In early November 2010, Kelly Slater exited the Puerto Rican surf in tears. It’s not how the greatest surfer in history usually finishes a contest. The last time it happened was seven years before at the North Shore’s notorious Pipeline, when his nemesis, Andy Irons, beat him in a man-on-man heat. Irons’s victory sealed his second consecutive world title and all but destroyed Slater’s aura of invincibility. It was different in Puerto Rico. Slater had just won his tenth world title, a feat unmatched in professional sports, but his victory was bittersweet. He may have won another championship, but he lost the man who drove him to these unprecedented heights.
Just two days earlier, Andy Irons died in a hotel room in Dallas while waiting to gather his strength for a flight back to Kauai. When he didn’t respond to repeated wake-up calls, hotel staff opened the door to his room and found him lying on his back with the sheets pulled up to his neck. The initial ruling was dengue fever, an extremely rare, mosquito-borne disease he may have contracted in Portugal while competing as a wild card on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour. Irons was in the early stages of his own comeback, personally and professionally.
The news of his death spread fast. Texts and tweets were received with disbelief, anger, and profound sadness; the surfing world was in shock. One of its greats had been taken, and not in the treacherous surf, as you’d expect from a big-wave charger like Irons, but in a hotel room worlds away from Hawaii.
When a surfer dies, Hawaiian tradition calls for his friends and fellow surfers to paddle out into still waters and form a huge circle, throw flowers into the center, and say a few words. On November 14, more than a thousand friends, family, ohana, and fans paddled out at Pine Trees, Irons’s home break in Kauai, to honor him. There were paddle-outs that day across the globe. It was perhaps the biggest remembrance in surfing history, fitting for one of the most respected and beloved surfers of all time.
Irons’s death raised some eyebrows—dengue fever is rarely fatal, and while dehydration due to a combination of illness, time in the tropics, and flying likely played a role, the coroner’s office confirmed reports that Xanax and Ambien prescription pills were present by the bedside where Irons’s body was found, not unusual for someone who spends his life on long plane trips, hopping from one time zone to another.
Another specter, inevitably, cast a shadow over his passing. The brash, movie-star-handsome surfer had talked about the “demons” he struggled with and said that without surfing they would have undoubtedly gotten the best of him. Rumors swirled following his absence from the tour in 2009 for “personal issues,” and the “struggles” he talked about in interviews, whatever they may have been, are a part of his story. But with a return to competitive surfing and his first child on the way, it seemed like his dark days were in the past.
The only thing that really matters is that Andy Irons died too young, at thirty-two, and left behind a beautiful wife who was eight months pregnant, a loving brother and family, eight islands where he was king, thousands of adoring fans, and a legacy as the greatest Hawaiian competitive surfer of all time. Not bad for a haole whose name doesn’t end in a vowel.
He also gave Kelly Slater and competitive surfing just what they needed right when they needed it most: a worthy foe for the former, and a rebirth and shot in the arm for both.
To hear me speak of it you’d think I was a pretty good surfer, but full disclosure: I kind of suck, even though I own several boards, know the lingo, follow the pro tour, and grew up between the warring worlds of the eastern San Fernando Valley and Malibu, where my grandparents had a summer condo.
As a kid, I would sit on the beach watching Matt Archbold and Dino Andino slug it out for pennies on the Bud Pro Tour, while just up Pacific Coast Highway surf mags littered the sand-covered carpet in my bedroom. By the time I was in high school, though, my grandmother’s short fight with ovarian cancer drained the funds that once subsidized summers in the ’Bu, and my grandfather never recovered from her death. Music, graffiti, girls, and skateboarding replaced surfing on my to-do list.
Skating was a natural fit. Those who gravitate toward it are generally outsiders—the kids not inclined to sign up for Little League or to follow the high-school-hero playbook, the ones eating lunch alone in the stairwell, wearing Fugazi T-shirts. Surfing, meanwhile, has suffered from rampant mainstreaming and an incipient jockiness even since its last great antihero, Miki Dora, fled Malibu in the wake of the Gidget-fueled kook invasion.
