Listening to the Lions by Chris Morgan
I was trying to hear what Andy and Kelly were saying. I spent the first half of that November attempting to decode the messages they were sending me. Recent news had charged my efforts with a sense of urgency. I’m talking about Andy Irons and Kelly Slater of course.
That summer had been unparalleled for surf—clean, overhead swell, first in Delaware and later in Carolina, coasts famous for summers long and flat. Hurricane season proved equally rich, with tropical wave-engines ticking up the eastern seaboard in magnificent regularity. By November the surf had more or less settled down and I had more or less settled in, which for me means a not altogether painless return to indoor pursuits that actually earn money. There were other things that needed tending too, like my neglected wife, my neglected house. As I do every autumn I spent some time mulling over the summer’s triumphs and defeats, ritually stripping old wax off my boards, dreaming of Barbados at Christmas. November dark descended on the naked trees. The cold came with the early dusk, the same as every year. I had plenty of time to think about what Andy and Kelly were saying. I was convinced they were telling me something, if only I could make out what.
Shortly after 7:00 am on the morning of November 3 I heard my son moving fast down the stairs, taking them three at a time. Not typical early-morning behavior at our house unless we’re heading for the beach.
“Andy Irons is dead,” he gasped. He was pale and breathless, his eyes a little wild. It took me a few frantic minutes to turn on my laptop and confirm the news. I felt all the air go out of me from way down deep in the gut. I remember disbelieving. I remember having to sit down. I drove my son to school and neither of us spoke. Andy Irons. AI. Four-time winner of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Three-time consecutive ASP World Champion. Husband. Father. Consummate aquatic warrior. Equal and peer to surf-magician Kelly Slater. Irons was Slater’s devil, his nemesis, his catalyst to the throne. Andy Irons found dead at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in landlocked Dallas, Texas. It was unfathomable and still is.
The day Irons died of dengue fever the Rip Curl Pro suspended competition and Billabong, Irons’s longtime sponsor, posted a video tribute titled “I Surf Because” on its website. By now surfers the world over have seen the interview featuring Irons talking about the magnetic-addictive draw of riding waves, a cryptic reference to personal demons, and the admission that the act of surfing kept him at times from self-destruction. I watched it over and over, sent it to my friends. What Irons says in that interview was much reported on in the press in the days following his death. Ignored by the press, however, is the film footage that appears two minutes into the tribute, in which Irons can be seen backhand tuber riding a double barrel left. Not casually mind you, but with the consummate power, the mach speed, the pinpoint accuracy, and the pure stoke that are among his trademarks. It is, quite simply, an act of artistic genius, radiant with the mana that possessed the man. I was reminded of Irons pulling into the maelstrom of towering Waimea shorebreak at the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau to the celebratory cries of the crowd that thronged the beach that day. It occurred to me that such images, and a thousand others like them, are all that Andy Irons ever needs to say. Without apology. Without explanation. In perfect triumph.
Interestingly enough the suspension of competition at the Rip Curl Pro meant that Kelly Slater was rescheduled to surf against Brazil’s Adriano De Souza in the quarterfinals on Saturday, November 6 in clean, 3-4’ waves at a break named Middles in Puerto Rico. The fact that the heat was moved to Saturday allowed me to watch things unfold over live webcast. Of course it’s all history now—Kelly shacking up for a 9.0 in that early barrel, then just as deftly nailing the door shut on De Souza by back-dooring a second tube for a 9.87 and his tenth World Surfing Title. That tenth title granted Kelly Slater uncontested ownership of fully one-third of all the championship surfing titles issued to date by the Association of Surfing Professionals. Behind the statistic resides the sheer magnificence of the man—the intensity, prowess, consistency, hunger, and the lion-heart of not only the greatest competitive surfer ever to have lived among us but also the greatest all-around surfer, one of the supreme athletes of the modern era.
I was reeling. Andy Irons was dead, his body travelling somewhere over the vast Pacific on its way home to lush Kauai, to grieving parents, a lost brother, the beloved Lyndie carrying his fatherless child and, perhaps not least, a stunned tribe of wounded men and boys grappling with how such darkness comes to pass. All this as Kelly Slater in victory is chaired up the beach at Middles, the heaving crowd desperate to touch his immortal body, to come into contact if just for one fleeting moment with that strange magnificence, that oceanic thing, that son of Triton. These men, the one dead and the other alive, were both speaking to me. They were saying things dearly important. Amidst the raw swirl of emotions that come with death and victory I sat still and tried to listen.
Just then my sister-in-law sent me Mickey Smith’s stunning little film, “Dark Side of the Lens,” a lyrical paean in which Smith articulates his longstanding passion for photographing the behemoth winter surf that breaks over Ireland’s frigid west coast. An expat lensman from Cornwall, Smith collaborated on the project with Allan Wilson from Astray Collective and the two subsequently submitted the film to the Relentless Energy “Short Stories” competition. “Dark Side of the Lens” quickly went viral on the web and anyone who’s invested the six minutes it takes to watch the film knows that those six minutes might just be life-changing in their affirmation of first principles.
I watched Smith’s film and wept. Suddenly the voices were making sense. Translated through Smith’s lens, through his words and his musical score, I suddenly understood exactly what Andy Irons and Kelly Slater had been trying to tell me during those early weeks of November. It was an epiphany I will never forget. They were saying this: love the thing you love. And they were also saying this: give everything. They said these things not with words but with lives. Watching those remarkable lives, as the one perished and the other triumphed, I woke up to the fact that not to choose to love something utterly, not to risk oneself for that love, is to cease in some important way to exist as a man. The rooted passion, the relentless pursuit, the pure expression—these are what, through everything else, living must be. In that flash I understood that life is not a preparation for life; it’s the thing to do now. And not only that. If the creative expression of a singular passion is the highest manifestation of a joyful life then perhaps immortality is no dream. Perhaps we have not lost a single warrior from our tribe. Perhaps the whole sacred lineage of surfing, from the dawn of Polynesia down to Duke Kahanamoku and onward over the last century to Andy Irons is a living, breathing entity. Perhaps in their passion our dead are with us as potently now as ever before, present as powerfully as Kelly Slater is present, or Mickey Smith, or you, or I. Perhaps what is asked is that we celebrate and grieve and paddle out again with the fire burning in us that can never be extinguished so long as we choose to live actual lives in search of those magical expressions of whatever it is we cherish most on this blue planet of waves.
It’s cold here now. The leaves are all down on the dark earth. In the evenings I light a fire in the fireplace, strip the summer wax off my boards, and think of Barbados at Christmas—the sets peeling at South Point, lefts crashing the turquoise reef at Tropicana, early-morning glass at Soup Bowl, the blistering rights out at Conset Point. Among other things, surfing has become a way of letting go and starting again, a way of saying farewell to the old year and opening my arms to the radiant life ahead. I just need to stop for a moment. I have to be still and breathe. I need to listen to the lions, actually hear them with my heart.