Monday, December 26, 2011

Surfing's Sean Collins has died

The surf world is mourning tonight as news spreads about the sudden death of founder Sean Collins of Orange County. Sean, 59 was playing tennis when he died.

He was a revolutionary in changing the way surfers hunt for waves, using scientific charts to predict swells. He was generous and patient with everyone, always willing to help explain something for my reporting and especially for my book. I spent an afternoon with him at his office adjacent to the Huntington Beach Pier just to talk oceanography and the alchemy of predicting swells.

Read a report in the Orange County Register, which has done right by Sean over the years. You can find it here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

Kelly Slater finally eliminated

By Elliott Almond
San Jose Mercury News

A lull in the waves proved too much to overcome for surf star Kelly Slater. A day after clinching his unprecedented 11th world title Slater was eliminated Monday morning in the quarterfinals of the Rip Curl Pro Search in San Francisco.

Slater, 39, was knocked out by Gabriel Medina, 17, of Brazil. Medina caught the majority of the waves in the 30-minute heat with inconsistent two-to-four foot surf. The teen scored an 8.50 out of 10 just as time expired to reach the semifinals where he is facing Taylor Knox, 40, one of Slater's best friends.

Slater had rebounded to take the lead late in the heat until Medina's late ride.
Brazil's Alejo Muniz is facing Australian Joel Parkinson in the other semifinal round.

It appears organizers will complete the contest in the next few hours.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Photo Gallery of Kelly Slater by John Hefti

My friend John Hefti ( is an excellent amateur photographer of sports action. He shoots photos of the San Jose Earthquakes that I often use with my stories in the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group. As an avid outdoor enthusiast it was no surprise to find him at Ocean Beach snapping away at Kelly Slater and some of the world's other great surfers. He's allowing me to share some of his work here. Enjoy.

Bodysurfing at Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Dream day for bodysurfing at dreary Ocean Beach

Bruce Jenkins

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Did you ever fantasize about taking a few rounds of batting practice with Buster Posey? Shooting hoops with Michael Jordan? Heading down to your local skate park with Tony Hawk?

I had a dream fulfilled at Ocean Beach on Saturday: competing alongside Mark Cunningham and Judith Sheridan in a bodysurfing contest at my local break.

We're in the middle of a very special two weeks in Bay Area surfing, featuring the Rip Curl Pro Search (no competition Saturday) with Kelly Slater and other stars of the worldwide tour, and this weekend has been about bodysurfing. The featured film of the Save the Waves Film Festival, held Friday night at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission District, was Keith Malloy's elegant tribute to bodysurfing, "Come Hell or High Water."

The bodysurfing community is a small but close-knit group, rarely able to assemble as one, and Malloy's film put us all in the mood for the first San Francisco Bodysurfing Classic, scheduled for "somewhere at Ocean Beach" Saturday morning. The call was for the foot of Lincoln Avenue, just south of the Beach Chalet, and we gathered around 8 a.m. to find some of the worst conditions imaginable: large, unruly surf with the dreaded northwest winds and chilly weather.

By day's end, we had magic. The wind went calm, the sun peeked through the gloom, the waves cleaned up in the 6- to 8-foot range, and it turned into quite a show.

Most remarkable was the turnout itself. Ocean Beach is my spot, the place I target every time I get a chance to hit the water, and over the past 15 years, I've come across just two other bodysurfers on a regular basis: Eric Gustafson and Sheridan, a woman of exceptional ability. And yet, 78 people signed up for this event, spread out over 13 six-person heats. That's 78 people who wrote down their names in the early morning, when a fresh cup of coffee sounded a lot better than a swim through Ocean Beach's endless lines of whitewater.

They came from all over Northern California. Some of Newport Beach's finest - Lewis Bradshaw, Tim Burnham, Thomas Malum, Sean Starky and Chris Kalima - drove up to represent the Wedge, that fabled break known for its crazy-talented crew. One man, a chef named Chad Callahan, flew in overnight from New York, saying, "I used to live here (Mill Valley), I always loved bodysurfing, and when I heard this contest was on, I knew I couldn't miss it."

I owe a big favor to Danny Hess, the local surfboard shaper who organized the contest, for putting me in the fifth heat with a couple of legends. Cunningham is the face of this sport, a longtime North Shore (Oahu) lifeguard and world-class swimmer who bodysurfed the famed Pipeline with such expertise over the years that he was viewed as a sort of deity by every great surfer from Gerry Lopez to Tom Curren. A lot of men and women bodysurf with great skill and courage; Cunningham's performance is a dance, at once sublime and forceful, an execution of style so distinctive as to be instantly identified from great distances.

As for Sheridan, let's just go with her first name, because any mention of "Judith" is synonymous with respect among Ocean Beach regulars. She comes from a family of elite swimmers in Michigan, but she was the rebel, preferring the thrill of the ocean to competition in a pool. She relocated to La Jolla, learned how to bodysurf at Boomer Beach (which is sort like taking your first ski run on a Squaw Valley black diamond) and eventually found her way north.

