty Hesson and Gerard Butler Memorial on Set
The real Frosty Hesson (left) and actor Gerard Butler (right) share a moment during the shooting of the memorial reenactment in 2011.
Yes. On June 26, 2001, just days after his death, hundreds of Jay's real-life friends and fellow surfers paddled out into the waters of Pleasure Point near Santa Cruz, California for his memorial service. His wife Kim scattered his ashes into the ocean, and just like in the movie, they collectively threw water into the air in honor of Jay. Many of the same surfers came out for the shooting of the memorial reenactment on Friday, October 14, 2011, including the real Frosty Hesson, pictured at right with his onscreen counterpart, Scottish actor Gerard Butler.

Did actor Gerard Butler get taken to the hospital after being held under at Mavericks?

Yes. Actor Gerard Butler, who was shooting a scene at Mavericks where his character paddles out to the legendary big wave spot, was held underwater for two waves after a round of rogue waves took him and three of his surfing coaches by surprise. "I'm with the best surfers in the world, and they're just going, 'Paddle, Gerry! Paddle!'" Butler recalled days later. "Then this wave came and just blocked out the sky. It was about 30 feet high." (Mens Journal) Butler's cord got ripped off and he lost his surfboard. He eventually ended up being washed through some rocks, after which a safety patrolman on a jet ski picked him up and took him to shore. Uninjured, he was taken by ambulance to Stanford Medical Center where he was held for observation and then released. The actor was not an experienced surfer and had not surfed much prior to shooting the movie (KSBW Action News 8)

Why is the Mavericks surf spot called "Mavericks"?

It is well known that Mavericks is named after a dog named Maverick, who is often credited with being the first to surf the location. However, as to who the dog's owner was, most sources point to two different individuals. The first is surfer Jeff Clark who opened the Mavericks Surf Shop. The second is the roommate of surfer Alex Matienzo. Alex reportedly surfed Mavericks in the 1960s with fellow surfers Jim Thompson and Dick Notmeyer. As that story goes, he brought the white-haired German Shepherd to Pillar Point and left him on shore. As the trio paddled out, they noticed that the dog was paddling out to join them. Matienzo took the dog back to shore and tied him up. Matienzo's story appears in Matt Warshaw's book Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing. The story has proliferated online because of it being recounted on the collaborative information sharing website Wikipedia.

Had actor Jonny Weston had any surfing experience prior to making the movie?

Yes. Actor Jonny Weston, in his first major role, says that he had in fact surfed prior to making the movie. However, he points out that he had never surfed on a longboard before the movie and that it was a bit ironic that it was the real Frosty Hesson who taught him how to surf on a longboard for the film.

I heard that actress Abigail Spencer, who plays Frosty's wife in the movie, is the daughter of a famous surfer?

Abigail Spencer and Yancy Spencer
Actress Abigail Spencer (left), who plays Frosty's wife Brenda in the movie, is the daughter of Florida surf legend Yancy Spencer III (right).
Actress Abigail Spencer, who plays the wife of Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) in the movie, is the daughter of Pensacola, Florida surfing legend Yancy Spencer III. Growing up, Abigail spent a lot of time in her father's surf shops, and she modeled her character after her own mother, who she says was "the consummate surfer's wife."

Sadly, Yancy passed away in 2011 while visiting his daughter and her young son in California. At age 60, he had still been surfing daily, and he had gone out surfing in the afternoon at County Line in Malibu. While at the beach, he realized he was having a heart attack and quickly called his daughter. "He was really calm," recalls Abigail. "He said, 'Abby, I'm having a heart attack. Call 911. I love you.' When the fire chief found him, he was holding my mother's Valentine's Day card and looking out at the waves that changed his life." Many, including Abigail, were shocked by his passing since he had been in good shape. -NY Daily News

Jay and Kim Moriarity
Jay with wife Kim Moriarity, who spent time on the movie set.
Was Jay Moriarity's family involved in the production of the movie?

Yes. During our investigation into the Chasing Mavericks true story, we learned that Jay's wife Kim was often on set and spent quite a bit of time with both her onscreen counterpart, actress Leven Rambin, and actor Jonny Weston, who plays Jay in the movie. The real Frosty Hesson was also on set and taught actor Jonny Weston how to surf on a longboard. "Anybody who was integral to the story was around," says actress Abigail Spencer (Brenda in the movie), "and they were always welcome to come to set and be a part of it. In Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay the communities got behind it and we had lots of local surfers involved, which really helped bring everything together." -Surfer Magazine

Jay Moriarity Interviews and Related Videos

Watch the Jay Moriarity wipeout video and listen to Jay talk about how he managed to survive. Also, watch a video on the science behind what makes the waves at Mavericks so big.

 Jay Moriarity Talks About His Wipeout

In this interview, the real Jay Moriarity describes his infamous wipeout that occured on December 19, 1994. After falling thirty-five feet from the top of the wave and bouncing off the bottom of the ocean floor, he used his feet to push off the bottom and he swam as hard as he could for the surface before the second wave came crashing down. Video of the Jay Moriarity wipeout accompanies the interview.

 Jay Moriarity Wipeout at Mavericks 1994

Watch big wave surfer Jay Moriarity's Mavericks wipeout that occurred on December 19, 1994. For more on Jay's insane wipeout, watch the video "Jay Talks About His Wipeout".

 Jay Moriarity Funeral Footage

Watch video of Jay Moriarity's funeral service held on June 26, 2001 at Pleasure Point near Santa Cruz, CA. Towards the end of the video, you can see hundreds of surfers throwing water into the air in honor of Jay, which corresponds to the scene at the end of the Chasing Mavericks movie.

 The Science Behind Mavericks' Waves

Just off the coast of Northern California, to the north of Half Moon Bay, a legendary surf spot known as "Mavericks" generates some of the biggest waves in the world. This video explores the science behind what makes the waves at Mavericks so big.

 Chasing Mavericks Trailer

Watch the Chasing Mavericks movie trailer for the film starring Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston. The movie tells the story of legendary big wave surfer Jay Moriarity and his mentor Rick "Frosty" Hesson, who teaches him how to surf Mavericks, a California surfing location that is home to some of the biggest waves in the world.

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