Picture 29

Words by Nathan Myers

This was the moment. The very instant that Andy Irons’ blazing star burned its brightest before beginning the fiery fade to infinity. And you don’t have to close your eyes to see it. You don’t even have to squint. It’s right here.

On this last day of September, in the year 2005, in Hossegor, the animalistic AI was at his most legendary, unstoppable. He already had three world titles. And he didn’t know it yet, but maybe he was tired. Tired of being hunted. Tired of wearing that world champ bulls-eye on his back. The endless travel. The countless heats. Airports and posters. Interviews and after parties. And now Kelly Slater was back. He’d already won an unprecedented four events that year and everyone believed it would all end in France.

Photographer Steve Sherman raced from California to capture the moment. Sherm was a different breed of surf shooter. An in-house magazine editor who spent far too little time in house. He didn’t swim out. He had to borrow a 600mm for tight action. And best/worst of all, if the waves got good Sherm usually just went surfing. Yet his coverage was iconic. A raw blend of art and journalism. Slob commando and rock-n-roll guerrilla. Sherm covered the tour from inside the competitors’ tent. He’d miss a victory shot chairing the champ up the beach then drink champagne back in their hotel room. When his camera came out, nobody hit the deck. It was only Sherm.

A giant swell was rolling across the Atlantic. And so was Sherm. And Kelly and Andy. All colliding in France. It was going to be epic. Titanic. Colossal. And then it wasn’t. Slater lost his quarterfinal heat to Damo, and the much anticipated match-up never happened. The title — and Sherm — would have to wait.

In Brazil, Slater went off the map. As he does. Invisible. Untouchable. Sherm ended up at the Billabong house, where Parko, Occy and AI were playing poker. Drinking. At some point late in the night, Andy pushed Sherm against a wall. Enraged. “I know why you’re here," he said. “You here to watch me lose. When I beat Kelly the magazines still put him on the cover, saying ‘Defeated.’ Well now they should put me on the cover cause I’m fucked!" Parko had picked up Sherm’s camera and was snapping photos of the confrontation, giggling the whole time. Sherm caught his breath and said, “Hey Andy, I don’t control what happens, I just take pictures of it. That’s all." Andy softened. He gave Sherm a hug. “You’re right," he said. “My bad."

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It’s all on film somewhere. In this digital tsunami of documenting everything and anything, certain moments shine through the murk. Some huge and public. Some dark and private.

Two days later, Slater was back on top. Kelly pulled Sherm onto stage and had him shoot reflection shots in his world title cup. A cup Andy Irons would never hold again.

Five years was forever ago. And yesterday. The wind blows and a wave is born. Ghosts of energy drifting blind across the sea. Untamed at first. Gaining discipline and losing force. Travelling across the great expanse of water, time and nothing. You think any wave knows what’s waiting upon the shore? That sudden doom. That final crash.

Back in France, the swell was massive. Thunderous. Slater was gone, but Andy Irons found himself in a make or break heat with his younger brother Bruce. Two hellmen Kauaians reared on brotherly brutality in the kind of waves most men just walk away from. Huge pits. Vicious lips. Incredible spills. And this. This was the moment. The last true blaze of Andy Irons. A hack from hell on a wave from heaven. Brilliant. Raw. Unnameable.

Andy won the event. Sherm’s image ended up on a T-shirt. And I ended up wearing that t-shirt for the next five years. Through the Kelly and Mick years. Through the 9th place and 13th finishes. The “sabbatical." The kinda-almost comeback. Like a teenager wears his favourite concert t-shirt to the reunion tour. Faded and peeling. Ill fitting and awkward. I wore my AI shirt till it fell off my back, then I hung it on my wall.

When Andy passed away, Billabong printed the shirt again. Other magazines also ran this shot. It turned up in commemorative slideshows. Websites. Black-bannered ads. A true moment. Blazing amidst the murk. And no matter how many times I see it, I still get a rush of AI-infused adrenalin. As if I was there, battling away. Hanging on. Burning bright, one last time.

A million waves cross the ocean to die upon the shore. A rare one or two do it so much better than all the rest. Andy Irons is gone. His legend rides on.

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