Sunday in Huntington Beach could not have been more pristine, as local surfing royalty, friends and fans of the late Andy Irons gathered on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier to pay tribute to the legendary surfing icon. Still reeling from shock after Irons' untimely death at age 32 on Nov. 2, this surfing community gathered first on the sand for a beautifully executed memorial and then a somber procession into the surf for a traditional paddle-out to honor their fallen brother. On this beautiful autumn afternoon, the surfers slowly began to form the large circle that connects them together, holding hands and chanting, "Andy, Andy, Andy!"
The sight from the pier was nothing less than spectacular. On the pier, an estimated crowd of 3,000 onlookers watched in awe as these surfers splashed water toward the heavens, banged on their boards (also part of this timeless Hawaiian tradition) and threw into the center of the massive circle flowers for their hero that they clenched in their teeth as they made their way into the water. Due to the huge number of grieving souls, they were not able to each give a personal account of their memory of Andy Irons. Estimated to be a thousand in number, it was to be the largest paddle-out in Huntington Beach ever.
Ask anyone who was there, and they will tell you that the air was still, the ocean eerily calm and the love for AI palpable. As sad as the occasion was, there seemed to be reassurance with all those in attendance that Andy was in a better place. A place of peace, perhaps surfing perfect waves in warm, crystal clear blue waters. The ocean of eternity.
To say he will be missed by all who admired and loved him, and whose lives he touched, would be a gross understatement. While this beautiful spectacle transpired in Huntington Beach, similar paddle-outs were simultaneously being conducted around the world — Spain, Brazil, New Zealand and his home state of Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, just to name a few. This was the first time anything of this magnitude had been attempted, and by all accounts, it went off without a hitch.
See, Andy was a local boy, along with younger brother Bruce. They both grew up surfing together, first on the beaches of their beloved island home. As their talent for the sport became apparent, they would go on to become champions and ultimately part of a surfing dynasty which included such names as Mick Fanning, Tom Curren and the current No. 1-ranked, 10-time world title winner, Kelly Slater. In fact, the fierce rivalry between Kelly and Andy became so intense, it has been compared to that of boxing legends Ali vs. Frazier.
Sadly, it was during the Ripcurl Pro Search 2010 in Puerto Rico earlier this month, where Irons and Slater were both competing, that Irons became gravely ill from dengue fever and had to suddenly pull out of the contest.
While on his way back to Kauai, Irons checked himself into a hotel near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because he was unable to board the flight home. It was there he passed away, quietly. The hotel employee who found him early the next day described him as sleeping peacefully.
But he had left his earthly existence. Then the news came, and hearts of surfers everywhere started to break. Perhaps the saddest part of this bittersweet story is that Andy Irons' beautiful wife, Lyndie, is expected to deliver their son, Axel, next month. He was looking forward to his new role as a father.
As the beautiful, picture-perfect day to honor a friend, son, husband and legend came to a close, many left with a smile on their face and, hopefully, peace in their hearts. The words from officiating Pastor Sumo Sato still offered comfort: "Andy was a gift to us and he knew this. He is in a better place. He knew his creator."
And possibly the most poignant thing of all to remember, as we walked away from the sparkling, blue ocean, the place Andy was so at home … it is the water that connects us, to each other, around the world, on this day to Andy Irons. You will live in our hearts forever. Rest in peace. Aloha, brother.
ANDREA HANST is a Huntington Beach resident.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun