Chas Smith remembers the most captivating surfer of the modern generation. Three titles on the shelf! Hawaii's greatest!
“Man, that kid made fucking-up look cool.”
“I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it.”
Andy Irons broke our heart. And he made it beat. And he made it pound and he made it shudder and he made it shake and he made it soar and he made it crash and he made it pound.
He made it pound.
When he was on, he was on. Machine-gunned truths coming out of that jaw. His jaw was like granite, carved and huge. Like Cary Grant. His eyes would blaze, blue and touched with pterygium, and he would fix you right in the dead center of that blaze. And those truths would pop pop pop pop pop. He would never hold back. Ever. Pop pop pop pop pop.
When his surfing was on, my goodness. Massive drops at Waimea and into the shorebreak and into the detonation. Late take-offs at Teahupoo standing straight and tall with the fury of thick turquoise hell all around. Pipeline. Pipeline. The only wave that truly matters. Low crouching Backdoor thrills, disappearing so deep, gone forever, and then getting shot from a watery crypt into the sunny haze, surrounded by millions of particles of salt and water and screams from North Shore decks, two fingers to the sky mouth open in a victorious sneer.
When he was off, he was off. Buried and burying his ghosts. Surly and aggressive. Surfing like he had concrete fins and a mind completely elsewhere. Screaming obscenities at those he loved.
But he was always captivating, on or off. Always. Magnetic. Everyone wanted to be around him and everyone knew he was as combustible as fire. Damien Hobgood, kind Floridian twin, gentle family man wanted to be around him. “Lots of times I’d talk to him and it’d be fun to see which Andy I was gonna get. He’s got such a big big heart…it didn’t matter what he said, or what sort of mood he was in you knew that he loved you. He was raw. Raw Irons. One time we were battling at Backdoor and I got a wave and came out right next to him and he just snapped. I paddled back out and started going off on him. Battling. And I won the heat.
Later that night I went to a party with my girl and I told her, ‘If Andy’s there and comes over here don’t make a scene…’ I didn’t want it to get weird if he punched me. So of course I see him and of course I gotta go talk to him. I went over and he looked up at me and, you just never knew what Andy you were gonna get, and he looked at me and said, ‘Ahhhhhh I don’t care’ then gave me a big hug. Cool moment for me. He had lots of love.”
Everyone wanted to be around him. He had it. He was bigger than the room, the beach, the islands, the ocean. Bigger than even life.
And his greatness was always known. It hung around him like a halo. Reef McIntosh, fellow Kauaian, with him since the second grade knew it. “I always knew he would be what he grew into. Even as a little kid I knew he was gonna be a legend. He never held back and he could do anything. From shitty Huntington to Waimea, he wasn’t a one trick pony. He could do it all.”
He could do it all. And he did do it. All. Kai Garcia, fellow Kauaian, Wolfpak leader knew it. “I remember watching him as a little little kid surfing Pinetrees. You could always see that he had it. Fucken hood rat ripper. Surfing was different for him. Wasn’t mechanical. Fucken Picasso in the water. Einstein. He looked at the ocean different.”
Across that ocean and a continent CJ Hobgood, world champ, twin of Damien knew it. “The very first time I went to Hawaii I was twelve and they were holding this contest at Diamond Head. I had heard about Andy Irons but had never seen him before. So I was at the contest site and he rocks up the hill in a Lincoln riding shotty with his board hanging out the window no leash or nothing. He hops out, grabs his contest jersey, and I remember it was breaking way way out the back, and he cruises right out. When you’re twelve you don’t even think about surfing those kinds of waves without a leash but that was Andy.”
That was Andy.
He surfed like a man possessed. Like a man not bound by natural law or twelve year old law or any law. He defied gravity and he did it with ease. Style. Always so much style. Arms behind the back, back arched, looking at the roof of lurching pits. Punts so high and effortless and. Effortless. He surfed with almost too much power and power is rarely beautiful but Andy Irons made it thus. When he hit the lip it was like a bulldozer. He destroyed it. He ravished it. He committed to its death with every ounce of his strength but he made it look like a piece of art. Like a dance. Like a tango. The lip became complicit in its own destruction and thrilled at becoming immortal. It was all there and it was all brilliant. He surfed his personality. He surfed without limit.
