Written by ERICK RASMUSSEN
Photography by JUSTIN JAY
The ocean is deep as the sky is tall and where they meet the only indication of calamity is the ripples along the surface. You will never bathe in the same water twice, or sway in the lurch of the same wave. We know more about Saturn than we do the sea. Throughout history the complicities of oceanic figments have created a mysticism in which surfing lays its roots. Across the horizon storms are stirring up swells, and at the shore the surfers wait.
Bruce Irons is one of surfing’s princes. Heredity plays no role. Physical competition remains an undeniably pure occupation, where the rulers legitimize themselves. Sure, politics may influence the intri-cacies when you get to the real nitty-gritty business of signing oversized award checks. But that’s beyond the reach of your average spectator, even beyond your average practitioner of such a specialized skill set. If you’ve ever seen Bruce at work, skimming across the glassy face of a Teahupo’o wave as it spins disaster two feet from his fins, you recognize a master at his craft.
A squall passes over the middle ocean. Wind blows a wave into another. Three, four of them. A thousand miles from shore they absorb each other. They travel slow, combining up other waves along the way, growing. They travel days, strengthening over weeks, aiming towards a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific. Bruce Irons is waiting there. Bobbing on stunted swells, he waits for that one.
Here it comes, a bulge of energy. It lifts him, propels him forward as potential turns kinetic and several thousand tons of water are thrown shoreward, Bruce out front and headed the same way, feet plated, reagularfoot, ripping left or right, jumping off the lip as it crumbles into whitewater. You see him out there, but you feel it in your chest, the real distance between your abilities and his, side by side with the thud of megaton waves that detonate on the beach.
“If you’ve ever seen Bruce at work, skimming across the glassy face of a Teahupo’o wave as it spins disaster two feet from his fins, you recognize a master at his craft.”
To be born in Hawaii is to be surrounded by surfing. Ignore it if you wish, but it seeps into your skin like moisture. The names of its champions wash up in your conversations. Because of Bruce and his brother Andy, who won three consecutive world titles, the name Irons is inescapable. And when you beat the eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater, your name becomes household.
Bruce has been surfing since age 7, been pro for 17 years. He’s developed a reputation for fearlessness; surfing waves seaweed wouldn’t survive. Lihue, where he was born, means “Cold Chill” in Hawaiian, and that’s what you feel when you watch him drop into one of those monster waves, bolting out the pipe like a bullet from a barrel.
Despite the rise in surfing’s popularity, it still has that stripped down, close to the earth subculture. No college scholarships, no multibillion dollar teams in coliseums. Not even all that much equipment. There’s the athlete, and there’s the unruly, unpredictable behavior of the ocean. All that separates the surfer from the foam floating in the drink, what elevates him, sublimates physics into championship quality performance, is a slip of polyurethane and serious talent.