The Dark Lord of Surfingby Andy Davis, images by Craig Kolesky / 04.11.2010
Goodbye to the Dark Lord of Surfing. The thought of a 32 year world champion surfer dying of dengue fever in a Dallas hotel room is depressing and unnatural. Especially when the image burnt on the mind’s eye is of the guy standing impossibly deep in a huge Pipe cylinder, seizing life, defying death. He was a competitive machine, proving that he could win surf events in any conditions but when it got really big and really hollow, normally breaking over barely concealed coral reef, was when he truly came into his own. He had a special talent for long, deep tube rides. His trumps were power and confidence. It never seemed like he was reacting to the waves, he rode them intuitively. And the ocean loved him.
The rest of us weren’t so sure. To many he came to epitomize everything that was wrong with modern surfing. He was aggressively competitive, to the point that he lost perspective, manners, tact and charm. At times he was unlikeable. But he was always honest about his ambition. He never hid his disappointment in defeat or his euphoria in victory. He was uncouth and complicated. He did not surf to make friends. He could be a bad ass, a meanie, a shit. But he was also the champ. No one would have tolerated that kind of tempestuousness if he couldn’t back it up with his surfing. And in that regard he was spectacular and worthy of the indulgences he demanded in return. His ego tax. He was a thoroughbred, a dark and brooding force of excellence in competitive surfing. I like to think of him as the Darth Vader of Kauai. He ensnared us in his circular turquoise propaganda. He sneered in the face of the golden boy Kelly Slater, took his crown, and kept it. At the peak of his powers he was unbeatable. He represented everything Kelly Slater is not. If Kelly was the White Knight, Andy was the Dark Lord. He was a moody titan of the surfing world. To shuffle off the coil in a Dallas hotel room due to a relatively common tropical mosquito borne illness (and, perhaps, some pills) just seems so… ordinary. Knowing that he’s left behind a beautiful wife and an unborn child makes it all the more tragic. Hotel rooms in Dallas are a world apart from the tropical beaches of Kauai. Fish out of water.
Truth is, for a long while, I never really liked Andy Irons. I had my own personal diss to get over. Please understand I’m not really talking about the real person here, I’m not qualified to, I only met him for a few minutes in 2004 and he blew me off. Cold. I’m talking about his media persona and an incident that made it concrete for me. It was 2004 in J-Bay. I was hacking for Surfing magazine and had an interview with the reigning world champ, Andy Irons. I was excited. I wanted rapport. I wanted camaraderie and an invitation to surf secret spots with the champ. He never took off his sunglasses. There was an uncomfortable silence. I asked him how he felt about his upcoming heat against Sean Holmes, who had knocked him out of the event the two previous years. Listening to the interview now you can almost hear him groan at the question. He sighs deeply as I ask it, pauses a long while and then rehashes the old press release, “aah dude, same contest… I’ve had bad luck over the last couple of years.” He struggled to find the enthusiasm to even say that, he sighed again, audibly, and added another platitude, “I’m looking forward to it.” His voice flat with disinterest. Right after that he stood up, looked out to sea and said, “I’m over this,” and walked away. Blown off like a bluebottle on a South Easter. Andy went on to beat Sean, win the event and the world title that year.
“I am not some bubbly fucking angel who is going to go out and try to be your best friend.” He said in a 2008 interview with Surfline. “I have my friends, and I surf because it’s what I have always loved doing.” I wish he’d told me that in 2004. It took a few long years before I started to appreciate the precision of his surfing, that unflinching candidness and that radical terminator style competitive zeal.
“I have been on tour for the past 12 years. I have won 3 titles, and come runner-up who fuckin cares how many times… You are on tour to win, and anyone who is on tour that says they don’t want to win is just saying that to make themselves feel better about losing… I want to win everything, or I don’t even want to be there.”
What he lacked in tact, he made up for in talent, with interest. And this was part of the enigma. He had his crew and fuck you. He had his impossibly beautiful wife and he surfed like neptune’s favourite son. And he knew it. Easily one of the best surfers of his generation, probably the only one who could have challenged Kelly Slater’s hegemony – and did. But then he lost his mojo, stopped giving a shit and went on a losing streak. His confidence and A-game crumbled. There were rumours of drugs and rehab. He took a break from the tour, the limelight, and fought his “inner demons”.
“If you guys see me out on tour again it’s because I am there to win, and I’m going to go 100%.” He told Surfline in that same interview. “If you don’t see me on tour, it’s because I have found happiness away from winning, and that might be the biggest achievement I could ever accomplish.”
He all but disappeared for a year and re-emerged in 2010 as a Wild Card. Calmer. It was good to see him surfing again. Competitively he was still a hitman. Focussed, methodical. He had some average results and then won the Billabong in Tahiti and reminded everyone he would always be a contender. He was sitting 16th going into the last two events of the year, all set for re-qualification and a title-run in 2011. Then he contracted dengue fever in Puerto Rico last week. He missed his heats due to the illness and was en route back to Hawaii when he started vomiting on the plane between Miami and Dallas. In Dallas he checked into a hotel and died sometime during the night. Some people blame the dengue but there are other reports surfacing that a bottle of methadone and other prescription drugs were found on the nightstand next to the bed. Dengue, drugs – or a lethal combo of both. Who gives a shit. Part of the shock is that the guy was so bullet proof. Rock solid, uncompromising and always so damn self-assured. Surely, if anyone was immune to death it was AI. Apparently not.
Andy’s old friend Derek Reilly from Stab Magazine dug up this final quote: “I’ve had my fair shares of hills and valleys, but my life’s been radical and exciting. Stuff that kings would die to do. Straight up, fucken A. The lifestyle we’ve got and the life I’ve led since I was 17, I can’t even tell my friends. I try and tell stories and they think I’m making it up or saw it in a fucking movie. Straight up. It’s the life I wanted since I caught my first wave.” – Andy Irons, October 12, 2010.
*All images © Craig Kolesky/Nikon/Lexar.