I've been out on some pretty big days at Ocean Beach, but when it reaches that triple-overhead range, when only a few stand-up surfers are willing to meet the challenge - and I'm whipping up some fish tacos - Judith is there. Whether it's near Sloat Boulevard, Santiago Avenue or up at the north end, she'll be out somewhere. She even made a run at Mavericks a few years back, on a massive day with 40-foot faces. She didn't bodysurf a wave - the very notion seemed suicidal - but she confidently swam under some giants and had everyone in slack-jawed amazement.

Right around the start of our heat, the conditions improved tremendously, and we all got great waves. I watched Judith swim out to the lineup with astonishing speed, Cunningham saying, "Let me be the first to say she kicked my ass - and I'm not using my age (56) as an excuse. She simply blew right past me on the way out." (Fittingly, Judith was given the "Ocean Beach Legend" award at the end of the day.)

Cunningham staged his usual fluid performance, with proper reward. There were no semifinals or finals; the judges simply came up with the day's top three performers, with Cunningham on top. The second-place finisher, Oakland's Joe Sloggy, went out only in a pair of Speedos - that's right, no wetsuit in the 54-degree water - and dazzled everyone with a repertoire of spinners.

The man in third place, Jeff Denholm of Santa Cruz, is a renowned surfer and paddler - and he does it all with one arm. During his duty in the merchant marine, Denholm was launched into the drive shaft of a fishing boat during a massive storm in Alaska, severing his right arm. He wears a prosthetic equipped with a paddle attachment, acts as if nothing at all is wrong, and truly symbolizes the spirit of bodysurfing. It's more of a mood than a competition, a series of moments shared by all. This day felt like 78 very satisfied people in a tie for first.

Surf legend Kelly Slater wins 11th title -- for real

Kelly Slater, 39, Coco Beach, Florida celebrated his iconic 11th ASP World... (Kirstin Scholtz/ASP)

Surf legend Kelly Slater officially wins historic 11th world title

By Elliott Almond
Posted: 11/06/2011 01:49:45 PM PST

This time surf legend Kelly Slater gets to keep the trophy.

Four days after an embarrassing miscalculation by the Association of Surfing Professionals resulted in Slater receiving his world title prematurely at the Rip Curl Pro Search, it became official Sunday in San Francisco.

Slater, 39, out-surfed two of the tour's rising stars, closing out his heat victory with a celebratory barrel ride, to earn his unprecedented 11th title. No other surfer has won more than four crowns on the world tour that began in 1976.

Slater had been awarded the trophy Wednesday after a stirring come-from-behind victory in Round 3. But after a fan questioned the math in an Internet post, Slater made it public that he needed one more heat victory to win it. He routed Brazilian teens Gabriel Medina and Miguel Pupo in unruly three- to five-foot surf during fourth-round action before a large crowd at Ocean Beach.

"I put together what I thought was a pretty good heat today -- it wasn't spectacular but those waves are hard to ride and hard to pick," Slater said.

Slater, from Coco Beach, Fla., had no second thoughts about revealing the mistake that was discovered by a fan Wednesday night.

"The decision was pretty easy," he said. "You know, your parents always tell you that honesty is the best policy. I just figured that instead of letting any more seconds or minutes pass, with me knowing that, that it was best just to say it. At that point I felt hugely relieved. It stressed me out to know that and not have other people know it."

Slater called the past few days nerve wracking as he had to face two promising opponents "that could literally be my kids, and those kids throw gnarly turns.

"I was upset about it at first, but I also thought it was really funny," Slater said of the miscalculation. "No hard feelings with ASP. Mistakes do happen. We all make mistakes."

He continued: "I texted my mom and said it was funny that I didn't really have any emotion about it when I won, so maybe deep down I knew. But this is my profession, so it's a little on me to know the situation."

The competition got back to action after a few days of less than optimum conditions. Slater, now into the quarterfinals, remains in the running to win his 49th career contest. Organizers have until Thursday to hold the final rounds.

Slater already seemed more relaxed after making his way through a throng of fans after exiting the water Sunday.

"Are we sure now?" he joked about the title.

He already knew the answer after going over the math.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kelly Slater Goes Out a Winner

© ASP/ Cestari
Kelly Slater wins title No. 11 at Ocean Beach

By Elliott Almond

Kelly Slater of Florida won a historic 11th world surfing title Wednesday by slipping past Dan Ross of Australia in three-to-five foot waves at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Slater, 39, had such a big lead that he needed only to advance out of round 3 Wednesday to secure his latest title at the Rip Curl Pro Search.

The Australian took a big lead on his first wave with a score of 7.7, the best of the heat. But Slater's late ride worth 7.60 was enough as he also had a 7.53 score on another wave.

“I didn’t win in the most effortless style,” Slater said. “When we started out he was right in synch with it and I was nowhere to be found.”

Ross, 28, opened with the highest-scoring ride of the heat while Slater misjudged the shifting beach break by picking waves that faded too quickly to garner many points.

