Nick Carroll On: The Andy Irons Doco and The Ian Cairns Book

1 May 2018 0 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Days of thunder and tragedy recalled in very different ways by two new and pretty epic stories.

By Nick Carroll

At a very strange moment in pro surfing, two extraordinary documents of its very human past have emerged.

They couldn’t be further apart. One is a film, the other’s a book. One is all emotion, the other’s a vast detailed compendium of facts, quotes and accounts. One’s about running out of control, the other’s about a struggle for control. Oddly, the protagonists share a birthday.

Walter Ian Cairns was born July 24, 1952. Twenty years later he won the most significant surf contest in the world at the time, the Smirnoff Pro, riding a self-designed version of the Bonzer. Ten years after that, he began constructing a takeover of professional surfing via the soon-to-be-named Association of Surfing Professionals or ASP.

We don’t quite get to that point in Ian’s career in this, Volume One of Kanga, though the book—a self-published effort—runs out to nearly 500 pages. (Yep there’s a Volume Two on the way! No other surfer has been given such colossal treatment. It’s almost as if Ian is surfing’s Winston Churchill.)

The author, Wayne Patrick Murphy, is a salt of the earth Western Australian surfer who spent years roaming the desert coasts of South Oz and serving on ASP judging panels before moving to Ireland 18 years ago. He’s a skilled and persistent writer for whom this is a first major effort in the surfing genre, and he does not spare that effort. One reason Kanga requires two volumes is that Wayne’s pretty much re-recounting the history of surfing in the process. It’s a vast act of contextualising, full of quotes and detail, and it risks dragging the reader away from the biographical subject, though a greedy reader like me will get through the context pretty quickly and back to the adventures of Ian—from a kid learning to surf in Sydney and Perth, to a young man pioneering the pro scene via jumpsuit in the Bronzed Aussies days.

Philip Andrew Irons was born July 24, 1978. Sixteen years later he was on the cover of Surfing magazine. Eight years after that he commenced a triple world title run and an epic rivalry with Kelly Slater  that remains professional surfing’s highest ever watermark. Eight years after that, he died.

In Kissed By God, eight years on again from that terrible time, you’re seeing a very different and much rawer act of storytelling, one you sense could never have been attempted earlier. Chasms of privacy and unresolved emotion had to be bridged. Privately Andy knew he was a drug addict, yet only now, in this documentary, does everyone around him begin to fully grasp it. His brother Bruce is incandescent, impossible not to watch as he confronts himself and all of us with what their lives were like. His widow Lyndie lives out the dark and light of her departed husband.

The film doesn’t go into every bleak fact of Andy’s last days; that’s not its job. Instead, it does what film does best—opens up the emotional context and lets us in. In a small yet very sharp piece of filmcraft, one of AI’s rehab admission sheets appears on screen; the spaces beneath the questions are empty, then Andy’s handwritten answers fall one by one into place. Suddenly, there you are with him, scratching out the answers, yet with the viewer’s knowledge that in the end, they didn’t help.

The two, Cairns and Irons, are intertwined by more than birthdays. They represent a Yin and Yang of the surf culture. AI plunged into it with all his manic energy, won and lost without sparing himself, suffered through depressive episodes, made millions, and self medicated like he surfed Teahupoo—on a wing and a prayer.

Steely Ian, on the other hand, was raised at a time when dope, acid and co were pretty much de rigeur among his crew. Yet he stood back. You can’t help but feel that, for him, drug use might have represented a loss of control, a sort of surrender—something Ian can’t abide, in himself or others. Pro surfing never earned him a fortune, but he stuck to his creed. Volume One begins with an extended and detailed explanation of the events of 1987, when he was asked by a Honolulu police detective named Karl Godsey to testify in court against Eddie Rothman and Tony Sanchez, who’d been charged with a range of offences connected with standing over North Shore cocaine dealers. (Both were acquitted of all charges.) Godsey had tried to persuade numerous people to testify; only Ian and his one-time arch enemy in the pro surfing business, Fred Hemmings, showed up.

And that’s another connection—Hawaii. Both surfers were defined by their actions in the surf that launched and still sustains modern surfing: their performances, their surfing instincts, and in AI’s case, as a Kauai born kid for whom Pipe was a natural stage.

In Ian’s case, his surfing life was launched by winning an award named after Duke Kahanamoku and crowned by Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay. He thought his court testimony would earn the price of banishment; Volume Two will tell us how that turned out.


Andy Irons: Kissed By God will be released this week (May 2 US time)

Kanga can be found at

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