And he competed the same way. Ever since he first put on a colorful singlet. Freddy Pattachia, Andy’s closest friend and North Shore standout and North Shore legend, remembers, “It was the first time I thought, ‘this guy is radical.’ It was, like a junior pro I had known Andy and Bruce for a while but this must have been one of the first events or something. It was at V-Land. And Bruce was beating him in the final and had this little barrel and Andy purposefully tried to get in his way. He, like, bailed his board and tried to hit Bruce in the barrel but he still made it out and won. And you know Bruce, he rubbed it in. Andy chased him around V-Land for a minute and then we all left and as we were leaving I saw Andy’s trophy jammed in a tree. I thought, ‘Holy shit, this guy’s on another level.’ He wouldn’t take losing. Didn’t accept it. Wasn’t in his vocabulary…to see him get rid of his trophy…I would have been stoked just to have any trophy but second place wasn’t good enough for him.”
Andy won an event at Pipeline as a seventeen year old. He won Teahupo’o too, later that year, but of course it took a hot minute for him to really dig into the world championship tour format with the judging and the monotony and the procedural expectations and the blah blah blah but by 2002 he was there. He arrived, competitively, just in time for Kelly Slater.
King Kelly. Royal hand around the neck of competitive surfing. Too good to stay interested in the other plebes blaséing in the water, too bored of beating them senseless, so he left for three years. And when he became too bored of whatever else he was doing in those three years, Pamela Anderson, acting, he came back. To rule for another thousand years. But blocking the gate to his kingdom was a carved granite jaw and two blue eyes touched with pterygium blazing pure hatred.
CJ Hobgood, world champ during one of Kelly’s three absent years, witnessed the boil. “Andy was the first person who came along that hated Slater. He hated everything about him and I know hate is a strong word but he really hated Kelly.” (Reef quote) Hate. Rage. Rage. Passion. Brodie Carr, CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals described the passion. “He attacked and destroyed waves with an element of flair that only he has. Competitively he was UFC meets ASP. He attacked every wave of every heat of every contest.”
And those attacks and that hatred and that passion and that style and that flair and that hatred meant victory. Kelly banished. Kelly locked out in the cold. The sexiest moments in competitive surfing’s history, those battles. And three in a row to Andy. The Champ cometh. The Champ cometh. The people’s champ.
Victory meant cock sure swagger. Andy would strut around the parking lot, the club, the awards’ show, the Foodland and everyone would know he had it. Was it. Barking, chest pounding. And in an era of humble athlete love Andy’s “Here the fuck I am” was the greatest show in town. We all enjoyed. Reef McIntosh enjoyed. “He was the best and he beat the best at their best. He was the only one who could and he let people know it.”
And victory meant victory parties. Celebrations. Mad burn it all down, down, down to the ground bangers. Tom Dosland, Maui surfer, underground charger, remembered Andy partying, “because he was always winning. That guy would go the gnarliest. His benders were legendary. He’d party and then charge the next morning…I mean, his whole trip… a real rock star life.” Kai Garcia added, “That’s just how we were raised on Kauai. Win and earn your right to have a good time. When you get older you realize better to treat yourself to a Pepsi…but we were young. It’s a reward thing.”
A rock star and young victor’s good time is coke, not Pepsi. And other uppers and also other downers. And drinks and drinks and drinks. The World Tour is not an iniquitous den of damnation and it is not a preschool of saints. It is a good time. A modern good time and let he who is without sin cast the first stone for Andy Irons partook in that good time. And there is no need to report on what, exactly, he took or in what quantities but, yes, sometimes Andy went overboard and sometimes he sat quietly in the corner but mostly he was in the center because, always, people wanted him. He was the motherfucking Champ. Kai Garcia witnessed. “Everybody was always pulling on him. Everybody always wanted this or that…” And Freddy Pattachia corroborated. “He’d light it up. He’d light up a room and every one wanted something. People freakin loved him all over the world.” And Reef McIntosh corroborated. “Nobody could take their eyes off him.” And I corroborate. He was magical. Magnetic.