But I digress. The point is, by the time a kid from Cocoa Beach, Florida, named Kelly Slater quickly took over the scene in the early nineties, it wasn’t fun to follow pro surfing anymore: you knew who was going to win, so why bother? I didn’t. Surfing had its Tiger, Jordan, and Federer all wrapped in one, great for the record books but a snooze for the viewer.
Flash forward nearly two decades to 2007. My band, She Wants Revenge, is playing a show in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. Our tour manager puts the band in a hotel by the venue in Waikiki, a short walk for anyone wanting to catch some sun and a few easy waves in front of the great pink monstrosity known as the Royal Hawaiian. I have other plans.
My friend Peter, who had taken up residence in the “country” of the North Shore some seven years earlier, has been begging me to stay with him and the assortment of world-class surfers, shapers, and gypsies who pass through his doors every winter when the prestigious Vans Triple Crown takes over what is known as the Seven-Mile Miracle. Now, with a paid gig and my lovely fiancée to accompany me, I’m making the journey we’d talked about for so long.
Peter and his wife teach my girl and me about the local music of Iz, about plate lunch and haupia pie at Ted’s Bakery, about island etiquette, and about the black-trunked guardians of the water, the infamous Hui O’ He’e Nalu.
One night, while we sit eating poke and talking story with some watermen, local girls, and one famous local surfer’s mom, conversation turns to “the brothers.” When I sheepishly ask who they’re talking about, Peter laughs and says, “Andy and Bruce, the Irons brothers. You’re kidding, right? Bruce is the best free surfer on the planet and Andy’s the world champion!”
Someone other than Kelly Slater is the king? My interest is immediately piqued in a way it hasn’t been since the days of the Carbon Beach condo. Upon returning home, I promptly have my friend B. J. shape me a retro-seventies egg inspired by the classic surf film Morning of the Earth. I pick up a few back issues of Surfer and purchase every DVD that has anything to do with Andy Irons or his little brother Bruce.
As I read the mags and watch the DVDs I’m taken aback. While I was getting a studio tan and traversing the country in a tour bus, the ASP World Tour had grown by leaps and bounds. No longer was Slater laying waste to all who faced him. Suddenly there was someone with not only the ability to take him down, but, more importantly, a competitive drive that might have been greater than even Slater’s.
The more I learned about the Irons brothers, the more I had to know. Their story was almost mythical. Their sibling rivalry was the stuff of legend, and their fuck-you attitude was way more skater than surf-bro to this California kid.
Born in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, the Ironses came from a long line of surfers. They grew up as island boys, accepted as locals, and made names for themselves at Pine Trees, a break where years later they would host the Irons Brothers Classic, an annual contest for local kids.
It was proximity to this shallow reef break and brotherly competition that made Irons into a fierce competitor. Bruce, a year and a half younger, was the dominant one at first, winning contests effortlessly while Andy tossed his consolation trophies into the trees. By the time he was seventeen, though, Andy came into his own by winning the Pipeline Pro, taking out his brother as well as a past world champion and local favorites.
It was the first sign of the fire that would eventually take him to twenty career victories in world-tour events and, perhaps more important from the Hawaiian perspecive, four Triple Crowns. A surfer earns a Triple Crown by winning the contests held at the three most celebrated waves in Hawaii—Haleiwa, Sunset, and the world-famous Banzai Pipeline. Winning one Triple Crown earns a surfer enormous respect, and for a local boy like Andy, winning four made him a legend.
As for the twenty world-tour victories, allow me to offer some perspective. The ASP World Tour currently consists of only ten events, twelve when Irons was winning world titles. Winning five events in a year against the thirty-four best surfers in the world competing in varying conditions across the globe equals dominance.
An event is not only surfer against tour mate, it’s man versus wind and sea, storms, lulls in surf—and the tour is a grueling endurance test spanning Valentine’s Day to Christmas. With the field of international competitors, its varied breaks, and only a handful of contests a year, wining a world title is a big fucking deal.
Though he was loath to admit it, Irons, like all surfers of his age, grew up idolizing Slater.
