Andy Irons: Flamboyant and mercurial surfer who won three world titles and was regarded as the best of his generation

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The Independent Online

Andy Irons attained the pinnacle of peer recognition within surfing: a picture of him adorned a T-shirt, emblazoned with the text, "ANDY WINS HOSSEGOR". Hossegor, France, is just one of the stations on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) global circuit, at all of which Andy Irons won famous victories over a career spanning more than a decade. He amassed a grand total of three world championships, and, uniquely, four Vans Triple Crowns, and was probably the most accomplished all-round surfer of the modern era. Or, as Surfer magazine put it in 2003, "he has the miraculous combination of big-wave craziness and small-wave ripping down better than any surfer in the world right now."

Philip Andrew Irons was born in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai. His father, Phil, a carpenter who preferred to do his carving with a surfboard rather than a chisel, had moved there from California, and lived in a beachside tent, surviving on a diet of bananas and avocadoes. Andy began surfing at the age of eight and claimed to have been "beaten by a girl" in his first contest. In 1996, while still at high school in Hanalei, he won the junior division of the US championships and his first pro event at big Pipeline. "Banzai Pipeline", on the North Shore of Oahu, so named for its vertical, highly cylindrical waves, remains the standard by which all serious would-be world conquering surfers are judged. He turned pro in 1998 and by 2002 he was world champion. But waves, with their precarious, tumbling peaks and shadowy troughs, provided an allegory of his volatile career.

His competitive edge was honed in his early years, surfing against – and fighting with – his younger brother Bruce (who would also go on to win the Pipeline Masters). Matt Warshaw, in The Encyclopedia of Surfing, recalls that "Bruce once tried to blow up Andy with fireworks; Andy once knocked Bruce unconscious with a karate kick to the head". Andy Irons carried over some of the same aggression onto the circuit, where "ripping" and "shredding" on your "thruster" count as chivalric virtues. He was a model of hardcore indiscipline and was once fined $1,500 for brawling on the beach with Mick Campbell of Australia after a seriously heated heat in France. In his early years, his results fluctuated wildly and he tended to draw headlines as much for his partying and his attitude as his surfing. Like some moody rock guitarist, he once smashed his own board to smithereens in a fit of beach rage.

I first met him when he was already world champion. When he surfed against Kelly Slater at Pipeline, it was like watching McEnroe play Borg at Wimbledon. He probably was a brash, arrogant, angry young man, as depicted in Jack McCoy's unflattering film Blue Horizon (2004). He actually was a monster of machismo and he really did want to "win everything" and "an insane amount of money", but none of it seemed to matter. At 6ft 0in and 170lb, with long blonde hair, taller and more powerfully built than most tour pros, he was a movie star among the masses. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He spent more time in the tube than anyone else. He was a wild animal prowling his natural habitat (and belonged to a gang called the "Wolf Pack"). He reminded me of something Wittgenstein once said: even if a lion could speak English, you still wouldn't understand him.

He steered refreshingly clear of the metaphysical side of surfing. In answer to the question as to why he surfed, he tended to emphasise money, chicks, and cars. He was certainly one of the biggest earners. Apart from his contest winnings of $1.5 million, he had a contract with Billabong, rumoured to be worth $650,000 a year.

Irons retained his world title in 2003 and 2004. But he always came back to Hawaii and attached special importance to the Triple Crown – the triad of supreme contests on the North Shore of Oahu that provides a fitting climax to the tour in December – which he won a record number of 4 times. Just as he had planned, Irons won everything it was possible to win.

And yet he was anything but satisfied. He could best Kelly Slater, but he would never be the kind of suave, consummate professional his arch-rival was (and still is). He had a habit of burning out or dropping out (taking a "sabbatical"). There was a classic malcontent, rebel-without-a-cause side to him and he admitted to "inner demons" and a self-destructive streak.

The last time I saw him surf was in 30ft waves last December at the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau big-wave invitational at Waimea Bay. Most people felt he had mellowed. He had married and struck a more philosophical note in interviews. "I surf because I'm a better person when I come in," he said, and recalled the first wave he ever caught as "the purest moment of my life". A wildcard entry (having lost his tour ranking), he won the Billabong pro at Teahupoo in Tahiti in September. "I'm back," he said.

At the end of October, Irons pulled out of a contest in Puerto Rico through illness, and was treated at a hospital in Miami for dengue fever, a condition he had already beaten once before. He insisted on returning home to Hawaii, but he never made it back. He missed a connecting flight in Dallas and was found dead in his hotel room. He is survived by his wife, Lyndie, who is expecting their first child in December.

Philip Andrew Irons, surfer: born Hawaii 24 July 1978; married; died Dallas, Texas 2 November 2010.