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The Survivor

Five years later, Bruce Irons discusses coming to terms with life after Andy

I'd last interviewed Bruce Irons on the evening of August 27, 2011, in Tahiti. It was a crazy night after an even crazier day. We were perched on plastic lawn chairs in the middle of a yard party at Teahupoo, a dozen beers in, buzzed by mosquitoes and boozed partygoers, the air positively fizzing after the waves surfed earlier that day on the fabled Code Red swell.

It was almost a year since Bruce had lost his brother, and, as Bruce put it, he felt like he'd been "on a mission to take myself out of here." Bruce was running fast and loose and acting bulletproof. Earlier that day he'd taken one of the biggest waves ever ridden at Teahupoo, which blew him into the lagoon and blew his shorts clean off. A few weeks earlier he'd taken one of the biggest waves ever ridden at Cloudbreak. Both times he'd gone within a whisker of joining his brother, but had somehow survived, crediting Andy for saving his hide on both occasions, describing Andy's presence "like I had a bubble around me," keeping him safe when Bruce needed it most.

But it was hard to get a read on how Bruce was really handling his brother's death. Their connection went much deeper than blood, and Bruce was now a yin without a yang. He was seeing a "spiritual channeler" at the time, and as much as he was telling me he'd made sense of it, how he'd been to the bottom and could only go up, I figured he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else. As we sat there under the Tahitian stars with the lagoon boiling and the ocean groaning, Bruce joked and laughed but was also at times verging on tears. It was clear he was still hurting, bad. Bruce described the waves that day as "vortexing tornadoes," and I figured his emotions might be doing something similar. It all just seemed too soon. Bruce needed time.

The following interview took place roughly four years after our lawn-chair conversation, and Bruce had spent much of that time out of the public eye. Bruce was about to leave California, where he spends the summer with his kids, to surf his best Hawaiian winter in years. He'd just been down in Mexico with John John Florence, surfing way too much, and he sounded great: animated, candid, weaving pidgin, laughter, and four-letter words together in nearly every sentence—classic Bruce. But there was also a clear sense of calm about him. He echoed certain sentiments from our conversation four years earlier, but, unlike back in Tahiti, this time around Bruce sounded convincingly close to finding peace with the loss of his brother. It's what I'd hoped to hear. Like all surfers, I just want to see Bruce Irons happy, surfing like his brother was still out there with him.

SD: How's life in California treating you?

BI: My kids are here, so I've had a house in Carlsbad for a while, and now I'm living up near L.A. My daughter is in first grade and my son is almost 4 years old. I stay over here a couple of months through the summer and then spend winters in Hawaii. It's a lot of back and forth. It's not Kauai, but it could be worse. It's all about my kids, and I know I can still find a sick wave when everything links up right.

Is it easy to disappear in the crowd in California, like you're hiding in plain sight?

Oh yeah, totally. I live in the Palisades, on the edge of L.A., and that's what I love about being over here; everyone's going fast and doing their own shit. I can do my own little thing and no one bothers me, which is nice.

Does that suit you, being out of the scene?

Totally. The whole scene, I don't give two shits about it. I prefer going at my own pace and hanging around people who are in the same frame of mind as me. I don't give a f–k about all that other shit.

Any surfer in the know would place Irons among the best-ever Backdoor surfers. For evidence as to why, look no further. Photo: Noyle
Any surfer in the know would place Irons among the best-ever Backdoor surfers. For evidence as to why, look no further. Photo: Noyle

What about the scene on the North Shore? It's a scene, but isn't it your scene?

The North Shore is its own world, and I feel really comfortable there. I've been going there for so many years that it's basically home. I know everybody, and I know what everybody is into. You can pick who you wanna be with and what vibe you wanna run with. Today, I'm just into surfing and hanging around good people who make me wanna go surfing. Motivated people. People who are positive and just want to get barreled. I try to avoid the people dwelling in the dark corners. You can find them everywhere.