Slater rebounded with about four minutes on a five-foot wave with room to maneuver.

“It was a nice open face” wave, Slater said. “I didn’t do anything radical.”

He didn’t need to. Slater has a way to get more out of waves than anyone on the planet. Ross made a last-gasp effort for an upset by catching the heat’s biggest wave with fewer than two minutes left. But he couldn’t hold on to send Slater reeling.

Slater is the greatest all-around surfer in history who sometimes is compared to barrier breakers such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. No other surfer has ever won more than four titles since the world tour began in 1976. Australia's Mark Richards won titles from 1979-82.

Slater, who won his first title in 1992 at age 20, has the admiration of fellow surfers. Brazil's Raoni Monteiro tries to watch all of Slater's heats to copy him as best he can.

"He's the master," said Monteiro, ranked 26th in the world. "He's the king of surf events. The way he surfs is different from the rest of us."

Third-ranked Adriano de Souza of Brazil has conflicted emotions about Slater, saying the lord of surf has been a great mentor but also the fiercest of competitors.

"Sometimes I love him, sometimes I hate him," de Souza

Slater, a crossover star who has been one of surfing's greatest ambassadors, didn't bask in pure joy because Wednesday was the first anniversary of the death of his friend Andy Irons, a three-time world champion. Irons was discovered in a Texas hotel room lying in bed on his back with the sheets pulled up to his chin. He died from cardiac arrest because of blockage of a main artery, according to an autopsy report.

Surfers started the second day of competition at Ocean Beach by collectively paddling to the lineup to honor Irons.

“It’s a way to celebrate my memories of him and be thinking about him,” Slater said.

The Rip Curl Search has until Nov. 12 to complete all rounds. It is the 11th stop on the 12-event world tour that travels to exotic locales in Australia, Brazil, France, Hawaii, Portugal and Tahiti. The season ends next month at the famed Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at

A live webcast of the contest is at

Rip Curl Pro in San Francisco

Small but nice peaks today for world's top pro surfers on the 11th stop of the ASP tour.

Here's some sample photos from my point-and-shoot:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Slip Sliding Away

One small step for man, one giant leap into the abyss.

By Cole Surfboards

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Almond Surfboards

How could I not share this?

Life Is Just Swell, Isn’t It?

Profile: Almond Surfing Boards

As the old style resurrection continuously grows throughout Orange County and more youngsters in the lineup adopt this single fin mentality, a handful of surfboard builders are proudly equipping these kids with the essential traditional gear.

Dave Allee proudly sits before all of his hard work in tangible form

Dave Allee, 24, and his crew of eccentric, throwback enthusiasts of Newport Beach are remarkably doing just that. Quaintly tucked away on the corner of Old Newport and Hospital road grows an indigenous, free spirited entity that proudly refers to itself as Almond Surfing Boards.

“We’re a collaboration of friends who enjoy making things the old fashioned way. That’s really all it is,” states Allee.

This avant-garde group of true individuals respectfully makes their way through the once forgotten longboard scene. Allee admires authenticity and his work reflects that.

He states, “I want to hit on the whole lifestyle.”

Five years ago, Dave vigorously chipped away at a couple of rotten, 10 foot, balsa wood blanks he’d ordered online, trying to salvage whatever he could to begin his first project. “Some of it was nice and white, and some of it was like green and brown.”

After about a year of hard work, Allee had accomplished his goal. He states, “Out of 2, 10 foot blanks, I was able to make one 6’5” single fin ‘thing’.”

Upon completion of “the most difficult shaping project I could have possibly taken on”, he’d found his calling. And, I feel like I’d be selling these guys short without properly painting an accurate picture regarding the squad that adorns Almond surfboards. They’re a tight knit group of characters, to say the least, all with their own specific trade and creative contribution (Along with the fact that they all rip).

From the Magnificent Gully, a 14 year old “wood-working prodigy”, who masterfully foils each and every one of Almond’s fins, to the soldiers on the front lines, Nathan Adams, Aaron Cervantes, and Cyrus Sutton, peacefully going to work in the water with ninja-like prowess. As well as tactfully arming themselves with the skilled photographic eyes of Cam Oden and Kyle Lightner. There’s Griffin Neumann-Kyle who collaborates with Allee on each and every one of the boards that get built under the Almond label, and they even credit Neumann-Kyle’s help for springing Almond loose out of Dave’s backyard.

They got the legendary Greg Martz and his crew at The Waterman’s Guild glassing each board, and a handful of talented cronies, like shop operator/board tester, Taylor Allee and art guru, Theo Harrington. Each of these imaginative individuals plays a vital role in the success of Almond Surfing Boards. They’re more like a family than anything. A loyal tribe.

Almond soul.

“I’m still adamant that I didn’t want it to be like a ‘company’,” says Allee. With that said, I think he hits the nail on the head with unequivocal precision.

“It’s our way to completely express the creative things, whether it be photos or t-shirt design or whatever…you can just run wild with it. Everybody brings something to the table,” states Allee.

