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Andy Irons Joins Hawaii’s Pantheon of Surfing Legends

Andy Irons Joins Hawaii’s Pantheon of Surfing Legends

(originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Written by Jeanne Cooper

The recent death of champion surfer Andy Irons, just 32, has tragically placed him in a pantheon of late, legend-making wave riders from Hawai’i. Some were Native Hawaiian, others found their physical and spiritual home in the islands; a number had significant accomplishments outside of the ancient sport of he’e nalu. Some of their names live on in contests and awards, as well as in the hearts of those who knew them or simply watched them surf, while their stories continue to unfold on the page and on screen.

As co-founder of the Iron Brothers Pine Trees Classic kids’ surfing competition, in his hometown of Hanalei, Kaua’i, Irons already has his commemorative event, while many of the daring moves that won him four Triple Crown of Surfing titles and three world championships were captured on film and video. Whatever the final cause of his sudden death in a Dallas hotel room is determined to be, he has earned his place in surfing lore alongside these five giants of the waves:

Duke Kahanamoku, 1890-1968

The mystique: The godfather of all modern surfers, the tall, talented yet humble Hawaiian initially came to fame as an Olympic swimmer, winning three gold and two silver medals from 1912 to 1924. In between, he demonstrated surfing on his enormous longboard to enthusiastic crowds in California and Australia, and started making appearances in Hollywood films. The iconic Waikiki “beach boy” also became the surf buddy (and possibly more) of heiress Doris Duke, whose oceanfront Shangri-La estate is now an Oahu museum.

Off the board: An unofficial ambassador of aloha for many years, Duke (as he is widely known) officially served as sheriff of Honolulu from 1934 to 1960 with intermittent cameos on the silver screen. He lent his name to a Waikiki nightclub, restaurant (now a chain) and aloha shirt company, while his image graced a first-class U.S postage stamp in 2004.

On the page: “Duke: A Great Hawaiian” by Sandra Kimberley Hall (Bess Press, 2004) is a compact but compelling look at the extraordinary man who continues to fascinate generations of visitors and locals. Young readers might like Ellie Crowe’s picture book “Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku” (Lee & Low, 2007), which includes the oft-told tale of his mile-long ride on a Waikiki wave in 1917.

On screen: Duke’s Hollywood roles may not be worth seeking out, but in 1967, near the end of his life, Duke appeared in the Greg MacGillivary-Jim Freeman surf documentary “Free and Easy,” along with protege Eddie Aikau (see below.)

Living legacies: The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships, which tested surfers’ prowess at Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay from 1965 to 1984, has been replaced by the Billabong Pipeline Masters contest. But in the area of Waikiki in which Duke grew up, near Hilton Hawaiian Village, everyone can enjoy swimming in the recently restored Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon. Meanwhile, the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation provides grants and scholarships to Hawai’i student athletes and sponsors surfing, swimming, paddleboard and surf polo competitions in Waikiki as part of the annual Duke’s OceanFest. The foundation also launched the Waterman Awards this year, inducting Duke, Aikau, Rell Sunn and six living surfing titans into the Hawai’i Waterman Hall of Fame.

Eddie Aikau, 1946-1978

The mystique: First uttered by another surfer on this list, “Eddie would go” is a tribute to the fearlessness of this heroic lifeguard and wave rider, a descendant of the Native Hawaiians who traditionally guarded Waimea Valley. Born on Maui, he moved to O’ahu in 1959, and became the first official lifeguard of Waimea Bay as well as the first icon of North Shore big wave surfing. After winning the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in 1977, he joined the crew of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule’a, which would use ancient celestial navigation techniques to sail nearly 2,500 miles from Hawai’i to Tahiti. Shortly after the journey began on March 16, 1978, the double-hull canoe capsized in the stormy seas of the Moloka’i Channel, threatening the lives of all aboard. Aikau attempted to paddle through miles of open water for help, but was never seen again, while a plane spotted the remaining crew, who survived.

Off the board: Although his prowess on big waves, dating back to Sunset Beach 1967, and his tragic death hold the prime spot in the lineup of surfers’ memories, Aikau’s tenure as a North Shore lifeguard is also the stuff of legend. Aikau is renowned for no lives being lost on his watch, and for his peacemaking abilities between local surfers and Australians and other outsiders who were drawn to the breaks he helped make famous.

On the page: Stuart Holmes Coleman’s “Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero” (MindRaisingPress, 2002; St. Martin’s Press, 2004) is a gripping biography that sets the shy surfer’s rise from poverty to fame against the parallel rise in Native Hawaiian consciousness in the diverse world of modern Hawai’i. For kids, “Eddie Wen’ Go” (Watermark, 2008) by Marion Lyman-Mersereau — a Hokule’a crew member on that ill-fated voyage &mash; tells the story of his last hours from the eyes of sea creatures witnessing his heroic effort, with beautiful illustrations by Melissa DeSica.

On screen: Aikau’s story seems destined for cinematic interpretation, but for now fans have to be content with another MacGillivray-Freeman surf documentary beside 1967′s “Free and Easy”: 1972′s “Five Summer Stories,” which also featured Sam Hawk and Gerry Lopez.