How do you reckon your surfing has changed in the past five years? Has it matured?

Yeah, for sure. I feel like it has matured, because I'm less worried about what everyone thinks and less worried about how I'm supposed to perform. I don't feel like I have to go 150 percent off the first turn or whatever. I can just flow along the wave, and that kind of surfing feels like me. I guess that feeling comes with age and maturity. I'm not so wigged out in my head, trying to impress everyone in the water and on the beach. I'm out there surfing and having fun. That's the way it should be, right? I wish I had realized that a long time ago, but it comes with age, I suppose, being comfortable with yourself and your surfing.

Where are the best waves you've had recently?

I just went to Pasquales with John John [Florence] for four days. It was only 4 foot, but it was super fun and rippable. The sandbars were so good.

How's the vibe with you and John John in the water? Does it remind you of the vibe you and Andy had?

It's good. On the surface it's just friends surfing, but there's an unspoken competitive thing going on. That kid is so f–king good, it really makes me want to try my hardest to get one up on him, which is good. I like that feeling. I really haven't had a motivation or a push in surfing since my brother died, and watching John surf got me excited to go surf again.

Irons has struggled to find the flame that went out the day his brother died. But if his surfing on the North Shore this season was any indication, the worst is behind him. Photo: Hawkins
Irons has struggled to find the flame that went out the day his brother died. But if his surfing on the North Shore this season was any indication, the worst is behind him. Photo: Hawkins

In the years after your brother died there was a collective groundswell of sentiment out there for you—people wanting you to do well, to come out the other side OK. Did you feel that?

I felt it for sure. Those first few years, I knew that everyone wanted me to do well, and that they meant well, but for me it didn't matter. I felt it and I appreciated it, but I lost my motivation in surfing. I didn't realize how much my brother was my ultimate motivator. He was the only person I ever really cared about impressing in surfing. When he died, I just looked at the ocean and all I saw was him not there. I didn't realize I felt that way until he was gone, and it took me until recently to finally start surfing for myself for the first time in my life. I felt all that support before, but it doesn't mean anything unless I can feel it within me as well. I had to go to the bottom before I could build myself back up, and that's what I did.

That Code Red day when we talked, you were on a mission, throwing yourself into everything, and even though you seemed sure you'd made sense of your brother's passing, I left not really feeling convinced.

I remember feeling like I had it sorted out then, but after that there was just nothing. Everything lined up that year: the Fiji swell,
the Code Red Tahiti swell, a new sponsorship. But it kind of went quiet after that. No one has really seen me surfing much since then, until now.

Those Code Red and Fiji days, you got lit up bad on a couple of waves, and I remember you told me that you felt you were wrapped in a bubble and felt safe because Andy was there looking after you.

That one wave in Fiji, I definitely did. I felt this bubble around me—'cause brah, I should have gotten smoked on that wave. It was the closest I've ever come to drowning. I actually visualized the wave before it happened. I always talk to my brother out in the water; I felt calm and comfortable out there, and I knew that wave was coming. But when I went down, I almost drowned. If there was another wave behind it, I would have been done. I hit the reef, my jersey was over my head, I lost my breath, I was about to black out. But just as I got to the top, suddenly Russo [Daniel Russo, photographer] was there on the ski to grab me.

A month later in Tahiti was another prime example. Koby [Abberton] picked me up that morning to get out there, and he was trembling. I said, "I don't want to even look at it," because the more you look at a day like that, the more you're going to think about shit that can go wrong. When I got that wave and I went over, I didn't feel a f–king thing. I was backwards and upside-down in the lip with my arms out, thinking, "This is the worst thing that could happen." I thought my arms were going to rip off and I was going to get buried in a crack in the reef and never come out. But nothing happened. Nothing. I came up without a scratch. So, yes, I felt very protected.