Hawaii’s got the “Aloha” spirit and Costa Rica’s got “Pura Vida”. I think someone needs to come up with a word for Orange County… with these guys in mind. They epitomize the style that they’re after, and they tackle it wholeheartedly.

“We all do this because this is something we love. This isn’t a lucrative business. I was making more money when I was 19, doing graphic design. There are plenty of other things that any of us could be doing with our time. But, it’s fun and we’re passionate about it,” states Allee.

‘Nuff said. Keep up the good work fellas.

Check out the shop located at 367 old Newport Blvd, or take a stroll through, and definitely make sure to take a gander at the teaser for their upcoming video here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Slater in Portugal

Defending champion Kelly Slater of Cocoa Beach, Fla, advanced to Round 4 on Monday of the RipCurl Pro Portugal with more good waves showing up.

© ASP/ Cestari

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Autumn: Time for good surf in Portugal

Credit: © ASP/ Cestari

Florida's Damien Hobgood goes backside Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Rip Curl Pro Portugal in Peniche, Portugal. Hobgood broke his board five minutes into the 30-minute heat but used a replacement board to defeat Australians Bede Durbidge and Kieren Perrow to advance into round 3. The Rip Curl Pro Portugal is event Stop No. 9 of 11 on the men’s ASP World Title Tour featuring the World's Top 34 surfers plus two wildcards.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Newport shaper Russell dies

My O.C. friends sent me a notice about the death of well-known surfboard shaper Robert Russell Brown, who made the best boards for the hottest riders of Newport Beach in the 1970s.

Russell was all about sharing his love of the sea with everyone, and seemed above all the ego-driven mania on the Peninsula during the day.

Russell set the tone for the Newport Beach surf culture.

Read the report here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of Susan Casey's book, The Wave

I'm re-posting this review because the link I had used in December no longer works.

By Elliott Almond

One clear winter's day in 1983, I found myself on the wobbly deck of a sports-fishing vessel chugging through a vengeful sea beyond the safe harbor of Ensenada, Mexico.

I had embarked on a bleary-eyed journey to one of surfing's consecrated grounds: the islands of Todos Santos off Baja California. Back then, few surfers had sampled the rapturous waves on these low-slung isles, far from the maddening hordes. Just to reach the desolate place took an overnight drive from Southern California and a boat trip from hell.

The sleepless trek proved worth it. During our three-day visit, surfing conditions were perfect: windless, with lethal waves plummeting over the rocky reefs like dissolving skyscrapers. On such rare occasions curtains of diaphanous water blanket a surfer in a warm embrace, only to turn cold and calculating, happily slamming helpless souls on sharp-edged rock or coral. Such descents into the abyss can lead to bodily harm. Or death.

Even the most adroit surfer has difficulty describing what it is like to face a behemoth wave concocted by gale winds and fierce storms thousands of miles away.

Author Susan Casey spent five years following waves, surfers and ocean scientists. The result is her compelling nonfiction work "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean," which conveys how it feels to be in the grasp of a sea monster.

It is a sequel to her best-selling "Devil's Teeth," about white sharks that terrorize the Northern California coastline. After taking readers into the cold, clear danger beneath the surface, Casey now chases another oceanic phenomenon in a riveting tale that packs the narrative power and dexterity of Richard Preston's "The Wild Trees." She picks up where Sebastian Unger's "The Perfect Storm" ends by blending scientific mysteries with extreme-sport "why-do-they-do-this?"

Casey gets closer than any spectator would dare, witnessing famous surfers in action from photographers' vantage points just yards away. Eventually, at a celebrated Maui break, she also shoots down the face of a colossal wave on the back of a Jet Ski.

"The Wave" begins with a daunting saga: In February 2000, gargantuan, 100-foot-high waves in the North Atlantic ensnared a sturdy British research vessel, as the scientists aboard witnessed them firsthand -- and realized how little they understood the ocean's idiosyncrasies.

While mariners and oceanographers worry about these "rogue" waves, which arise as if from a Jules Verne novel, a small band of big-wave surfers actually seeks them out, tackling the oceans' equivalent of the Himalayas. That latter search leads Casey to Maui, where she persuades famed extreme-sport surfer Laird Hamilton to let her in to a carefully guarded subculture. Hamilton, a pioneer of Jet Ski "tow-in" surfing, is "The Wave's" protagonist, a blond, muscular prodigy with a singular life pursuit.

The book alternates between the high-seas adventures of surfers gallivanting around the globe and the brainstorming sessions of scientists testing theories of what they thought possible. Casey skillfully unbundles the complex science into digestible language, always with an eye on the personal, rather than the abstract.

While the surfer tribe scurries about for the next adrenaline fix, the equally impassioned handful of scientists studies waves for clues about climate change. Casey reports some of the world's leading experts can't yet predict just what we should expect as the planet heats up.

Surfers would rather rejoice in the spectacle of bone-crushing waves the size of office buildings pounding the shoreline. It's those indescribable moments that underscore the heart of "The Wave," which has arrived just as Northern California's major breaks awaken from their summer slumber.

