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United in memory

Surfers postpone the Triple Crown to attend a memorial for Andy Irons

By Paul Honda

LAST UPDATED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 15, 2010

HANALEI » For a youngster growing up on the waves at Pine Trees, a choice spot in Hanalei Bay, all that mattered to Andy Irons was family, friends and hitting the beach — just a block away — every day.

Little did he know that one day, family, friends and fans would gather at that same spot to honor him and celebrate his life.

Several thousand converged on the bay yesterday, including several hundred who joined a midday paddle-out. There were tears, cheers, tears and more cheers for the 30 minutes or so that fellow surfers surrounded the Irons ohana on the water, in the middle of the bay, as the legendary surfer's ashes were sprinkled.

The 32-year-old, three-time world champion (2002-04) was found dead Nov. 2 in a Dallas hotel room on a stopover during a return trip back to Hawaii from a contest in Puerto Rico. He had left the contest, complaining of symptoms that may have been related to dengue fever.

The Irons family's request for privacy was duly respected.

"It's unbelievable, every heart and soul that is here on Kauai," Phil Irons, Andy's father, said. "This is 10 times bigger than we expected."

Fellow surfers united in his memory across the globe, from Australia to Israel.

"He's one of the guys who guided the way for us," pro surfer Makua Rothman, 26, said. "Someone who gave us the inspiration."

The start of the Vans Triple Crown was postponed so fellow surfers could attend the memorial service.

"In respect for such a great person, a titan of the sport, we have a lei day for Andy," Rothman said. "Andy-them were in the division above me. We had the same coach, the same sponsors. We looked up to him. He had a soul of gold."

The paddle-out at Hanalei Bay was excruciating and cathartic for many, including old friends who choked back tears as they marched along a line of ti plants to the water. One of them was Dino Hawelu, 39, who remembered Irons as a young phenom shredding away.

"What got me was coming in (to Hanalei), the sign on the bridge," said Hawelu, referring to a hand-made "We (heart) you, Irons ohana" sign, one of dozens posted roadside from Lihue to Waipa.

"It's almost not real," he recalled thinking. "We're going to Andy's funeral."

Hawelu's son, Chance, was one of hundreds of keiki who previously participated in an annual surfing event hosted by Irons and his younger brother, Bruce, at Pine Trees. Every participant received a bag of goodies, win or lose.

Another former keiki contest participant, Mahina Garcia, continues to have fun as a longboarder, thanks in part to Irons.

"It's always about the kids," said Garcia, 16. "To get out there and have fun. They're so loving, it was great to have them as 'uncles.' "

The paddle-out was a roller coaster of emotion for many.

"A lot of cheering, yelling, crying. Everything," she said, smiling and tearing up. "It was on for a while, then they threw flowers. He was so loved."

The vibe at yesterday's memorial was low-key and generally upbeat. Old friends hugged. Fans took in a two-sided memorial wall of photos and a highlight reel of his spectacular, big-wave maneuvers on a big screen TV.

From young fans to old family friends, Irons was remembered as laid-back and quiet. Weekend surfers out on the water often came across the surfing legend in their backyard. He was even consistently accessible to the news media.

"He was never too busy or too cool to uphold his responsibilities," said Jodi Wilmott, a former surfer who coordinated media relations for the pro tour for years.

"His disposition was so easy, so open," she said. "To win the world title three times and four Vans Triple Crown (titles), he had a great competitive drive, but he kept it in place.

"We start the Triple Crown (today). It feels so strange without him. He was such a big part of what the North Shore winter season was about."

Irons put Hanalei surfing on the map, but probably would not have expected a global outpouring of sorrow and love.

"I think he'd be very humbly moved," Wilmott said. "You couldn't have not liked Andy."

Signs of the respect and love came in the form of art. A 30-foot tall "A.I." lei was strewn with flowers, and a metal sculpture bearing his initials graced the private area where the Irons family sat.

A longboard made by Dean Agustin bore Irons' likeness, a labor of love nine days in the making. Agustin rode the board out for the memorial. His daughter, Dayna, later took it back to the water to rinse it off.

"He's planning to give it to Andy's family," said Dayna Agustin, who remembered her first time in the keiki contest well.

Irons' wife, Lyndie, is pregnant with their first child and is expected to give birth next month.

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