City Lights: Camaraderie formed in the water

He wasn't a resident of Huntington Beach.

But standing at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, where tributes to Hawaiian surfer Andy Irons dominated both sides of the intersection Monday, you wouldn't know it.

As far as Surf City is concerned, Irons had a home by that famous pier, and after his unexpected death Nov. 2, the town memorialized him like a friend and family member.

Jack's Surfboards, on the north side of the intersection, displayed a huge black-and-white photo of the three-time world champion with the words, "In Loving Memory of Andy Irons — 1978-2010."

Nearby, flowers surrounded Irons' square on the Surfing Walk of Fame, with an easel above bearing a wreath with his name.

Across the street, flowers, candles and written remembrances — roped off on all sides — covered Irons' handprints in front of Huntington Surf & Sport.

"The waves will never stop rolling for you, bro," one scrawled message read. "May you find peace in the waves of heaven," read another.

Days earlier, thousands of people had gathered by the pier for a paddle-out in Irons' memory.

It was a spirit I witnessed last year after the death of Chris Hawk, a veteran surfer who died from throat cancer at age 58.

As they did with Irons, members of the surfing community left flowers and messages by Hawk's handprints on the sidewalk. Hundreds of them paddled out by the pier.

Irons, unlike Hawk, wasn't a Southern California local. But in surfing, residence on the water counts more than residence on land.

"A lot of people are really close when it comes to surfing," said Ronald Enriquez, the general manager of Jack's. "Only surfers really know what it's about. Other people watch it, and they're in awe of it, but only the surfers really know what goes on."

Gary Sahagen, executive director of the International Surfing Museum, gave another insight into the bond among surfers. He acknowledged that many of them have rivalries and even come to blows on land, but once in the water, they look out for each other.

The reason for that, he said, is safety as much as camaraderie.

If a surfer hits his head, someone else has to fish him out before he drowns. And it's that element of risk, as well as the painstaking hours learning the sport, that gives many surfers empathy for their peers.

When someone like Irons dies before his time, Sahagen said, "it strikes a chord with everyone."

In the wake of Irons' death, the museum plans to display a painting he signed, as well as the wreath outside Jack's Surfboards, until December.

According to Sahagen, the three-time champion was gracious about autographs. He told me about the time he cornered Irons, Kelly Slater and Barton Lynch in the lobby of the Shorebreak Hotel during the US Open of Surfing and got all three of them to sign a laminate.

"He'd talk to you like a real person," Sahagen said. "You'd feel like he was another of the surfer guys in the lineup."

Now, that lineup is one member short.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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