Bodysurfing with Mark Cunningham
I, like you, spend most of my time in the ocean riding a surfboard. In fact, I rarely enter the water without some type of surf craft under my arm. And while there is nothing wrong with this, I felt that my surf experience lacked the au naturel aspect that it somehow required. Bodysurfing is the obvious antidote to this affliction, and who better than the legendary Mark Cunningham to teach me the subtle intricacies of this oft-overlooked art. At 53, Mark is easily the most recognizable1 and popular bodysurfer in the world today. Appearances in films such as Sprout and A Broke Down Melody, as well as a profile in the November 2005 issue of SURFER, have made this long-serving North Shore lifeguard a veritable celebrity figure both in and out of the surf world—and with good reason. Finally, I thought, as I eagerly awaited Mark’s arrival in the parking lot at Pipeline, a Surf Tip experiment without the familiar feelings of dread and terror that usually accompany it. At least that’s what I thought before Mark showed up.
“If you want to learn to bodysurf,” Cunningham said as we stood at the lifeguard tower at Ehukai Beach Park, his eyes betraying a feigned gravitas, “then you’ll have to wear a Speedo.”
Watching Mark Cunningham bodysurf is like watching the keel of a polished racing yacht cut through oil.
I had been half-expecting this, but since I did not own a Speedo, I thought2 that I might be exempt from the embarrassment of having to wear one. I knew that Mark had no problem parading around the beach in his man-kini, and the benefits of wearing one in the water are obvious3, but typically it’s not my style. Mark, of course had his Speedo on, and had brought along a pair of Michael Phelps-esque tights, which he planned to don for the sake of my education. So right there in the parking lot at Pipe, Cunningham wrapped a towel around his waist and peeled off his Speedo, handing it to me in a tight, warm ball. Not only would I be mortified walking down the most photographed stretch of coastline on the planet wearing surf-panties, but I’d also do so while being severely grossed-out.
After my upper thighs—which in earnest hadn’t seen direct sunlight since the early ’90s–had blinded everyone on the beach who felt the morbid compulsion to look at them, it was time for a quick tutorial in bodysurfing basics. Mark outfitted me with a pair of Da Fin swim fins, but reckoned the only criteria for choosing a pair of fins is comfort.
“We’ll start with catching a wave,” Mark said, clearly overjoyed at my discomfort. “In bodysurfing, you have to work hard to catch a wave, you have to play your hunches and keep moving.”
He had a harder time explaining what to do once the wave was caught: “It’s so hard to describe, or verbalize, but basically you try and make your body like a surfboard: stiff, strong, and responsive.”
Since I would hardly consider my body strong or responsive, I figured I was in for a bumpy ride.
“You are constantly flexing and adjusting,” Mark continued, adding, “If you get a steep wave, roll onto your side, that will make you more streamlined, almost like having less board in the water. And remember,” he concluded, “bodysurfing is like waterpolo: so much of the game is underwater.”
Considering Mark’s legendary status, I guess you could say that the Speedo I was wearing was a big one to fill, but after he coached me into my first wave I was convinced I had this bodysurfing thing wired. That was, until I saw Mark catch his first wave. Watching Mark Cunningham bodysurf is like watching the keel of a polished racing yacht cut through oil. His body is a study in hydrodynamics, his movements a lesson in economy of motion. I quickly realized that my progress down the wave face bore a closer resemblance to that of a wet bag tangled in a fishing line. I clearly had a lot to learn.
Mark loves being a bodysurfer, and I can see why. “After all,” he says, “it’s always overhead!” But the new sensations that bodysurfing offered made a below-average day, surf-wise, far more entertaining. There are also a number of ways it can benefit your actual surfing.
Since you lack the elevation that sitting on a surfboard gives you, I found “playing your hunches” to be a major part of the experience, and successfully doing so made me feel more in-tune with the ocean.
“Bodysurfing has taught me patience,” says Mark, who takes a pragmatic view of his time in the water at places such as Pipeline. “I go out not expecting to catch anything, but sometimes I’ll get a few scraps and that’s great. It’s just cool to be that close to all the action.”
But all that waiting is exhausting. Since you’re constantly treading water or swimming, three hours in the water proved to be a great workout. Although I am not sure I’ll bodysurf as much in the colder water of California (“Bodysurfing in a wetsuit is like sex with a rubber. It’s good, but not as good,” says Mark.). I can guarantee I will pack a set of swim fins on every trip I take going forward. As for the Speedo, I can’t deny the advantage of being so streamlined, but I think I’ll put off buying one until ridiculously white upper thighs becomes fashionable.
1. Not counting Barack.
2. Nay, prayed.
3. If not, then here they are: Less drag = More glide ? A better bodysurfing experience.