Surf Shacks 033

Jim Irons
Hanalei, Kauai

Matt Titone

For the first five years of my life, my mom, dad, brother, and I lived in a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom house. But don’t feel too sorry for me. It was on Hanalei Bay, a stone’s throw from Pinetrees. My dad, Jimmy, has lived in this tiny caretaker’s cottage, looking after one of the bay’s first homes and its property for almost 40 years. Originally from Torrance, California, he and his six brothers migrated to Hawaii beginning in the late ‘50s, eventually all finding their way to the North Shore of Kauai by the early ‘70s. Since then, not much has changed. You still get to the cottage through a hole in the bushes, where the plants are quite literally streaked with oil paint, souvenirs from a house filled with dozens of wet, partially finished works of art. My dad doesn’t have much in the way of possessions — he doesn’t have a car or a cell phone, he’s never really used the internet, and his life pretty much exists in a 1-mile radius from his house. When I was a kid, I was embarrassed my dad wasn’t “normal.” Now, I’m both amazed and proud that he’s still living the happy, fulfilling life of a surf/art bum more than 40 years later. I interviewed Mr. Jimmy Irons about life and his tiny Kauai surf shack.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Let’s start way back. Where did you grow up and when did you start surfing?

I grew up in Torrance, 10 miles inland. It was my brother Bill who started surfing first—on these really heavy Balsa woods boards. He was in his late teens, I was 10. I remember going with Bill to Greg Noll’s garage in 1958 to pick up Bill’s board. It was $88. That was a lot of money for us! I remember my dad had a big boat shack in the back of our house and Bill and his friends would bring the balsa boards in there and they would cut a big rectangle in the deck just big enough to resin in a bull fighting poster they got from Tijuana, then glass over it. That was the in thing then. I’d go to Torrance Beach with my brothers [Jim was one of nine kids—7 brothers, 2 sisters] in the summer of ‘58, and borrow their 40-pound boards. There were even some of those plywood box boards then that I rode. They were gigantic. When foam blanks came about the next year, that’s when I really started.

So how did you end up in Hawaii?

Bill went to Hawaii in 1959 and he came back with all these pictures of a sunset at Haleiwa, with him and his friend surfing. When he showed us those, we all knew we were going there. After that, when my mother would ask what kind of salad dressing we wanted, we would all always joke “thousand islands”—Hawaii was always on our minds.

On the day of my high school graduation, I walked out of there with my suit still on, and hitchhiked to San Diego. I knew all the guys down there from doing from contests. I ended up spending 6 months there, living with Skip Frye, hanging out Mike Hynson and all those guys. I was out at New Break this one day, and I see this guy come across and do a floater across the lip like I’d never seen before. I paddled up to him and asked, “Where did you learn to surf like that?” And he said, “Hanalei Bay, it’s this really fast wave. You’ve got to go there some time.” That planted the seed.

I went back to L.A. and worked the graveyard shift at a steel mill in L.A. to make money, then took off to Mexico for a while. I was wandering around—it was the hippy era. Then with the war, I got this conscientious objector job in L.A. working in the cafeteria at a hospital. I had that job for two years—or else I would have already been in Hawaii! On weekends, I’d ride my motorcycle up and surf Rincon for my two days off, then go straight to working the graveyard shift all night with my eyes barely open.

Anyway, as soon as I was done, in 1969, I moved to North Shore [of O’ahu]. My brothers Phil and Bill were there. Me and Phil started a surfboard shop in the garage. We started getting all these orders—people thought we were Rick Irons, who was really well-known at the time for surfing and shaping. We didn’t have a clue how to shape boards. We just were winging it, and barely pulling it off. Eventually we moved the shop to Velzyland and had shapers who would show up from the mainland to surf and give us lessons.

When did you move to Kauai?

A few friends and I went to Kauai in Spring of 1970.  We got a taxi from the airport to the end of the road in Ha’ena. It was 20 bucks for four of us with our giant longboards. We got there at dark and I didn’t feel safe camping right there by the road, so we walked back into the bushes and camped. When we woke up, there were all these naked people in tree houses. We were at Taylor Camp.

