I first became aware of Rick Irons while watching “Surf’s Up” on TV in the mid ’60s. The footage of him was taken in average surf at Torrance Beach, a less than perfect beach break just north of Palos Verdes.
I had never seen him surf in person, but from what I saw on TV, he was a brilliant noserider, hanging 10 with his hands at his sides before running back to carve a deep, powerful, graceful turn. He surfed with a fluid driving style and in a time when most surfers were running from the curl, he was stuffing himself into it.
While Rick was not widely known during or after his prime, there are those, like big-wave legend Greg Noll, who considered him among the best in the world.
I know that Rick had other talented brothers, but Jimmy, whom I never saw surf, was the one sibling I heard who could rival big brother. (My younger brother Dave once lived with Jimmy on the North Shore of Oahu and often complimented his surfing and saxophone playing.)
I also heard that Phil was a solid surfer, but he would become more famous for his sons, the late Andy Irons and his younger brother, Bruce, than for his own accomplishments.
If anyone ever followed in Uncle Rick’s powerful footsteps, it was Andy. Andy took surfing to an entirely new level with his deep turns and deeper tube riding, all done with immaculate style. (Sadly, Andy died in 2010 from cardiac arrest, apparently exacerbated by the use of a deadly drug cocktail.)
As Kelly Slater’s only real rival in the early 2000s, Andy was kind of the “anti-Slater,” never matching the 11-time World Champ move for move, but making up for the lack of tricks with fewer, but more powerful, moves.
Bruce Irons never came close to his big brother’s three world titles, but his surfing in waves of consequence where he would wheel around and go on whatever the ocean threw at him, remains the fodder of surf legend.
It’s no accident that Rick moved to Hawaii in the mid-’70s and established himself as a brilliant big-wave rider and soon became the pastor to countless surfers on the North Shore.
It was during the winter of 1985 that I first noticed Rick’s son, Ricky, as one of the standouts among the young guns charging Pipeline. It was there, at the Pipe Masters, that I watched the kid barrel his way through several heats in the trials, an impressive feat considering the best surfers in the world were all there, vying for the Pipe Masters trophy.
Ricky might have gone further in his surfing career, but he came up the hard way with surfers like Slater, Shane Dorian and Rob Machado. He had the ability to take his show to the pro tour, but chose instead to move to the U.S. mainland where he earned a degree that led him to become the publisher of Surfer Magazine for a number of years.
You can find Rick at Seaside Reef nearly every time it breaks. He still has the moves he perfected as a kid and does the Irons name proud with each wave he rides.