Nov 12, 2010

The ocean has lost a son: My thoughts on Andy Irons passing away

There comes a time in life when you truly appreciate people for what they are and what they represent in the larger scale of life. Sadly, this often happens when someone passes away, and more often than not, when such a thing happens unexpectedly and way too early. On November 2, 2010, Andy Irons passed away.

To people who don’t follow surfing, this might not be a huge thing, but to anyone who’s ever ridden a wave, no matter which vehicle we choose, this is heart breaking at best. It’s not just that he passed away about a month before his child was born; it’s that he died so suddenly and not in a way we’re used to.

Chances are if you surf, you’ve heard of people passing away but it’s normally something on the lines of a car crash, cancer or something that comes with the territory, like drowning. Names that pop into mind are Jay Moriarty, Mark Foo and the incomparable Eddie Aikau. Jay died during a free dive in the Maldives, Foo died while surfing at Maverick’s and Eddie was lost at sea as he paddled to get help for his fellow crewmen.

Right now, we don’t know what happened with Andy.

While the media starts to speculate and throw allegations of drug use, theories of dengue fever and a combination of various things, I’m glad to see that the surfing community has not lost its focus. We lost Andy, period. The reason doesn’t matter, and quite honestly, it shouldn’t.

A few years back, I wrote a short post talking about the best comebacks of the year (2006 if memory serves). I wrote how Andy Irons was one of those best comebacks because he beat Kelly Slater at Pipeline in the final. At first glance, this seems a simple enough feat, but if you go to the heat scores though, you see why it was that special. Kelly scored a 17.83 total, out of a possible twenty points and lost. It wasn’t because judges didn’t want to give Kelly the win, it’s because Andy would not be satisfied with second best. That’s the kind of guy he seemed like to me: someone who never accepted anyone telling him that something couldn’t be done. Most other people would fold under such pressure, but Andy’s surname was indicative of his character. After Kelly demonstrated why people call him the freak, Andy proceeded to get an insane left for a 9 and a crazy backdoor pit for an 8 something. Kelly fought back with another crazy wave at backdoor to increase his lead. Then a huge set comes Andy fights with Kelly for priority and goes on a wave that mortals would write off as unmakeable. The lip crashes, the foam engulfs him and after an explosion of spit over nearly dry reef, Andy exits the depths of the beast to the roar of the crowd and the approval of a perfect 10. He won the heat and the event with a 19.87 total.

In boxing they say styles make fights and the same applies to surfing. No one truly enjoys a landslide victory. We want competition, skill, courage, and heart. Andy Irons had these qualities in spades. He was also brash and outspoken. People (including myself) labeled him a dick or as Kelly’s nemesis and quite simply, the bad guy. When he lost, he let himself be heard and seen. He punched his board, shouted at judges and on more than one occasion, he called bullshit on scoring. Oh, and he loved beating Kelly. People often look to Bruce Irons to confirm that Andy was an asshole because Bruce has been quoted as saying Andy was a dick. Simply put, the public persona of Andy was largely fabricated just because we love grudge matches, and you just have to see the reaction of the surfing community to realize that Andy wasn’t a dick and that he was far from hated.

As for Bruce, quite simply without him there would have been no Andy. They pushed each other to a level of greatness that even surpasses such admirable surfing families as the Hobgoods, the Fletchers and the Malloys. Though they were viciously competitive with one another, there are ties that bind and tales that don’t make good news articles, but great family stories.

Was Andy faulted? Of course. He was human even though he didn’t surf like one. But if he was such a prick, people wouldn’t be hurting as much as they are. The reality is that he was someone we loved to hate, because it made his heats that much more enjoyable, not because we really hated the guy. Far from it actually.

When I talk to people that don’t know about surfing, they ask why the big deal over that surfer who died? I’ve tried to explain by telling them what they would think if Joe Frazier died during his prime and before the rubber match with Ali. What would they feel if Magic Johnson had died before the second playoffs against Bird and the Celtics? And they kind of get it, but only marginally. That’s because they don’t surf and may be used to their heroes dying. Between acting and rock and roll, the list of people who have died tragically is long and varied. When you look at surfing though, the list is minuscule in comparison, so naturally a 3 time world champion dying is a big deal on accolades alone.

But Andy was a lot more than a three time world champion. With the clear exception of Laird Hamilton, few people have pushed the envelope at Teahupoo as Andy did. In regards to backside surfing, I’d have to look to Occy and Kelly to find someone who blows me away as much on pure power and skill. And yes, when you think of Andy, you have to think of Kelly Slater. Simply put, everyone wanted every final to be between these two guys and the reason is simple: Andy was the guy that could not only beat Kelly decisively, but push him to regions of skill unknown, and still beat him. He made Kelly a better surfer and was that flame that kept the fire raging on Mount Kelly, bringing him back from retirement on more than one occasion.

His passing leaves an uncomfortable hollow because we see the end of an era under the saddest circumstances.

This Sunday November 14th, the collective surfing world will do paddleouts in honor of Andy Irons, and I will join at some spot wherever I am. That’s because no matter where we are in the world, one thing joins us. It isn’t what we ride, who we are, where we live or how old we are. It’s the fact that we share one love for our one ocean, and we’ve lost one of our own.

I’d like to finish this post with something I felt the need to write down last week.

Irons in our mind
Tears stream, breaking like the waves
Nature mirrors life

Thoughts float out to sea
There are Irons in our pain
Ocean heals deep wounds

Unite hand in hand
Lonely wave on lonely day
Irons in our hearts

Andy Irons – 1978-2010
May you ride the endless wave


Jeffry Morris said...

Nice post. Andy is (hard to say 'was') a legend. I find it difficult to justify why I feel so much about somebody I didn't know, but it's surely because he had a character seldom seen. RIP A.I.!

Joker said...

Many thanks Jeff. I'm also finding it kind of difficult to talk in the past tense because like you, I didn't know the guy. Hell I don't even have an autograph, but I follow the CT on surfline consistently and have always been fond of great competition, going back to the Curren Occy days. But his unique personality definitely made him stand out, much like Bruce. Anyways, thanks for the comment and hope there's waves wherever you're at. Cheers

hottpotato65 said...

i think there are a lot of folks hurting who never met Andy except thru Videos surfline and the magazines-it is a intimate world we inhabit-those who really bond with the ocean/water/wind doing what we do has created a very special brother sisterhood a collective...and ANDY rose to the top on many many occasions-he deserves our adoration his family deserves our love and warm wishes his unborn son and wife need all the positivity we can muster for their loss is terrible and unfathomable to most -his son will grow knowing how great his father was-he will be sorely missed because of how bright how shined-Mahalo Irons family

Joker said...

I couldn't agree more. Maybe it was the fact we could watch so closely through webcasts or vids. The fact is that at least for me, I've been able to watch surf vids over and over, to the point where I know the next wave that is coming... and it never got old. Thank you for the warm message and know that from my corner of the world, I paddled out and sent my love to the Irons collective, which includes each and everyone of us.


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