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Andy Irons

The Dark Lord of Surfing

by 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.

Andy Irons

“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.

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  1. chancy cooke says:

    great article bru, RIP Andy “the dark lord” Irons

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  2. Macdoodle says:

    Articles are getting better and better all the time. Nice work, Andy.

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  3. Will says:

    Powerful stuff.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Live to the last moment like it s a fucking movie

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  5. ray says:

    Nice one Andy. Every now and then i realise how much of a celeb-fest-soap-opera pro surfing is… most of these guys mean far less to me than my favorite musicians or artists yet we are meant to be connected by this ‘brotherhood of surfing’. It all seams so character driven, stereotyped… scripted even… i’ve stopped thinking of any of these top44 as real people. Andy Irons was the guy one used to “love to hate”, I’d love seeing him lose, to Slater, or even better to Sean Holmes. He was the John McEnroe of surfing, cursing up the beach and snapping boards on his knee such a great antithesis to the irritating Rob Machado heyshoowow. The show is weaker without him. And this is a very real, human, sad story I fear is going to get sordid with detail soon. RIP Andy. Here’s my first non-cynical “Aloha” for a while.

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  6. Craig K says:

    Good article, Rest In Peace Andy, we have lost a surf hero and a legend.

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  7. aloha AI says:

    Andy you have captured exactly how I felt and now feel about AI. I used to hate him, or at least the media’s portrayal of him, but over the last few years I started to respect him for his honesty and sheer surfing talent. Now that he’s gone, I feel a mix of emotions. Sadness for his unborn child who will never know the surfing legend that his old man was, sympathy for his family, and a little wonderment at what he was going to do back on the tour. RIP AI.

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  8. Joe says:

    I always loved Andy! He was everything the surf industry was trying so desperately to change. Turning it into sunsets and clean cut athletes all striving to be perfect or something. If only more people have the balls to be honest. When people are ill they take medicine, lets not get carried away. AI you are the man! RIP

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  9. PeteSkete says:

    Nice job Andy! You have just swung another vote for AI, albeit sadly too late. RIP

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  10. Ross says:

    Really good story Andy. Thanks for this.

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  11. Reino says:

    Great words, and I dug him for his fuck you approach! But here’s a question, if Schumacher didn’t turn up at the grid, or if Woods missed his tee off and Roony wasn’t at practice, the governing bodies for their sports would have taken care of them, given them the medical assistance they needed. Why didn’t the ASP do the same for a surfing legend???
    RIP and give them hell up there!

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  12. old fart says:

    good article, andy. what a tragic loss of a brilliant athlete.what a pity the ASP does not support its athletes medical needs. if they employed a full time doctor maybe andy’s health issues could have been dealt with and the proper treatment prescribed.

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  13. Zaz Thunder says:

    Tragic! This captures the Blue Horizon Legend and Jbay Voodoo, Slaters tears and all that is AI.
    Shot bru.

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  14. Olivia says:

    One of the best pieces of writing i’v come across in a while… Great job Andy D – The Legend will be sorely missed.. R.I.P
    And God Bless his wife & baba…

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  15. surf says:

    R.I.P. A.I.

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  16. Luke says:

    Very good stuff.

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  17. slipper says:


    the loss of a loved one is a tragic experience, so my condolences go his family and friends. they must be besides themselves with their grief and the surprise of it all.

    my friend, who is a hindu, has a different take on death – it is merely another stage in the cycle of life, and definitely not a tragedy. in certain situations, it can be seen as a blessing – his example or explanation to me a few months ago i guess referred to the ‘wild ones’. the relevance being that although andy was an exceedingly talented and inspirational surfer who went beyond previous boundaries of performance he also came to represent the darker side of professional surfing where he likewise came close to or went beyond the previous boundaries of excess, indulgence and debauchery of a lot of his peers (yes by and large they do), and given the influence he had and how so many people looked up to him and aspired to be like him, was not exactly the best role model (i know he did not choose to be a role model). considering this, my friends argument makes sense to me.

    the bigger picture here however, is the environment andy aspired to, became part of, and ended up coming from in the end (which we buy into as well and condone tacitly or implicitly through our own behaviour). the surf industry is a lie, whereby through a sleigh of hand, it sells soul for profit, corrupting the very best, using them as their front men. indulgences and debauchery are at best overlooked, often encouraged, regularly financed and even procurement is not out of the question. as an aside, i think very few people are cut out for the fame, attention and adulation contemporary surfing bestows on it’s heroes and i think the pressure must become almost unbearable, working its way out in all sorts of weird ways.

    there were many of us at jbay in 2004 that were gobsmacked upon hearing the wave scores and eventual result of the sean holmes / andy irons heat. the truth was in plain view. what was not is the following….

    an overview – hidden behind the facade of fairness (whereby ‘result’ autonomy is spread across a number of judges guaranteeing ‘independence’) is a statistical analysis called ‘deviation from the mean’, whereby any judge who deviate from the average in any kind of a significant way, is kicked off the judging panel. in this way results are ‘engineered’, and in a twisted coupe by the industry or powers that be, the corrupt system is patrolled by those chosen to be ‘impartial’ or ‘fair’, through their own self censorship.

    in particular – while the above kind of result orchestration is successful, it still does not guarantee outcomes. when guaranteed outcomes are required as in the sean holmes / andy irons 2004 jbay heat (for the sake of protecting an investment), another approach was used. a powerful and influential person (dark knight / turncoat) representing the sponsor, pulled the judges aside and had an obviously very persuasive word with them.

    how do i know this? i was there. i did not overhear the conversation, but i know it went down. furthermore, if you had asked sean holmes in april 2004 what he thought his chances were for that year’s event, he would have told you the outcome as it happened. why / how? well, we could say his boss had been informed of the situation. yes, this outcome had already been signalled many months before, coming from the very top, from one of the original ‘dark knights’.

    so, where am i going with this – the sad passing of a talent at its prime, a wasted life, a soon to be child without a father? is it that he was a mere mortal and stood no chance against a system that will very possibly profit off his death? well no, i think it has to be that life is precious, and fragile, and needs to be cherished, loved, respected and if andy’s passing is to not be in vain, and a blessing in any way, it is in the hope that some of the lies of his and ‘our’ world are exposed to the light of day, questioned, and rejected and thereby hopefully preventing or slowing down further future casualties of ‘coolness’.

    andy did not end up in a dallas hotel room on his own, knowingly or not, we cheered him on every step of the way.


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  18. Andy says:

    good work Slipper!

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  19. Ed Jay says:

    May the waves be perfect wherever you are ………..R.I.P. Andy Irons and may your family find solace !

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  20. Gripefruit says:

    Great article.

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  21. Jevon says:

    Hard to read with tears in my eyes……………. Can’t even express in words my emotions or thoughts. This all doesn’t sound or feel real.

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  22. douche says:

    yeah, the first surfing world champ to pass. sad. Methadone, for those who don’t know…is a heroin substitute (prescribed to help the clean up). It’s not for treating dengue. I also loved to hate AI. I was not impressed when he punched the water cameraman (in the water) at this years Jbay billabong – good surfer though

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