Just as Tom Curren, Martin Potter, and Mark Occhilupo toppled the seventies “free ride” generation of Shaun Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew, and Mark Richards, Slater rang the death knell for the eighties innovators, giving birth to what came to be known as the “new school”—surfers who took to the air performing skateboarding-inspired maneuvers in waves previous generations only dreamed of. Everything that came before was obsolete. To any surfer of a certain age, Slater was a god, plain and simple, and Irons had the posters on his walls just like everyone else.
After an explosive entrance onto the prestigious ASP World Tour in 1998, Irons lit up the surfing world with a powerful and aggressive style that combined Hawaiian big-wave balls with new-school technique. After a few months, though, he got caught up in the parties, the accolades, and the hype of being the hot new flavor. His results fizzled.
Irons lost his spot on the tour, forcing him to work his way back by competing in the less-glamorous World Qualifying Series tour, a grueling task that no pro surfer looks forward to after being on the “dream tour.”
After failing to requalify the following year, he finally made it back to the world championship tour in 2000, finishing in the top sixteen and ensuring a spot the following year. The World Tour was cut short in 2001, but in 2002 Slater returned from a three-year hiatus just in time for the greatest surfing rivalry of all time to begin.
Not only did Slater and Irons push each other, they also pushed the sport and expanded the audience. Whether they liked him or not, most pro surfers feared Slater, but Irons flat out didn’t give a shit. He knew Slater was afraid of him. Things started out civilly, but there could be only one champion, and Irons was determined to be it. As for Slater’s previous dominance, Irons said, “That was then; this is now.” Irons won his first world title in 2002.
Their rivalry exploded interest in competitive surfing. Slater’s run of six consecutive world championships was a lesson in competence, if not charisma. The colorful Irons, who sometimes had trouble controlling his emotions, was an immediate antidote. With the press playing up the feud, it soon became all too real both in and out of the water.
Having his brother as an early sparring partner paid off, and Irons began to systematically dismantle Slater on the tour, winning four out of twelve events in 2003, culminating in a much-publicized victory over Slater at Irons’s adopted break of Pipeline on the North Shore.
Before the event, Slater patted Irons on the back and said, “I love you like a brother,” which left Irons furious and puzzled. Slater was a master of mind games, screwing with his adversaries’ heads like a waterman who reads Sun Tzu on down days. The kid whom Slater had so publicly battled all year shook off the psychological warfare and won the event. It was Irons’s second world title, and it came on the anniversary of the death of Slater’s father. It was the first time Slater left a competition in tears.
The feud continued the following season. Slater chalked up his previous losses to personal distractions. Irons dismissed Slater as yesterday’s news. At one point, Irons said he would go to bed thinking of how he’d like to punch Slater in the face and that at times he actually thought their rivalry would turn physical. Irons admitted, “My whole driving force right now is to take his little pretty picture and just crush it.” Slater said that when he trained on a heavy bag, he would visualize Irons’s face.
In the documentary chronicling their rivalry, A Fly in the Champagne, Slater tells the story of how he once accidentally dropped in on Irons as he was about to take off on a wave at Pipe during a free surf prior to the Pipe Masters. When he returned to the lineup, Irons screamed at the top of his lungs, dressing down Slater in front of all the locals. In the clip, Slater smiles and says how “funny” it was, but his nervous laughter belies the heaviness of the situation and speaks volumes about where the feud had taken them.
Irons waxed Slater in the contest, and it started to seem like he was in Slater’s head the way Slater was used to getting into others’ heads.
Irons won his third consecutive world title in 2004, a run that defied logic, common wisdom, and the critics—flawed and emotional mortals aren’t supposed to beat the establishment surf gods. Irons was now an international star. After every win he was carried on the shoulders of his Kauai brothers, “the Wolfpack,” whose baseball hats bore the initials A. I.
Irons was now the surfing equivalent of Kobe Bryant—kids wanted to be him, competitors feared him, and it seemed like he could do no wrong. His mercurial temperament and a lack of consistency were the only things keeping him from pushing Slater and the rest of the tour into irrelevance.
Slater, though, found new inspiration in Irons. His calm, measured demeanor hid an intensity and drive as strong as any competitive athlete. Three years lost in the wilderness and a worthy opponent fueled his fire to reclaim his dominance. He won the world title again in 2005, and then again, and again.
