It was a gray and stormy Saturday morning at Ocean Beach the next day for the first San Francisco Bodysurfing Classic, but that didn’t stop a couple dozen hardy competitors at the “Pill Box” at the end of Lincoln Street. The contest was organized by San Francisco surfer/shaper Danny Hess, with a lot of help from his friends. That morning, 78 bodysurfers paid $15 each to compete in 13 heats of six, half an hour in the water, top two waves scored.
The contest was more of an expression session and the expression was: “Frick, I’m freezing my nards off.” One guy did it in Speedos, which was just crazy, because San Francisco is butt-ass cold in November, and the weather was gray and stormy. This was a day for laying in bed and avoiding, but the contest went on as guys and gals swam their butts off in a strong current, while the Malloy brothers and others used binoculars did their best to determine if the bodysurfer in the purple bathing cap had just done a spinner, or was that the bodysurfer in the black bathing cap?
Identifying styles from a distance was the challenge at Ocean Beach that morning, and as the surf cleaned up, the contest structure broke down. Instead of the 13 heats of six whittling down to four quarterfinals, then a semi and a final, at some point the organizers chattered “Screw it” through their teeth and awarded the Top Three finishers. Mark Cunningham was number one, and his trophy signified that, as it was a hand with a raised middle finger.
In the Honolulu Advertiser story in 2005, Cunningham was looking forward to his retirement: “”I have a whole other life ahead of me.”
Three years later, there was another Advertiser story called The Pipeline Retirement which showed how that life was going: “The simple theory behind Mark Cunningham’s approach to fitness is to keep moving, preferably in the ocean, where bodysurfing the Banzai Pipeline is his religion.”
The story described Cunningham’s fitness plan as a cross-training mix of paddleboarding, swimming, snorkeling and yard work: “I really like to mix it up,” Cunningham said in that story. “And I love snorkeling, snooping around and looking for shells and treasures. And I love yard work, trimming hedges and putting that in the compost heap, and raking the yard.”
Cunningham in his 50s is like the tall, lean, super-cool version of the retired guy combing the beach with a metal detector. According to Chris Malloy, Cunningham’s house is a museum, when people come to see him: A temple of flotsam and jetsam collected along the bottom and the shore after many many years:
“MC is doing very well. He’s stately. He has amassed an amazing collection of flotsam and jetsam over the years: mountains of broken fins, lighters, gold rings, fishing paraphernalia. He displays them at his house like an art installation. I was at his house for a BBQ and Kelly was there with an art type and the guy almost burst out of his skinny pants when he saw Mark’s collections. He swore he could get MC a show in NYC. Mark laughed.”
Cunningham is a Hawaiian kid who “done good”, combining his water skills with dedication to public service and set a high standard for both, either in the tower or in the barrel at Pipeline. He was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1956 but his family moved to Hawaii soon after, and Mark grew up in the Niu Valley on Oahu, about halfway between Haunama Bay and Diamond Head. It’s not hard to imagine Cunningham was tall and gangly as a teenager and he found that his sleek physique was more suited to bodysurfing than standing on a board: “My board surfing was a comedy routine,” he said in the Advertiser. “I was swimming more than riding.”
When Cunningham did gangle to his feet and get an angle going on a wave, he still didn’t enjoy being “on display.” It can be unhealthful to be a haole and stand out in Hawaii, and apparently Cunningham stood so tall on a surfboard they had to divert air traffic: “On a surfboard it’s always like ‘Hey look at me,’” Cunningham was quoted in the Honolulu Advertiser. “ because you’re standing up and I was so tall everyone always could see me.”
Someone suggested Cunningham get some fins and make a short drive to Sandy Beach and try riding in the wave and not on the wave. That worked better, and Cunningham was hooked on a lifetime commitment: “You’re just so close to the wave and usually hidden by it, enveloped in a very personal, one-on-one experience,” Cunningham said in the Advertiser. “There’s a sense of being a part of the ocean as opposed to being on top of it. I love touching the curl. It’s like a fire hose spraying water against your chest …”
Like Gerry Lopez, Don King, Barrack Obama and Jeff Hakman, Cunningham attended high school at Punahou Academy. “I kind of zagged when everyone else zigged and went to college,” Cunningham said to Curt Sanburn for the Honolulu Weekly. “…and from there, you know, you’re supposed to be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor or dentist…or the president of the United States who likes to bodysurf.”
In 1974 as a senior in high school, Cunningham won the North Shore Bodysurfing and Paipo Contest at Pipeline and that started a 15-year domination of bodysurfing events in Hawaii and around the world – including the first two pro events held at Pipeline in 1980 and 1982.
Cunningham’s bodysurfing dominance was usurped by Mike Stewart twice in the annual Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, but Cunningham came back to win it in 2000 at age 44.
He began lifeguarding in Santa Barbara at the age of 20, in 1974 and started with the City and County of Honolulu in 1976. Cunningham began lifeguarding around the same time Gerry Lopez was dominant at Pipe, and he took lessons from Gerry’s boardriding style.