On a deadly December day in 2007, when I drove to Mavericks to track a massive swell that had slammed the Central Coast, Casey also was there. In "The Wave," she details the drama that unfolded at Half Moon Bay, where fog as thick as milk tea blanketed the coastline. Danger lurked behind the menacing mist as two fishermen were lost at sea just outside Pillar Point Harbor. Down the coast at Pebble Beach, local legend Peter Davi died surfing the infamous break known as Ghost Tree.

The drama builds as the author departs that same night to shadow the perilous swell as it swooped toward the waters off Todos Santos. Reading her account of the mind-numbing lack of sleep and ordeal of securing a vessel to reach the islands, I had to smile. I knew exactly what she had undertaken.

And now the rest of the world can appreciate the never-ending pursuit, as well.

Elliott Almond is author of "Surfing: Mastering Waves from Basic to Intermediate" (Mountaineer Books). He can be reached at 408-920-5865.

"The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean"; By Susan Casey; Doubleday, 352 pp., $27.95

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beach cleanup: Make it a family outing

This news release just came to my inbox and I wanted to pass it along because it's a great event to get kids involved in keeping our precious beaches pristine. I remember getting so frustrated with beach goers leaving trash on the sand because, I guess, they didn't live there so what the heck.

Here's an edited version of the release:

The 27th California Coastal Cleanup Day, the state’s largest volunteer event, is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon, Sept. 17 at more than 800 locations, according to the California Coastal Commission.

For more information read here.

The campaign is the largest single effort to remove the debris that has accumulated on California’s beaches and inland shorelines over the past year, the commission says. It also has been shown to be an effective method for educating participants about the harmful environmental impacts of marine debris, according to a statewide survey of more than 1,000 participants in the 2010 cleanup.

“The results of the survey confirm what we’d always believed about Coastal Cleanup Day but until now, could not prove: that the cleanup is a powerful educational tool in addition to being one of the shining examples of coastal stewardship our state enjoys each year,” Christiane Parry, director of the California Coastal Commission’s Public Education Program, said in a prepared statement. “Even while cleaning up, our volunteers are able to make the connection between the trash they are removing from the shore and the trash that they create in their daily lives. It’s a powerful reminder that we can take simple steps to keep our coast clean every day of the year.”

For those who don’t want to wait until September to start cleaning California’s beaches, the Coastal Commission also runs a year-round beach cleanup program called Adopt-A-Beach. When a group adopts a beach they commit to cleaning it three times per year (school groups are required to clean up only once per year).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Andy Irons autopsy report

Read the New York Times story on Andy's death here.



We have received the final autopsy and toxicology report filed in connection with Andy’s death on November 2nd, 2010, from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in Forth Worth, TX.

The family apologizes for the delay in the release of this information. The injunction filed last December was to allow Andy’s widow, Lyndie, who was then eight months pregnant with Andy’s son, Andy Axel Irons, to give birth in peace. Please understand that this decision meant that the family did not learn the cause of Andy’s death until May 20th, and only after a second delay was requested by an attorney in Dallas, without the family’s knowledge or consent, to provide time for the 13-page toxicology report to be interpreted by two independent forensic experts – a process that took several weeks, but also enabled the family to fully come to terms with the unexpected root cause of Andy’s death.

The autopsy concludes that Andy died a natural death from a sudden cardiac arrest due to a severe blockage of a main artery of the heart. Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a prominent forensic pathologist in San Antonio, TX, who has consulted on many high-profile cases, was asked to review and explain the autopsy results to the family. He states: “This is a very straightforward case. Mr. Irons died of a heart attack due to focal severe coronary atherosclerosis, i.e., ‘hardening of the arteries.’ He had an atherosclerotic plaque producing 70%-80% narrowing of his anterior descending coronary artery.This is very severe narrowing. A plaque of this severity, located in the anterior descending coronary artery, is commonly associated with sudden death.”

Dr. Di Maio continues: “The only unusual aspect of the case is Mr. Irons’ age, 32 years old. Deaths due to coronary atherosclerosis usually begin to appear in the late 40′s. Individuals such as Mr. Irons have a genetic predisposition to early development of coronary artery disease. In about 25% of the population, the first symptom of severe coronary atherosclerosis is sudden death.” He concludes: “There were no other factors contributing to the death.”

Andy had a grandmother, 77, and a grand-uncle, 51, both on his father’s side, who died of congestive heart failure.Looking back, Lyndie recalls that Andy complained of chest pains and occasional intense heartburn for the first time last year, and also recalls a holistic health practitioner, whom he sought out in Australia for vitamin therapy,offhandedly mentioning he “had the heart of a 50-year-old.” In addition, Andy contracted Typhoid Fever five years ago, which can result in damage to the heart muscle.But Andy shrugged it all off and led no one to believe he was in ill health.

