The signs started going up November 3rd, the day after Kauai-born, world-champion surfer Andy Irons was reported dead. Just 32, Andy had recently won the Billabong Pro Tahiti, and was awaiting the birth of his first child—a son, already named Axel.
The news reverberated throughout the island of Kauai in shock waves—from the local coffee shop, gas station and post office to text messages, emails and phone calls. And, of course, at the beach—Pinetrees, in particular, where a group of surfers gathered, slack-jawed and shuffling their feet.
The same words repeated over and over. “How?” “Why?”
I scoured the Internet for the latest news reports. I tuned in to the nightly news broadcasts. I read every word of every article in the local newspapers.
Beyond Hawaii, the worldwide surf community weighed in with its surprise on the internet and with a paddle out at the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico, from which Andy had withdrawn due to illness.
The first sign I saw was draped across the backyard fence of another well-known Kauai surfer—Titus Kinimaka. “Aloha ‘oe Andy Irons. U will be missed,” it read.
More signs went up around the island—hand-painted on plywood, spray-painted on white sheets and professionally printed for window displays at local surf shops—as the day of Andy’s celebration of life neared and as the first official swell of the surf season barreled its way across the open ocean for the tiny dots of land that make up the archipelago of Hawaii—just in time for the Triple Crown of Surfing to kick off at Haleiwa on Oahu and right on cue, as if orchestrated by powers greater than ourselves, for Andy’s day in Hanalei on Kauai’s North Shore this past Sunday.
There is no question that Kauai is beautiful, and she threw her shoulders back and lifted her head in her full glory on Sunday, a rose of a day amidst a string of thorny ones so typical of November. It’s easy to resort to purple prose and clichés when writing about Sunday. And I won’t hesitate. Namolokama, the mountains behind Hanalei, popped off a canvas of clear skies like a picture-perfect architectural model for a five-star hotel, and the waves—Andy’s swell, some called it—rolled in unmarred by wind and begging for a photographer’s camera to memorialize them.
As beautiful as the island is, I would not call Kauai the Switzerland of the Pacific. During the time I have lived here, I have watched the state go blue, red, blue. I have watched people form human blockades against residential development, the SuperFerry and commercial boat operations in Hanalei while others don T-shirts that say “Buck the Firds” in protest of a decision to help save the endangered Newell’s shearwater by re-scheduling high school football from Friday Night Lights to Saturday Afternoon Sun. On the water, there are those surfers who have taken up the paddle and reinvigorated the sport of stand-up paddling, and others, who decry, “No way, keep your big ‘ol boards off my wave, brah.”
For me, Kauai is a place to get off the fence, to find your place—and voice—in life. But when tragedy strikes, Kauai comes together like no other community I know.
This past Sunday, thousands gathered at Pinetrees, Andy’s home surf break in Hanalei Bay.
Traffic was expected to be heavy. Nearby residents reportedly mowed their lawns and spiffed up the neighborhood the day before. Tamba Surf offered a van to shuttle people from their cars parked at the soccer fields a few blocks away to the beach. Police patrolled Hanalei on bike, foot and ATV.
My husband and I arrived two hours early, at 9:00 a.m. At the one-lane Hanalei Bridge, we were met by the sight of police directing cars and a blue sash draped across the entrance of the bridge. On the historic bridge’s side, a banner declared, “In Loving Memory of Andy Irons. 1978 - 2010.” Blue ribbons wrapped the telephone poles lining the road into Hanalei and more signs popped up all along the roadside.
On the beach, young and old gathered. Men, women and groms hugged—some were crying; others smiling through a haze of tears. Long boarders, short boarders, and stand up paddlers headed for the water, creating a carpet of fiberglass. Paddlers in one-, two- and six-person canoes stroked for the center of the bay. On the beach, Hawaiians, transplants, kamaaina and visitors strolled, set up tents and took it all in.
And there was much to take in, apart from the throngs of people—one newspaper article estimated 6,500 people in attendance. Many wore t-shirts created in the past 12 days and dedicated to Andy. Under a big white tent, a 30-foot photo wall displayed images of Andy surfing and playing with family and friends. On a grassy patch where Andy once checked the surf, a bamboo structured had been erected in the letters A.I. Later, local musicians played, truckloads of refreshments were brought in, and close friends and surfers from around the world shared their sentiments.
After a blessing on the beach, the family joined the upwards of a thousand people on the water. A helicopter swooped overhead and released a river of flowers that went on forever. Others tossed flowers and ti leaf lei into the water. After a Hawaiian chant, Andy’s younger brother, Bruce, and Andy's very pregnant wife, Lyndie, released Andy’s ashes into sea in the place where "Kauai's boy" always came home to surf. His home-break. His home.
*Andy Irons died in a Dallas-area hotel room en route home to Kauai after withdrawing from the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico, citing illness. His family said he was suffering from dengue fever. Police have ruled out foul play; however, the cause of death awaits results of an autopsy and toxicology reports.