Living legacies: Now sponsored by Quiksilver, the first Eddie Aikau Memorial invitational surf contest was held at Sunset Beach in 1984-85 — spanning the winter big-wave season. Dependent on waves of 20-foot plus, it’s only been run eight times since then (including last season); winners include his brother Clyde Aikau (1987) and Irons’ brother Bruce (2004). The family-run Eddie Aikau Foundation, which is developing a bilingual Hawaiian-English children’s book about Aikau, provides scholarships with an annual essay contest in Hawai’i for young students and has supported families of international surfers who’ve died in Hawaiian waters, among other programs to perpetuate his spirit of aloha.

Woody Brown, 1912-2008

The mystique: Brown was not Hawaiian and not originally from Hawai’i. But in 1940, shortly after this wealthy New Yorker and former protege of Charles Lindbergh lost his first wife in childbirth, he fled to Hawai’i and found a home, family and passion in surfing. With the help of locals such as Rabbit Kekai, he surfed 25-foot waves at Makaha and Castles, and continued to ride breakers &mash; on surfboards and catamarans — into his 90s.

Off the board: Brown is credited with building the first modern catamaran, adapting it from a Polynesian double-hulled canoe he saw on Christmas Island during work for the Army in World War II. But rather than capitalize on his creation, he allowed Hobie Alter to patent the design for “Hobie Cats,” preferring to focus on adventures such as the first crossing of the Pacific in a modern catamaran or setting a Hawaiian altitude record in a glider (12, 675 feet.)

On the page: Malcolm Gault-Williams’ “Legendary Surfers” chapter on Brown originally appeared in the Surfers Journal in 1996, but is now available online. Brown’s “The Gospel of Love” is out of print.

On screen: Much of this information comes from “Of Wind and Waves,” the award-winning hour-long documentary from 2006, which also chronicles Brown’s spiritual side, volunteerism and eventual reconciliation with the family he left behind on the Mainland.

Living legacies: While no surf contests bear his name, a “Woody Brown Festival” was held in his memory in 2008 in Pacifica, with a traditional paddle out at Linda Mar Beach, hula, Hawaiian music and a screening “Of Wind and Waves.”

Mark Foo, 1958-1994

The mystique: Born in Singapore, Foo moved to Hawai’i at age 10, where he took up surfing. Unhappily transplanted to the East Coast in his teens, his parents allowed him to move to Pensacola, Fla., so he could continue to surf before he returned to Hawai’i for good. Although he surfed on the IPS World Tour for a time, he left to concentrate on the big swells of the North Shore, with a flair for self-promotion. His accidental death in Northern California in 1994 — drowning after a wipeout on a not especially challenging wave at Maverick’s — stunned the surfing world as much as Irons’ passing.

Off the board: The photogenic, smooth-talking Foo brought fame to his sport through his surfing shows on radio and cable TV, and he also served as announcer at surf contests.

On the page: Andy Martin’s “Stealing the Wave: The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo” (Bloomsbury, 2007) chronicles the 10-year rivalry between Foo, somewhat of a hot-shot upstart, and Bradshaw, a Texan who considered Waimea Bay his fiefdom, and who was also at Maverick’s when the tragedy occurred.

On screen: In addition to surf flicks such as “Fantasea,” “Follow the Sun” and “Totally Committed,” Foo appeared in 1987′s “North Shore,” a feature film about the world of “soul surfers” and fame seekers, in which he and other pros such as Derek Ho and Laird Hamilton make special appearances.

Living legacies: It may not carry his name, but the annual Mavericks Surf Contest, which will now be run by local surfers, is indelibly marked with his memory.

Rell Sunn, 1950-1998

The mystique: The “Queen of Makaha” grew up surfing on the West Side of O’ahu, the daughter of Chinese and Hawaiian-Irish parents. Sunn joined the first women’s pro surfing tour in 1975 and two years later becoming the state’s first woman lifeguard; at 32, she topped the international pro ratings, but a year later was diagnosed with breast cancer. Told she only had a short time to live, Sunn saw her cancer go into remission several times over the next 15 years. Despite grueling treatments, Sunn continued to surf and free-dive and founded a West Side surf contest for children, capturing the hearts of many.

Off the board: Sunn was also known and respected on O’ahu as a hula dancer, surf reporter, physical therapist and health educator and advocate, particularly addressing the needs of Native Hawaiians on the impoverished Wai’anae Coast.

On the page: Sunn’s contributions to Hawai’i and surfing are paired with those of fellow Makahan Buffalo Keaulana in “Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), by the author of “Eddie Would Go.” The just-published “Stories of Rell Sunn: The Queen of Makaha” (Bess Press), compiled by Greg Ambrose, features a treasure trove of photos and personal recollections from family, friends and fellow surf legends.

On screen: The poignant 2002 documentary “Heart of the Sea” by Lisa Denker and Charlotte Lagarde takes its title from Sunn’s Hawaiian middle name, Kapolioka’ehukai, and includes moving footage from her final taped interview in 1997. Sunn also makes appearances in two other documentaries, 1996′s “Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing” and 1994′s “The Endless Summer 2.”

Living legacies: The 35th annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surfing Championships, for ages up to 12 years old, runs Nov. 26-28 at Makaha Beach. On the final night of the event, the second annual Rell Sunn Aloha Jam on the North Shore will benefit the Rell Sunn Educational Fund, which supports environmental and sportsmanship education and efforts against breast cancer and juvenile delinquency.

Jeanne Cooper is the former Chronicle Travel Editor and author of SFGate’s Hawaii Insider (, a daily blog about Hawaii travel and island culture.

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