The official autopsy report, prepared by Tarrant County Chief Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, MD, lists a second cause of death as “acute mixed drug ingestion.” On this point, Dr. Peerwani and Dr. Di Maio diverge. In a letter sent to Arch McColl, a Dallas-based attorney acting on behalf of the family, Dr. Di Maio questioned Dr. Peerwani’s decision to list the finding “Acute Mixed Drug Ingestion” under “Cause of Death” because he believes “it was not the cause of death and did not contribute to the death. The Manner of Death is in fact labeled Natural.” Dr. Di Maio goes on to say that the drugs cited, Alprazolam (Xanax) and methadone (an analgesic drug commonly used in the treatment of chronic pain), are in “therapeutic levels” and notes that benzoylecgonine is an “inactive metabolite,” which Gary H. Wimbish Ph.D., DABFT, a forensic toxicologist consulted by the family, has explained is a breakdown product of cocaine. Wimbish states that the benzoylecgonine present in Andy’s blood at 50 ng/ml “is consistent with the use of cocaine at about 30 hours prior to his death.” In addition, Wimbish agrees with Dr. Di Maio that that the amount of Alprazolam present in Andy’s blood “is consistent with a common therapeutic regimen.”

Dr. Peerwani’s report also cites the presence of a trace amount of methamphetamine. Lyndie insists Andy was not a methamphetamine user, so it is likely the substance was present in the cocaine he ingested. But again, Dr. Di Maio believes that none of these drugs was the cause of, or contributed to, Andy’s death.

As we are not doctors, we have no choice but to accept that two respected pathologists have come to different conclusions about a secondary contributing cause of death. However, the family would like to address the findings of prescription and non-prescription drugs in Andy’s system. Andy was prescribed Xanax and Zolpidem (Ambien) to treat anxiety and occasional insomnia – a result of a bipolar disorder diagnosed by his family doctor at age 18. This is when Andy first began experiencing episodes of manic highs and depressive lows. The family believes Andy was in some denial about the severity of his chemical imbalance and tended to blame his mood swings on himself and his own weaknesses, choosing to self-medicate with recreational drugs. Members of his family, close friends, and an industry sponsor intervened over the years to help Andy get clean, but the effort to find balance in his life was certainly complicated by his chemical makeup.

Finally,as has been reported, Andy was suffering from severe flu-like symptoms while in Puerto Rico to compete in the Rip Curl Pro Search leg of the ASP World Tour just days prior to his death. Andy was unable to leave his bed and for the first time in his Pro career, withdrew from a contest. He was put on an intravenous drip for hydration and strongly advised to seek further medical treatment. Against doctor’s advice, Andy left for Kauai, Hawaii, to be with his wife, telling the doctor: “I just wanna go home.”

Though Andy’s illness is not addressed in the autopsy (which only tested for and ruled out suspected Dengue Fever), Andy’s weakened condition clearly contributed to the tragic circumstances of his death, adding more stress to an already gravely compromised heart.

Having defied the odds so many times before, Andy may have felt that getting on a plane while dehydrated and wracked with fever, and choosing to meet up with acquaintances during a short layover in Miami, was nothing out of the ordinary. His strong-willed personality was part of what made him such a formidable surfer and champion. Like others who face down extreme danger, Andy seemed to feel bulletproof – as if nothing could take him down.But traveling while sick and suffering from an undiagnosed heart condition, was more than even Andy could overcome.

We are hoping that people will remember Andy for his very full life, which included his intense passion for surfing and the ocean, his astonishing achievements as a world-class athlete, and his devotion to the family and friends who love him dearly and miss him every day. Receiving the disturbing news about the cause of death brings back the shock and tremendous grief we first felt upon receiving word that Andy had passed.

We would like to thank everyone for their condolences and support over the last seven months. There was so much positivity in Andy’s professional and personal life, not least of which was how hard he worked to overcome his challenges. For this we remain forever proud of him.

This continues to be a very difficult time for our family and we appreciate the media’s respect for our privacy. We are grateful for the outpouring of love and support and will not have any immediate comment beyond this statement.

For those who wish to honor Andy’s memory, we ask that they consider making a donation to the Surfrider Foundation, a charity Andy supported, at

–The Irons Family

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review of Surfer's Code by Shaun Tomson

Self-help titles have littered our bookstores like piles of e-waste. Too many people want to gift wrap their singular transformative moment into a remedy for the cold-hearted human condition. We know what they’re really after: the green stuff and perhaps acknowledgment of their inner awesomeness.

But now along comes world-famous surfer Shaun Tomson with motives as pure as the translucent waves he mastered at Jeffreys Bay in his native South Africa.

“Surfer's Code, 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life,” written with Patrick Moser, is a masterful work. It takes bits and pieces of Tomson’s well-traveled life and uses them to provide wisdom and reflection for the soul. Nothing preachy here. These are little gifts dispensed proportionally through time and space as if the reader were joining the author on one of his surfing adventures.

As a journalist I covered Tomson when he was a world champion in the 1970s and one of the most thoughtful elite athletes I’ve ever met. (Read a Los Angeles Times profile on Tomson here).

