Shortly after noon on Dec. 3, in the shallows of Oahu's Sunset
Beach, Andy Irons clinched the world surfing championship. Irons
is 24, blond and muscular, and the sport's insiders had him
pegged as both a title contender and a magnetic star even before
he broke onto the World Championship Tour (WCT) in 1998. That he
would win this year's title was a foregone conclusion: Going
into Sunset Beach he had three victories and a runner-up finish
in the first 10 events of the 12stop tour--by surfing standards
an almost Tiger Woodsian performance. (By contrast last year's
champ, C.J. Hobgood, failed to win a single event.) Irons
wrapped up the championship by reaching the quarterfinals at
Sunset Beach, and after the contest he was carried to a
beachside podium by a group of his boyhood friends from the
island of Kauai. "This year has been an unreal ride," Irons said
as he clutched his world championship trophy.
In September, Irons was named Surfer magazine's most popular
surfer--breaking Kelly Slater's nine-year hold on the honor--and
if all this success is the proper measure of a surfer, then, in
the words of pro surfing promoter Randy Rarick, "it's hard to
deny that right now, Andy Irons is the top surfer in the world."
"In contests you have to say that's true," says 2000 world champ
Sunny Garcia. "Andy's tearing it up. But if you're out free
surfing--you know, without the clock, when you can go for it
more? Well, I don't know that Bruce isn't better than Andy."
Bruce is Bruce Irons, who at 23 is 16 months younger than his
brother. Bruce isn't even on the championship tour. He spent this
year slogging through the second-tier World Qualifying Series
(WQS) in a vain attempt to earn a spot on next year's WCT. (The
top 16 qualify for the tour; Bruce finished 52nd.) Yet ask a pro
surfer about Bruce's ability, and he'll shake his head in
admiration and recount stories like this: Last December, Bruce
won a trials competition to snag a wild-card entry into the pro
tour's most prestigious event, the Pipeline Masters at Oahu's
fabled Pipeline break. (This year's Pipe, the season finale, runs
Dec. 8-20.) The night before Pipe's crucial mid-round heats
Bruce raged until nearly dawn, indulging in what a friend recalls
as "an epic amount of drinking." Bruce was asleep on his bed
covers when contest officials called his name for an 8:30 a.m.
heat. His housemates roused him (he was staying in a bungalow
along the shore); he bolted up, grabbed his board and raced into
December 16, 2002
The other surfers in the lineup chided him--"Man, you smell like
hard liquor," one said--but Bruce won the heat by snagging a
clean barrel on a rapidly closing 12foot wave. Then he went to
his room and pulled the covers over his head. He was awoken again
in time for his next heat and took that one as well. "We had to
wake him for the next heat too," says surfer Chava Greenlee, "but
Bruce got up, and like that, he beat the best in the world."
Bruce Irons, wild card, was the 2001 Pipeline champion.
Today's surfing culture depends at once upon its growing
corporate influence--sponsors are more heavily committed and
competitions more hyped than ever--and upon the free-spirit ethos
that beckons legions of surfers to the nearest beach. As such
there is an Irons for everyone. "Andy has what every young
competitive surfer aspires to," says Rarick. "But Bruce's image
goes to the core of the lifestyle. He's this amazing free surfer
who lives hard, and, by the way, he'll go out and win Pipe."
This summer Surfer listed the brothers together as the 10th most
powerful "person" in the sport. On a list dominated by moguls and
board shapers, only two surfers--Slater, 30, and big-wave maestro
Laird Hamilton, 38--ranked ahead of the Ironses. "Today they both
reign as the only legitimate surf stars in America under 25,"
Surfer wrote. When either brother surfs, cameras follow.
TransWorld Surf Business magazine puts together an "exposure
meter" that measures the media coverage devoted to a surfer, in
editorial content and ads. More than 1,000 surfers get rated, and
in this year's final tally Andy finished second. Bruce, who
scores especially high on the ad side, topped the list for the
second year in a row.