Irons didn’t exactly surrender. He won the Triple Crown again in 2005 and 2006. In the 2006 Pipe Masters, he and Slater went at each other in a near death match, each pulling into one massive bomb after the next. Near the end of their heat, Irons dropped into what seemed like an unmakeable wave and miraculously came out the other end, his fist in the air, victorious. Some were calling him “the people’s champ.” Despite such dramatic wins, Irons often seemed distracted on the tour and frustrated by the judges’ scoring. He was able to muster his intense focus only sporadically. When he did, he usually won.
Soon, though, it was like the early nineties all over again—not very entertaining. With Irons drifting and Slater winning almost anytime he wanted to, the tour lacked the drama of Hawaii versus Florida, soul surfer versus cover boy, when it felt like something vital was on the line. In the Slater-versus-Irons rivalry, you chose a side and stuck to it; lines were drawn and houses were divided, friends bickered on the way to the break, surf shop employees debated heats.
Slater is probably the best surfer of all time, but fuck that: A. I. was the shit, a Hawaiian who brought the title back to surfing’s birthplace, a big-wave charger who could bust airs with the best of them, a competitive monster who would talk shit and kick your ass but was also a total sweetheart with a smile that won over everyone he met. Irons was a surfer’s surfer—it was okay to like him. Slater was a guilty pleasure.
In 2009, Irons left the tour for personal reasons. He said he needed to get his head straight and his stoke back. His balls were clearly intact, evidenced by his don’t-give-a-fuck ride all the way through the massive shore break at the 2009 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational on a huge day at Waimea Bay. Irons made a strong return in early 2010, winning the prestigious Billabong Pro Tahiti at Teahupoo, one of the world’s heaviest waves. He seemed poised to return to form and it looked like in 2011 it would once again be, as he was fond of saying to Slater, “on.”
Despite how their rivalry played in the press, Irons and Slater actually had more bonding them than separating them. They shared an obvious love of surfing, had many friends in common, and both came from broken homes and modest means. Surfing was their statement—how they separated themselves from low horizons.
In the last few years of Irons’s life, his relationship with Slater didn’t at all resemble what it once had been. Without the title races between them, they’d talk, hang out, laugh, and relate to each other in ways their competitive natures and the surf industry, with its thirst for a story, had trouble accepting.
In a 2008 interview with Surfline, Irons said: “If I get into it 100 percent again, yeah, I know I can take him down. Right now, though, I just want to get my head back on and fall in love with surfing again for myself. I can leave it to you guys to talk up the rivalry and world title stuff. Would I kill all of your guys’ dreams if I told you that Slater and I are actually friends?”
On the day that Irons died, just hours before I got the text that broke the news, I was talking about the tour with a friend who works at my local surf shop. As he sat behind the counter I asked him if it was another surfless layover day in Puerto Rico. Yes, he said. Knowing that the world title race was coming down to the next heat when the contest resumed, I leaned in and told my friend in hushed tones that despite having always been an Irons fan, I wanted Slater to go out on top, in a manner befitting his contributions to the sport.
“Totally!” he replied. “We all do!”
In the end, one of Irons’s final gifts was humanizing Slater for me, allowing me to see what had probably always been there, obscured by all the trophies.
Tears streamed down Slater’s face as he walked to the podium in Puerto Rico to collect his trophy and his tenth word title. “If it wasn’t for Andy, there is no way I’d be here in this position right now,” said the shaken champ. He dedicated his win and the title to Irons. Even up to the end, Irons was pushing Slater further than he’d ever gone before.
Now that it’s winter, the waves are coming up as the temperature drops. More than ever, I’m inspired to surf. I’ll wax up my board and brave the elements in the days to come. I’d like to visit that Carbon Beach break I grew up surfing, and when I do, I’ll sit on my board in silence and think of Andy Irons and wish him aloha.
Soon I’ll visit Peter and the North Shore once again. Lately I’ve been craving that haupia pie, the roadside pineapple, and heaping bowls of ahi poke. A lot has changed, and this time will be different because my wife and I will be bringing along our child, but also because the islands will be without one of their favorite sons.
Photo © ASP/Cestari
Jan 23, 06:24 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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