If Kelly Slater is the Michael Jordan of surfing then Tomson is the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird. His influence on the current professional tour cannot be underestimated.

As a result, Tomson could have followed familiar paths of celebrity by writing a revealing memoir. It would have been a worthy vehicle for an influential athlete, successful surf industry businessman and poet/philosopher.

And while the narrative elements highlight Surfer's Code, Tomson is striving for something more. He isn’t interested in recounting glory days, settling scores or any other kind of self-aggrandizement.

“Surfer's Code” simply celebrates life’s treasures. It’s something every surfer can understand with the ease of dropping into a right-breaking shoulder at Rincon, Tomson’s adopted home wave just south of Santa Barbara, Calif.

What I love most about the book is the plain-speaking prose that perfectly describes the essence of surfing. It gets to the emotional truth of the sport in easily digestible language that the landlocked could appreciate. The writing takes readers beyond the superficial explorations they might have gleaned from watching “The Endless Summer” or other popular movies glorifying surfing.

Tomson shows readers why the sport matters to its practitioners as he and Moser underline just a handful of memorable moments in the surfer’s career.

It’s not a varnished view, either. Tomson, 55, probes the depths of human emotions in the face of a cruel physical world. It never becomes sentimental or syrupy, not even as he delves into his most vulnerable rides because intuitively Tomson realizes the most powerful lessons come in the harsh light of adversity. A surfer who challenged the world’s fiercest waves doesn’t hide behind machismo.

Tomson saves the most devastating experience for an epilogue. It’s the unimaginable tale of the loss of a 15-year-old son who accidentally died while playing a “hanging” game at his school in South Africa just a few hours after talking to his dad by telephone. Tomson somehow remembers one of his dozen lessons: I will always paddle back out.

Instead of becoming a victim, he takes great care to avoid being mawkish and thus turn the book into another prosaic self-help guide. Surfing has taught one of its most honored disciples the meaning of profundity.

Surfer's Code is the end result, a worthy contribution to contemporary life.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Humboldt Redwoods: Trip back in time

HUMBOLDT REDWOODS STATE PARK, Calif. -- The Dyerville Giant slumbers on a rich and verdant forest floor near a bend in the Eel River where it lived perhaps 1,600 years. Although no more than a half mile from an old stretch of U.S. 101 known as Avenue of the Giants, the redwood stood undisturbed for centuries in what is now called the Founders Grove.

In 1966, a UC-Berkeley scientist by the name of Paul Zinke discovered the Dyerville Giant with the help of a graduate student. Their reward was to give the tree its name. They chose the village of Dyerville, about a mile away, as the namesake.

At the time of its death 20 years ago the 370-foot giant was estimated to be world’s tallest tree. Botanists now know the designation is dubious at best after incredible discoveries of taller trees in the past 15 years. For example, scientists only will describe Hyperion, a regal redwood tucked somewhere in a remote notch valley in Redwoods National Park 90 miles north of here, as possibly the world’s tallest tree at a height of 379 feet.

The folks who greatly contributed to the science of redwoods with their inspiring discoveries just aren’t sure if anyone has actually encountered the tallest yet. Despite a landscape part of this world, the ancient, tangled redwood forests of Northern California feel other worldly, and vast stretches of raw wilderness remain uncombed by experts who have the know-how to identify a champion tree, a redwood at least 350 feet high.

Although downgraded from status as the world’s tallest, the Dyerville Giant was a magnificent tree during a long life that came to an end one morning in March of 1991 with a sudden thump in the forest.

Pacific storms had battered the Humboldt redwoods with the ferocity of 15-car pileup. Gale-force winds often accompany spring storms with heavy rain, a particularly perilous combination for big trees. The Founders Grove area took the brunt of the storm and four old trees tumbled, leaving the Dyerville Giant exposed and vulnerable.

Redwoods are like mountain climbers attached to ropes: The trees depend on each other’s stability and safety through a latticework of shallow roots that do not clench deep into the bowels of the earth for anchorage. Instead they look something like crochet welcome mats spread across the forest floor. If one tree falls the entire structure is weakened.

When the Dyerville Giant suddenly lost the protection of the others to block the wind and keep it stable underneath, it fell, leaving a gaping hole in the spongy earth below. The dead tree can be found on an easy, self-guided, half-mile tour at the Founders Grove. It’s a great place to get acclimated to the park and learn about the complicated ecosystem.

Rare Trees

The tall trees exist in a relatively narrow swath of coastland from southern Oregon to the northern fringes of the Big Sur. They stand within 40 miles of the Pacific, thriving on heavy annual rainfall and thick, coastal summertime fog. However, only a fraction of the old-growth forests survived the onslaught of 20th century logging. In an apt but depressing analogy, old-growth redwoods have gone the way of the buffalo, living unharmed among native peoples for hundreds of years before succumbing to a mechanized world within generations.

Officials estimate only 5 percent of California’s old-growth redwoods remain. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is home to 10,000 acres in what is termed the world’s largest contiguous ancient redwood forest.

