Just Before Departure

Four waves, a signature session, and Andy Irons’ last day on Kauai.

Light / Dark

The story of Andy Irons’ final days has been told many times. It’s heartbreaking. It always will be. He was a dear friend of mine. At the time of his passing, we’d traveled the world together for five years. I was there for some of the highest of highs and some of the lowest of lows. That’s how it was with Andy: When things went dark, it went dark for everyone near to him, but when things were good, everyone had the time of their lives.

There’s another piece to the story, a beautiful part of his final chapter. It took place on the island of Kauai, Andy’s beloved home. It was the final time he surfed there and, likely, the final time he ever surfed. 

It was October of 2010 and I was already on the North Shore for the winter. I’ve always loved being there early to experience the beauty of the place before the Pacific roars to life and the chaos of the Triple Crown sets in. 

After I’d been in Hawaii for about a week, I got a call from Enich Harris at Billabong. Andy’s newest boardshort had come out, and the company wanted me to head over to Kauai (with Sterling Spencer in tow) to shoot photographs of Andy surfing in them. It was a fairly standard assignment and a regular occurrence. Since neither Andy nor I were very good at planning, Enich would set everything up through Andy’s wife, Lyndie, who was always welcoming if I needed to stay with them when I was on Kauai. 

We spent the first two days of the trip driving around looking for waves, but didn’t find anything. Whenever that happened in Kauai, Andy would resume his day-to-day life at home and I’d just be along for the ride. He kept his home life very simple: cereal for breakfast, lunch at the Kilauea Fish Market, dinner at the house, surf movies in between, and occasional drop-ins from his brother, Bruce, his parents, Danielle and Phil, or any of his many friends. 

We woke up early on the final morning and went searching for anything rideable, checking all the usual spots. Unfortunately, there still just wasn’t anything worth shooting. We went to lunch, then returned to the house so Andy could begin packing for Puerto Rico. He was set to fly out that night. 

Late that afternoon, Andy got a call from Reef McIntosh, who said that one of Andy’s favorite waves was looking pretty good. Whenever I was on Kauai, we’d always try to shoot at the spots that weren’t sacred. Andy and Bruce could do pretty much as they pleased on the island, but they always chose to respect its rules. (That attitude, even from its best surfers, is what keeps Kauai the way it is.) That particular spot was sacred, but we figured I could shoot from land and no one would be able to tell where the wave was.

We went down to the beach and, sure enough, Reef was right.
The waves were good and there were only a few people out. I was excited since it was the first time I’d get to see Andy surf that spot. I distinctly remember a lazy feeling on the beach that evening—very Hawaiian. The wind had gone still, the sun was starting to get low, and the light was perfect. 

Andy and Sterling paddled out. Sterling barely surfed. In fact, I think he mostly rode waves as a means to get back onto the shoulder so he could watch Andy do his thing. I set up my camera in the sand. For a time, I was alone standing on that little beach. Eventually, Reef came down and sat in the sand with me. Even though the waves were good, he chose to sit and watch Andy surf.

Andy didn’t disappoint. What made his surfing so exciting, and made it such a challenge to shoot, was that you never knew what he was going to do until he did it. I’m not sure if Andy even knew what he was going to do until he came flying off the bottom. 

He caught four waves that afternoon and went absolutely nuts. It’s been more than a decade, but I can still remember what I saw through the lens as clear as day. In sum, it defined Andy’s surfing.

On his first wave, he dropped around the tube section, came around the corner, and did one of the biggest backside turns I’ve ever seen. He carried so much speed into the lip that the explosion of spray looked like someone fanned a fire hose straight into the sky.

On his next wave, he took off at what looked, from my perspective, like too far up the reef, but he pulled up high as the wave peeled exactly the way he foresaw it would, which allowed him to cruise through a perfect little backside tube, then come out effortlessly after the wave spit. 

For his third wave, he took a similar approach to his first—all speed—but stayed high on the lip line before pivoting and arcing an almost upside-down cutback, then slamming full force into the crumbling barrel behind him, all in one flawless motion. 

On his final wave, he cranked a turn across the fast section, holding it up at the top for as long as he could. For the life of me, I can’t remember if he fell or not. Going through the photos, I cut off the sequence on a frame where he hasn’t fully ridden away, which tells me he probably fell. It doesn’t really matter. 

Getting out of the water at that spot can be a bit tricky. Most people paddle down the beach to come in through the keyhole in the reef. Andy walked straight across it. His knowledge and understanding
of the reef was second nature. There was an air of peace about him. He looked deeply happy. It had been a truly good session—and I think a good session at a place he grew up surfing filled him with something pure.

We took our time leaving. As beautiful as it was when we arrived, the fluorescent colors of the sunset were slowly fading to deeper and darker hues of blue as the dusk slowly gave way to night. Hanging around Andy’s truck, we watched one last set come in and peel across that little reef without a soul in the water. It could have been 100 years ago, or it could have been the first time Andy ever surfed there. But it was October 20, 2010, and the last set Andy ever watched peel across his home break was empty and perfect.