Hundreds attended a paddle-out in Huntington Beach, Calif., to remember Andy Irons.
IT’S not uncommon for the number of surfers near the Huntington Beach Pier in Southern California to reach triple digits. But last Sunday, the headcount swelled to more than 500. The surfers were not jockeying for waves, though. They were bobbing on boards in the open water, holding hands in a large circle.
This was a “paddle-out,” the way surfers throughout the world honor their dead. It’s a floating memorial service, with flowers and reminiscing, but no dirges. The ceremony was for Andy Irons, a beloved world champion from Hawaii who died Nov. 2 at age 32, of as yet unexplained causes, in a hotel room in Dallas. Shocked members of the surfing community swiftly organized paddle-outs around the world: in Bali, Australia, Brazil, Spain, France, Italy, Virginia, Florida and Mr. Irons’s hometown, Hanalei, Kauai, as well as Huntington Beach, where Jim Kempton, a longtime surfer and former editor of Surfer magazine, was among the spectators on Sunday. “I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger one,” he said.
As many surfers tell it, the paddle-out stems from Polynesian tradition. Hawaiian historians are skeptical, saying ancient burials on the islands took place on land. More likely, they say, paddle-outs began with modern surf culture and were first held in the early 20th century by “the beach boys,” the men who taught surfing at the first tourist resorts in Waikiki.
Wally Froiseth, a 90-year-old famed surfer and former beach boy in Waikiki, says that this sounds right. He went to his first paddle-out when he was 6 and has participated in at least a dozen over the years, including a large 1968 service in Waikiki for Duke Kahanamoku, one of the first surfers to demonstrate wave riding in North America. “I don’t know of any place that did it before Waikiki,” Mr. Froiseth said by phone.
Paddle-outs began to show up on the mainland in the late teens and ’20s, said Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer’s Journal. They then spread along with the sport, especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s, after the movie “Gidget” came out. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Mr. Pezman said, “You’d see a circle on the water, and you’d know somebody had died.”
On the beach at Huntington, surfers likened the turnout for Mr. Irons to two legendary paddle-outs past: one in 1978 at Waimea Bay, Oahu, for Eddie Aikau, a distinguished surfer and lifeguard who died at sea; the other at Doheny State Beach, Calif., in 2005 for Dale Velzy, a master board shaper. Mr. Kempton attended both and said Mr. Irons’s seemed to have drawn an even bigger circle. “Andy is surfing’s James Dean,” he said.
Mr. Irons, known as “A. I.,” belonged to a rarefied group: pros who have won three world titles. (Only Mark Richards, Tom Curren and Kelly Slater have matched or surpassed him.) Mr. Slater, a 10-time world champion, has called him “the most intense competitor I’ve ever known.” But if he was a fierce competitor, he was not a calculating one. He was admired for an instinctive approach and singular style that blended Hawaiian elegance with modern technical moves.
“Andy would throw airs” — do aerial maneuvers — “in the most improbable ways in the most unlikely parts of the wave,” Mr. Pezman said. “When he was out, you could hardly take your eyes off him, he was so radical. And he was totally relaxed when he was in a big, grinding tube; when he was in jeopardy.”
Mr. Irons died days after withdrawing from a professional contest in Puerto Rico, citing dengue fever. Two bottles of prescription medication, the anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam and the sleeping drug Zolpidem, were found in his room, but toxicology reports are still pending and an official cause of death has not been declared.
The Puerto Rico event was immediately suspended so the contestants could hold a paddle-out. The one at Huntington coincided with what turned out to be the largest of them all, with reportedly more than 1,000 participants, in Hanalei, where Mr. Irons’s ashes were released into the bay by his wife, Lyndie Irons, who is expecting their first child, and his brother, Bruce Irons, also a renowned surfer.
In a short service on the California shore just after noon, Sumo Sato, a pastor and longtime friend of Mr. Irons, spoke of the ceremony going on across the Pacific. “As surfers we are bound by the spirit of water and our love for the ocean,” Mr. Sato said. “All over the world there are surfers in the water right now remembering Andy and the joy we share in the waves.”
Mr. Sato addressed rumors, widespread on the beach, that drugs played a part in Mr. Irons’s death. (Many cited an ominous video, posted on YouTube, in which Mr. Irons says, with the A. A. Bondy song “Killed Myself When I Was Young” in the background, that without surfing he would “self-destruct” and his life would “tip into oblivion.”) “Leave him alone,” Mr. Sato said, to applause. “Leave him alone.”
He closed with a plea. “As we go to our paddle-out, examine your own life,” he said. “Now, suit up.”
The surfers took to the water, stopping to pick up leis and stems of orchids from under a small tent. David Nu‘uhiwa, a celebrated longboarder, and a tall, graceful man with wind-swept silver hair, kissed his hand and touched it to a photo of Mr. Irons that stood near the podium.
Even in shallow water, the current was pulling hard. An hour earlier the surf had been breaking at three to four feet. Suddenly the waves had five- and six-foot faces. “Andy’s here!” one person yelled. They slipped under the waves and over the choppy water and windmilled their arms to weave around each other and the pier’s jagged, shell-covered concrete columns. Beyond the surf, the shoreward view was of hundreds of black figures charging over the backsides of the breakers, orchids in their clenched teeth.
With a patrol boat shooting water from a cannon in the distance and crowds lining the pier to the north, the figures formed a circle. Hands joined, they raised their arms above their heads and began to howl and whistle. They threw the flowers into the middle and splashed water. After a while, Mr. Sato, who was on a board at the center of the ring, led a roaring chant that seemed to echo back off the beach: “Andy! Andy! Andy!”
They pointed their boards toward the sky and beat them like drums. After a few minutes, it was over, and the surfers made their way in, flowers swirling in their wakes.