Andy Irons was raw and that is what the people loved. He surfed raw. He partied raw. He was raw. Each nerve and sinew and emotion laid bare which meant, also, he was sensitive, extremely sensitive, which is rough when combined with a white hot spotlight perpetually burning. CJ Hobgood knew the feeling. “I’d always said being a professional surfer is sick, but you are definitely signing up for a job where you’re gonna be judged. You’re judged during your heats but also outside of the water you’re getting judged. You’re always being judged which might have been real hard for Andy.” Kai Garcia added, “All eyes were on him for his good days and his bad days. People always want the dirt and that took it out of him. It took it out of all of us. When he was doing good he was on a pedestal and when he was doing bad people just….it’s real hypocritical. You’ve got to be strong and Andy…..he didn’t roll with the punches.” And Freddy Pattachia, who was there for each step of the way, saw. “People either wanted him to be winning or they wanted a controversy with his lifestyle. That got to him, being judged all the time. He was a pretty insecure guy. He always looked up to Kelly and he’d seriously ask me, Borg, his brother, ‘Fuck am I a kook?’”
And the wheel kept spinning. With every unpredictable and throaty top turn, with every towering barrel with every big night out with every victory and with every loss with every bit of bit of introspection and every lash out and every hug Andy Irons kept spinning. Kai Garcia knew the feeling. “Those are the pros and cons of being famous and we both came from a small little island. It was gnarly.”
Andy Irons, raw, sensitive, big-hearted, sucking the marrow out of life and maybe also medicating the constant pressure, the constant attention. Burying his ghosts.
And then Kelly Slater crashed the gate, winning then winning then winning and the pressure and the lifestyle and all of it. Too much. Just too much. So Andy Irons went off the rails then went off to rehab.
He didn’t share much about those days with the public or even his closest friends. He didn’t share much with Freddy Pattachia. “He hid a lot from me with the drug use. I didn’t ever know exactly what he was doing because he took a big brother roll with me. Sometimes I’d show up somewhere and it was clear he wasn’t acting normal but he’d never show it to me. He didn’t want me to be a part of it…And so when he went to rehab I’d never bring it up. I didn’t want to be the friend who was all about his problems in life. I was more like, if you want to surf, let’s surf. Or if you want to go out to dinner with our wives lets do that. I didn’t want him to have to talk about it though. I didn’t want to be that guy…”
Freddy wanted him to be free. So many wanted him to be free but then there would be the people always looking to party and Andy Irons was only ever raw and he was sensitive and he was raw. He was a force of nature.
So last year he showed up to Puerto Rico and didn’t surf. Depending on who is speaking he was either genuinely sick or heavily drugged. And he left the island early, heading home, but stopping in Miami for one last giant night out.
And then stopping at Dallas/Fort Worth.
And he was too genuinely sick or drugged to continue home so he checked into room 324 at the airport’s Grand Hyatt and he dragged his backpack up the elevator and he opened his door.
And he closed his door.
And he got into bed.
And he closed his eyes.
And he broke our heart.
His last moments, life even, have been picked over by tabloids and men’s magazines and with the release of the toxicity report have been picked over even more. But none of it matters. It doesn’t matter if his blood is soiled only with disease or if it is soiled with heroin and OxyContin and cocaine and prescription sleep aids and any wild sort of poison. Because Andy Irons is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug consumption. He is not the sum of his parts.
He is a legendary tale.
He crashed this earth and lived completely. He loved his wife. He bore a child. He partied, yes, he surfed powerfully and beautifully, yes. He lived more in his lifetime then most ever do or will. Yes.
And those who argue that none of vices should ever be made public, that his existence should be whitewashed and all we should look at is his only at his surfing rob his life of its complexity and its power and its beauty. Of his rawness. Andy lived like he surfed, remember, and his living and partying wildly and going mad are as much a part of his legend as those three titles.
And those who argue that he was a degenerate, that he should not be glorified because of his tainted record, should go to hell and on the way there should look in a mirror.
Andy broke our heart.
And he made it pound.
And that pounding will reverberate throughout eternity.