I wanted to get into the backcountry to perhaps pass some of the less recognized giants and even encounter a champion memorialized in Richard Preston’s book, “The Wild Trees,” a pièce de résistance for the science of forestry. According to the National Geographic, 130 of the 180 known champion trees reside in Humboldt Redwoods. Only a couple of them are identified with official park signs.

When the annual “false spring” unfolded this month, it brought clear, unusually warm conditions perfect for hiking into the heart of the Humboldt forest. The time to drive north had arrived. I chose Humboldt because of its proximity to the Bay Area. My favorite forests are located 100 miles north in Prairie Creek State Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Humboldt was close enough to get a half day hike on the drive up and an all-day trek the next day before returning home in time for a late dinner.

The Johnson Trail Camp path is almost 13 miles round trip and takes hikers deep into the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining groves of old-growth redwoods in the world.

The five-mile drive on Mattole Road to Albee Creek Campground provides enough stunning views to satisfy any tree lover. One of the disquieting aspects of California coastal redwood -- Sequoia sempervirens -- is how accessible they are.

Tree hunters searching for behemoths don’t need to leave their cars to enjoy the view. It’s almost counterintuitive. Anyone who has visited North Cascades National Park knows scenic vistas don’t come easy, including the grueling hike over the inappropriately named Easy Pass. To get a glimpse of the big, jagged peaks takes a major undertaking and miles of hoofing along thigh-burning switchbacks.

Redwoods are unlike mountains. The really big ones grow in low-lying alluvial flats: gullies, notch valleys and creek beds, wherever it is richly moist with fertile soil; always wet and usually dark under a thick canopy. Sometimes, like the Dyerville Giant, they stand not too far from the beaten path. Other times, they remain hidden deep in a rainforest so jumbled it takes a circus performer to traverse the landscape.

The uninitiated like me wouldn’t know any better.

Hidden tree

Another fallen giant called Teleperion stood just a mile from Dyerville Giant on the north side of Bull Creek in what probably is the densest section of the Rockefeller Forest. It presumably still is lying there since falling in 1994, somewhere perhaps not far off Mattole Road. While Preston glamorizes the trees he describes, he does not reveal their exact locations in an effort to perhaps keep something in this world mystical.

The lack of transparency doesn’t bother me. I saw enough carvings of names on a few fallen trees to know that visitors would turn these ancient organisms into another roadside attraction. Botanists also worry too much human traffic could damage the shallow roots.

The few who identified and know the champion redwoods have worked to safeguard their privacy. It’s possible, though not probable, to walk past one called the Stratosphere Giant, a 370-foot champion that is believed to be Humboldt redwoods’ tallest. It’s probably in the Rockefeller Forest, though I cannot be certain.

It didn’t really matter while striding past trees reaching heights of 280 feet or more. My head spun from craning the neck to see the leafy crowns where weathered arms and legs of the trees branch out. The majesty of some decent-sized trees provided more than enough satisfaction without having to identify it.

Temperatures hovered at 40 degrees in the morning as a smoky line of coastal fog caressed the mountains above the Eel. But the day would turn clear and bright and warm, though temperatures never rose above 48 in the robust forest along the south side of Bull Creek. The winter sun has little chance to penetrate the canopy.

As the trail ascended a ridge in the heart of the park the forest gave way to Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, pepperwood and madrone, resembling much of the second growth found at Big Basin or Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But the trail intersects with all sorts of narrow, descending gullies where suddenly the primeval forest returns. As enticing as it might have been to bushwhack down one of these streams in search of large trees, it proved sounder to stay the course.

I didn’t encounter anyone during my long day among the redwoods, and thankfully that included mountain lions and black bears.

I just bared witness to the trees. Big trees, bold trees, lots of beautiful trees.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maverick's update

Competitors of the Jay at Maverick’s Big Wave Invitational voted Thursday, Jan. 20, against holding the contest this weekend because a promising Pacific swell isn’t expected to bring big enough surf to the Central Coast.

The prestigious event, held near Half Moon Bay, requires a minimum of 20-foot waves but forecasters are expecting a swell in the range of 12 feet to 15 feet. Still tasty, just not epic. Further scuttling plans are the king tides around the Bay Area. The next extreme tides are expected Feb. 16-18 so it's doubtful the contestants would want to hold their event then, either.

The Eddie at Wiamea also was postponed Thursday because of inconsistent surf. It had looked promising for the Eddie with 20-foot swells from the blast from Indonesia. But the swell just never held up.

"What we see in conditions like this is just one or two true 'Eddie'-size waves in the period of a heat," said George Downing, contest director. "That is not the kind of playing field we need for quality, fair competition.

"It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement when those huge waves come through. But what keeps this event the greatest big wave event in the world is never relaxing those standards. Eddie (Aikau) never did."

Both Mavericks and the Eddie must be held by Feb. 28. What had been a promising winter still hasn't produced the giants of previous years. The chargers still are waiting.