Andy Irons Remembered

Jon Letman

(November 3, Lihue) – Outside the night is punctuated by a steady falling rain. Inside, on the computer screen, the world reacts to the sudden death of Kauai surf champion Andy Irons. In less than 24 hours since Andy’s passing in Texas began making headlines around the world, a Facebook group, “RIP Andy Irons,” has grown to over 52,000 people.

The outpouring of shared loss and love for the 32-year-old Kauai-born surfer (and son, brother, husband, friend and father-to-be) is palpable with each comment posted.

Surfers knew and respected Andy for his remarkable abilities (three time world champion with too many other accomplishments to list here) and easy-going nature. But whether you surf or not, for people in Hawaii, particularly those of us on Kauai, Andy and his younger brother, Bruce, have been a source of enormous pride.

I was not a friend of Andy’s but I did have the pleasure to meet and interview him for a Kauai community newspaper in January 2009. After months of back and forth with Andy’s manager, a date was set and we agreed to talk poolside at a condo complex in Princeville.

Not knowing what to expect of this local surf legend, I found Andy to be immediately and wholly approachable. He was funny, warm and enthusiastic to talk about his life, which he spent mostly on a board and almost entirely in the water.

Andy gave me a quick rundown on his upbringing: Born in Lihue in 1978, raised in Haena, then Hanalei, a block in from his favorite surf spot Pine Trees where he used to surf before class (“if I wasn’t late for school my mom would let me”).

It was his father who first put Andy on a board, he recalled. He figured he must have been 4-years-old when his dad tried to get him to surf but, as he said, “the ocean was scary — it was radical!”

“My cousin Jason (Irons) was the one that got me into surfing — he and Clay Abubo, one of my best friends. They were the best surfers around,” Andy said, before quickly rattling off a dozen names of other “really good surfers.”

Surf movies, magazines and boogie boarding at Lumahai Beach gradually turned Andy into a self-proclaimed “fanatic” and by age 12 he was being sponsored by Quiksilver. Through his teens Andy, along with Bruce, started competing in surf contests and picking up more sponsorships. “They provided us with three surfboards a year which, at 12-years-old, was the best thing in the world. We’d break ‘em and my dad would fix ‘em.”

Andy described a Quiksilver rep “tripping out” when he spotted his brother Bruce, whom he described as being “really small, but he ripped.” Soon Andy’s dad helped him get hooked up, too, and his professional career was underway.

At 16, Andy won the HIC Pipeline Masters on Oahu riding “huge waves in a really intense contest.” He called it one of the best rides of his life.

Suddenly Andy was a pro surfer, but he was still in high school and had to go to class the day after Pipeline. “It went from like, ‘oh yeah, he surfs, whatever,’ to ‘hoa, you’re pretty good,’” Andy remembered. “All the Hawaiian local guys were like ‘you rip, brah!’”

And you’ve been surfing continuously since, I asked him?

“Every single day. All day,” he said with a laugh.

But the next 12 years on the world tour circuit took its toll, Andy said. By 2008 he was feeling burnt out. “It was horrible, like being around a circus...the whole grind.” The hype, the relentless schedule (traveling to a different country every two weeks with no more than 10 days’ break at home) made him question is own priorities and even surfing itself.

“Living out of a bag sucks,” Andy said. “I live on Kauai — the most beautiful place in the world — warm water, good waves, my family’s here, everything’s here.” What had been “super fun” when he was younger had become a grind and now, with his new wife Lyndie, leaving home was getting harder and harder.

At the beginning of 2009, when we met, Andy had decided to take a year off to rejuvenate himself and, as he put it, “get back into what got me surfing.” Just knowing he didn’t have to compete, or be judged, and could just go out surfing with friends, rekindled his enthusiasm. “The buzz is coming back for sure,” he said.

Andy, who spent his all-too short life surfing everywhere from South Africa to Australia, Chile, the South Pacific, Europe, Brazil, California, Indonesia and Japan, always loved one place best — Kauai’s north shore.

“Where do you like to surf?” I asked.

“Pine Trees. That’s where I learned to surf. It’s Hanalei Bay. It’s right in the middle. It’s a beach break. It changes, It’s lefts, it’s rights, it’s a reform, it’s closed out. It can be long. It’s just the variety.”

“There are other spots, but they’re secret!” he said with a laugh.

Outside of Hawaii, Andy said he loved surfing Tahiti because “it reminds me most of home. It has big, hollow, blue, beautiful, awesome waves.”

Surfing Australia, Andy said, “[was] playful, with nice point breaks and white sand beaches.”

He called Bali “awesome.” “I love Bali — good waves, cool people, really good surfers.”

Japan, he said, was “fun. I love the people and I love sushi!”

Surfing, and all the travel that went with it was, according to Andy, “a way to explore different cultures, different people, different outlooks on life. I think that’s the best learning in the world, to see how other people live,” he told me.

In our one and only meeting, Andy’s love of surfing and the ocean, no more or less, than his love for his family, friends and Kauai itself, was utterly apparent.

Part of his passion involved going surfing with friends who used Google Earth to find the perfect wave. Surf forecasting had become so sophisticated, he said, he was planning to take off suddenly for Tahiti (“I might go this Saturday” he told me, “it looks like it’s going to be pumpin’. All I need is a passport, a credit card, three boards and a pair of trunks.”)

Andy described the ocean as a big playground, but it was also clearly his lifeblood, at the very essence of his soul. “Every time I go into the ocean, I always feel like a better person.”

Nov. 2 was a beautiful day on Kauai. Autumn had arrived and with it, the first winter swells. The day’s surf report announced north shore beaches were closed for swimming as 25–30 foot waves rolled into Kauai. The sky was a flawless sheet of blue, streaked with a mosaic of thin white herringbone clouds. Mt. Waialeale and Kauai’s craggy interior were crisp and clear, as if cut from paper.

The early winter swell, driven into Hanalei Bay, like the ocean’s embrace — graceful, powerful, eternal, carrying with it the sound of surf — a ceaseless voice, crying out, surely calling Andy home.


Jon Letman is a writer and photographer based on Kauai.

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