Some wonder why Bruce even bothers to make a bid for the
championship tour. The qualifying series, which he plans to enter
again next year, demands a grueling travel schedule, and many
events unfold in small, uninspiring surf. At home in Hawaii,
Bruce has the things he says he needs: killer waves, girls and a
devoted posse of friends. Making the championship tour does mean
extra dough--Andy has earned about $160,000 in prize money this
year, Bruce about $6,000--but, like Andy, Bruce makes gobs of
sponsorship dollars, upwards of $300,000 a year. "Why tour?"
Bruce says. "I figure, well, f---, if my brother can win the
world title, I sure as hell can."
Andy wasn't always a focused competitor. He came onto the tour as
the reigning world junior champion, heralded as "the next
Slater," and he partied so hard that his surfing imploded. In
1999 he briefly lost his spot on the tour. Maybe, as the boys'
father and manager, Phil, says, "Bruce is just going through a
similar stage; he'll settle down." Or maybe there's something
Growing up in Kauai, Hawaii's lush Garden Isle, the boys lived
less than 100 yards from the shore. "Every day, same thing," says
their mother, Danielle, who serves as the secretary and
bookkeeper for her sons' various business dealings. "School,
surf, homework, dinner, sleep." Before Andy was 10, both boys
were winning contests. They also fought, a lot. "Bad fights with
punching each other in the face and stuff," says Travis Bonnell,
a friend who has surfed with the brothers for 15 years. "They
were competitive with each other about everything, and they've
always been different. Andy was always more serious in the water.
Bruce takes more chances. He was more mysterious. Even now, he
catches a wave, and no one knows what he's going to do with it."
At 6 feet and 170 pounds, Andy can, in the words of his coach,
Dave Riddle, "tear up a big wave or a little wave. With him, size
doesn't matter." There's an almost majestic strength and solidity
to Andy's surfing; even when he's whirling or tumbling, he seems
in control. He is patient and cool in competition. In May, Andy
won the WCT event in Tahiti by catching a barrel with less than a
minute to go in the final.
Bruce, 5'11" and 160, is more dramatic, more reckless. He attacks
waves with an uncommon brio and thrives when the surf is high. In
contests, though, he is spectacularly inconsistent. If the waves
are small or if Bruce makes a mistake early in the heat, he'll
simply pack it in. Bruce was in Tahiti as well--he lost in the
trials there--and one morning the WCT contest was delayed because
the water was too rough. Bruce and Andy went out anyway, in a
boat with filmmaker Jack McCoy, and together they tore up the
surf. "A lot of the guys on the pro tour wanted no part of those
waves," says McCoy. "There was a bunch of them standing on the
shore staring at Andy and Bruce. The boys were both ripping, and
when they came in, it was like a mob scene congratulating them."
Andy's chief sponsor is Billabong, one of the largest, most
mainstream companies in the business. Andy has short hair, wears
a watch and appears in magazines wearing sweaters you might see
in a Vassar courtyard. He's spending this season in a rental
house along the Pipeline shore, living with other pros and
friends. It's a surprisingly well-kept home, with high wooden
ceilings and boxes of laundry detergent stacked neatly by the
washer. In the evenings Andy likes to drink beer on the porch and
watch the waves roll in, though he won't drink on the night
before a competition. A sign by the door asks visitors to take
off their shoes before they come in ("We don't like to get sand
in there," Andy explains), and the hosts consider it good form
for a guest to greet their pet rabbit, Shelby, who lives in a
large, clean cage.
Bruce has long bangs, doesn't like timepieces and sports leather
jackets in the fashion spreads. He is staying seven houses down
from Andy, with his own motley group. A pet pig, Spam, saunters
about the house. Broken things (chairs, glass, surfboards) litter
the porch, and the sand scattered in the living room could fill a
playground box. No time is regarded as better than the present
for drinking alcohol, and Bruce, who lives in a windowless room,
is known to sleep past 5 p.m. Bruce's primary sponsor is Volcom,
a niche clothing company with the motto YOUTH AGAINST
The brothers see each other almost every day. They'll meet in the
surf, go to dinner with the boys, catch the same plane home for a
holiday. "Look, Andy and I are genuinely different," says Bruce.
"Sure there's some jealousy. But we both know there's no way
either one of us would be where we are without the other. We both
know that we're in this together."
"We both know," says Bruce, "THERE'S NO WAY EITHER ONE OF US
WOULD BE WHERE WE ARE WITHOUT THE OTHER."