I ran into a friend I knew, and stayed in his treehouse in Taylor camp for six weeks. I walked all the way to Hanalei [8 miles] with my board when there was surf because there were no cars.  The waves were phenomenal.

When I got back to Oahu, I told Bill how cool it was, and he packed his bag and moved over to Kauai that summer. I followed him over soon after.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

How did you end up in your place you live now?

I moved in in ’71 for a few years with my first wife who was living there, then when we separated, I moved back to O’ahu and went to school at Leeward College for music. I lived at sunset, worked at Country Surfboards, and played music with a bunch of great musicians. We were just playing music and surfing and making boards. It was great. When I went back to Kauai in ’78, I was walking down the street past this house and a guy walks out. I talked to him and he said he was looking for a caretaker. So I moved back in in ’78. I’ve been here since.

What was the surf scene like on Kauai then?

Everyone knew everyone. There were only a dozen surfers here then. And for those first few years it was always pumping. I remember having a calendar in February and marking down the swell every day—it was 8’ to 12’ for 28 days straight. All the skin on my chest and knees were completely worn off.

At about ‘72 or ‘73 Princeville [the community] started and people started buying land and working all the time, so there were three years where Hanalei was going off and there was no one out at all, because everyone was working. I’d be the only guy out a lot. I’m really glad I had that era.

How did you get into art?

One of the first few months on Kauai, I got hurt and couldn’t surf for a month, so I went and got some paint. I’d made one painting before moving there. I met this guy at the beach, Leonard, who was a painter, and he taught me to paint. He gave me lessons until he died a few years back.

At the same time, [Mike] Diffenderfer showed up and I started to get shaping lessons from him. It was Bill Hamilton, Diff, me, and Riddle shaping in this little room in Hanalei. It was a good time.

So it was Leonard, Diff, and this artist who lived in our backyard who used to paint sets for Hollywood—all giving me lessons.

Tell me about the history of this house.

Miss Mabel Wilcox had in built in 1915. She was a descendant one of the original missionary families. Her main house was Lihue, and this was her beach house. She was a nurse and would bring the other nurses out here to party. Mabel was really wealthy, but she went to Europe to be a nurse in WWI—she was a really wonderful woman—and when she came back in 1919 after the war ended, the Spanish flu has hit the world—even here. That’s when she had a lot to do with starting Wilcox hospital [the main hospital on Kauai].

She passed away in ’77, but I got to know her. She would come out once a month. I was a hippy with this big beard and everything, but she didn’t care. She was well-to-do, but did a lot for healthcare and education on Kauai.

In the last 3 years of her life she set up a non-profit and put all her money and historical properties into it, so that’s what owns the house now—and I still get to take care of it. I’m grateful to get out and do yard work every week. The property is more dialed than it’s ever been—even when I was doing it in my 20s. Someday someone might have to help me, but right now I feel really good.

How many paintings would you estimate are in your house right now?

[no hesitation] Sixty-five.

Ha. You’ve counted?

Yeah, I like having them all around. I can find something that interests me at any given time. I haven paintings I’ve been working on for 10 or 20 years. I’m glad to have something to do. I see old people they don’t know what to do with themselves, they sit around and play solitaire and drool.

How has Kauai changed over the last 40-plus years?

Well for one thing it went from 20,000 to almost 70,000—that should tell you enough right there. But for me, I just stay in my little jungle here, and I ride my bike to the store and go to the beach. So it’s the same for me. To really do creative work you have to be reclusive and centered. And that really fits me now, so I don’t really get out in the crowds.

How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?

I’m always at least 7 because I have so many paintings, I can always find one that makes me happy. I’m like an old lady making her quilts. I don’t even really have slumps really anymore. I just go ride my bike around if I need to.

My house is small, but I like to think of it as a 400-square-foot yacht. If you had a 400-square-foot yacht in Hanalei Bay it would be the biggest yacht ever—that’s what I’ve got right here.

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Janna Irons

Born and raised in Hanalei on Kauai, Janna is, naturally, a lover of beautiful places and all things outdoors. The former Managing Editor of SURFER Magazine and Editor of SALTED, she now splits her time between freelance editorial and copywriting / strategy for commercial projects. Janna is currently traveling around the country with her fiancee in a built-out Sprinter van in search of epic adventures and free Wifi.

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