Article

Legendary Hawaiian Waterman Discusses His Career

Interview With North Shore Legend Mark Cunningham

| posted on July 22, 2010

In April of 2005, Mark Cunningham, 55, celebrated the end of his stellar 30-year Hawaiian lifeguard career, most of which was spent on the North Shore of Oahu with a very special breed of waterman. His list of former work colleagues is a veritable “who’s who” of Hawaiian surfing lore: Buffalo Keaulana, Eddie Aikau, Darrick Doerner, Rell Sunn and Tiger Espere. And while Cunningham himself has achieved legendary status, he’s done so in quite a different way. Aside from being the man who spent most of his days on the tower at Ehukai Beach Park, a.k.a. Pipeline, he’s earned a solid reputation as the world’s preeminent bodysurfer. His first North Shore Bodysurfing Championship came while he was in high school in 1974. His last one came in 2000, at the age of 44. In between he nabbed roughly 14 other titles, but even more impressive, thousands of friends and acquaintances from all over the world. In fact,
he’s become adoptive father to many North Shore surfers, including our Guest Editors
Jack Johnson and Chris Malloy, who strongly suggested it was a good time to catch up
with Mr. Cunningham. We couldn’t agree more. — Chris Mauro

So is it true you actually surf really well?

Ah, that’s a stretch. But I really do enjoy surfing. I have what my friend Jackson Browne calls a “gentleman’s thruster.” But you’ll rarely see me on the North Shore because I just don’t want to make an ass of myself. I don’t want to blow my cover. I’ll go to less crowded spots when I go and do what I call my “standup comic routine.”

Where did the conscious decision to be primarily a bodysurfer originate?

Well, I started surfing a reef off Niu Valley where I grew up, but it was pre-leash. So to be a surfer back then you had to be a strong swimmer and you sort of had to know how to bodysurf so that you could ride waves in after your board. And sort of an older neighborhood guy, wonderful guy, Herbie Kaninson, he was a Niu Valley local out there, and he was lifeguarding at Sandy Beach, and he saw me swimming and bodysurfing after waves. And he goes, “Hey, you’re doing that more than you’re standing on the board. Why don’t you try out these fins and come to the beach with me?” So I did and I just took a real liking to it. I was pretty tall and gangly
and uncoordinated as an adolescent so I was falling off my boards, and this was shortboard
revolution era—when designs were just really crude, and there was a lot of crap out there that just did not work. So maybe that’s my excuse for not being such a good surfer. But my long, skinny, gangly body fit in at Sandy Beach and Makapuu real easy. I just really enjoyed it.

When would you say your relationship with Pipeline really began?

When I first started going out there, I was actually on break from school at UC Santa Barbara, where I was playing water polo and on the swim team. I was in the best shape of my life. There I was, 20 years old and just fit as a fiddle, and stoked out of my mind. I could not swim enough. Mind you, this was before Boogie boards were invented. So imagine the Pipeline lineup without any sponges out there. And then with the advent of the leash and Boogie boards, and just the skill level of today’s surfers is just mind-boggling how good those guys are out there. I mean, back in the day, early on, it was just like, “Wow! You can surf Pipeline?” And now everyone and his brother is out there. Back 30 years ago, there was still lots of room for
improvement of what could be done.

I think what’s so impressive about your work out there is that you’ve shattered the average career arc of a Pipeline surfer.

Well yeah, that’s because they’re taking off at the peak and just getting the crap beat out of ’em [laughs]. I’m waiting on the shoulder picking and choosing. I mean, when I was younger and stronger and more flexible and would heal faster, you know, I took a handful of crazy drops. But bodysurfing is just such a different animal than surfing.