Focused and fit, Irons' displayed plenty of powerful rail surfing along Oahu's North Shore this winter. Photo: Bielmann
Focused and fit, Irons' displayed plenty of powerful rail surfing along Oahu's North Shore this winter. Photo: Bielmann

It's been five years now since Andy left. What's got you back to this point?

You know, the pain never goes away, and the sadness never goes away. But I've dealt with it on a spiritual level, accepting the fact that when it's your time, it's your time. I've been going over a lot of things in my life with my brother—things he said to me and things other people said to me about him—and I've added it all up in my mind to the point where I can accept now that it was just his time to go. The time, that helps. Time makes it easier. And me growing spiritually, emotionally, and realizing how I want to feel when I wake up in the morning, how I want my day to go. Do I want to feel like shit, or do I want to do good things and hang around good people? That's growing up, I guess, and I feel like I was forced to grow up after my brother died.

How alike were you and Andy?

We were two peas in a pod. We were very, very similar. Maybe his drive was a little bit different than mine, and I would say maybe I'm a little calmer and less sporadic than he was. He'd f–king let you have it one minute, then he'd hug you the next. I think about things a little more before I act, which isn't necessarily a better thing. If you hold onto shit and never get it out, it burns a hole in your stomach and your soul and that makes you angry. My brother just let it out; good or bad, it came straight out, and then he'd move forward.

Both you and Andy have said you surf with a lot of noise in your head and a bit of anxiety. But from the outside looking in, nothing seems more natural than watching you two surf.

For me, that was mostly from surfing smaller waves in front of people. When the waves are bigger, I don't have any thoughts in my head, especially when I'm in the barrel. When I'm in the barrel, it's the most peaceful and quiet my mind will ever be. I'm trying to figure out how to get the feeling I have inside the barrel and carry it onto the beach, and into the day and into the night. I feel like the f–king Dalai Lama in the barrel, you know what I mean? It's the ultimate feeling of peace, and you get it surfing bigger waves like Teahupoo and Pipe. I know it was the same for my brother as well. When you get those late drops and you're into it and it just f–king flows, nothing from the outside world can get to you. It's pure bliss.

I didn't realize how much my brother was my ultimate motivator. He was the only person I ever really cared about impressing in surfing. When he died, I just looked at the ocean and all I saw was him not there. I didn't realize I felt that way until he was gone, and it took me until recently to finally start surfing for myself for the first time in my life.

What do you think now when you watch old footage of your brother surfing?

F–k, the hairs on my arms and neck stand up, and that's when I get really sad. I really miss him, and I really miss his surfing—how raw he was and the lines he drew. I actually really like watching old footage of him and Kelly battling it out in contests. In every turn I can feel it and I can see it in my brother's face—that pure emotion, the sheer will to win. When I see that, it makes me so psyched. That motherf–ker wanted it more than anybody, and I feel it when I watch him surf. That's the feeling I'm still chasing.

And what do you see when you look at Axel?

I was just on Kauai for a few weeks with my son, Koby, and he and Axel hung out together. Seeing my son and Axel doing their thing, brah, it's so funny. It's exactly like me and my brother. Axel is a bit older, so he's Andy, and to see Koby pushing Axel's buttons is all time. Axel rules all the other kids, then my son comes in and he just screws with Axel's whole program, which is exactly like it was with me and my brother. [Breaks into hysterical laughter.] Brah, you wouldn't even believe it; Axel even looks exactly like my brother—his eyes, especially, but also his forehead and his hair. He's also got the same temper tantrums, and he's all like, "I'm the best!" My son is a little weedy, but when no one's watching he'll slap Axel in the head. It's so funny. It's just amazing to see it. Having Axel makes everything better for everybody—my mom, my dad, Lyndie, and me. Thank God for that little kid.

It's been a long, hard road for Irons, but this winter  he found himself back in form, and back on top in the lineup at Pipe. Photo: Noyle
It's been a long, hard road for Irons, but this winter he found himself back in form, and back on top in the lineup at Pipe. Photo: Noyle