Former SURFER Editor/Author
Mark Cunningham Bodysurfer

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.

The Inertia

Kelly Slater bodysurfed Mark Cunningham’s shoulders to victory, the first time he won the World Title in San Francisco. Cunningham is tall and was clearly visible down at the water’s edge when Kelly emerged victorious and it was Mark who lofted Kelly onto his shoulders and “chaired” him to the podium – high above all the photographers and autograph seekers and worshippers and idolators. A nice thing to do, but when word got out that Kelly hadn’t actually won the World Title, and would have to surf one more heat, someone suggested that before that heat, Mark put Kelly back on his shoulders and walk backward to the water in a ceremony to undo that what had been done.

Cunningham was game. He was up for whatever. He has been there for Kelly for many many years, and wasn’t against walking backward across 200 yards of sand with Kelly on his shoulders.

Kelly wasn’t too keen on the idea. He had his game face on and wasn’t going to engage in any hijinx until he really had won that 11th World Title.

It was a little out of context to see Cunningham bundled up against the cold at Ocean Beach – like seeing a six foot four barracuda swimming through the lineup wearing a wetsuit.  But it was also comforting because when Cunningham is around, you just feel safer.

On April 1, 2005, Cunningham retired with 29 years of service as a lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu. Cunningham said, “I was part of the community there. I saw kids grow up, learn to surf, check out the surf, graduate from high school, get married and divorced. A lifeguard gets to be a sort of gatekeeper, guardian, and overseer. It was the perfect fit for me.”

Pipeline is kind of like an old cowboy gunslinger now: What was once considered the most challenging wave in the world has been usurped by Teahupoo and other slabs, but there is no doubt Pipeline is still the most deadly dangerous wave in the world: Pipeline changed the course of Jack Johnson’s life, nearly killed Beaver Massefeller and did kill Malik Joyeux, Jon Mozo and many others.

Pipeline has been the scene of countless dramas, tragedies and heroisms over the years, and Cunningham oversaw many of them as he was a lifeguard at Ehukai/Pipeline for 18 out of 29 years. Cunningham estimates he’s saved “hundreds of people” while “losing about six.” He could write a book, but sums up his lifeguarding experience with a one-liner: “There are a lot of lifeguards who have made a lot of rescues. Doesn’t make any difference how many you save, you never forget the ones you don’t.”

Cunningham was also in San Francisco to make an appearance at a showing of Keith Malloy’s bodysurfing documentary Come Hell or High Water at the Save the Waves Film Festival on Friday night, and then to freeze his okole in the 54-degree water at the first San Francisco Bodysurfing Classic at Ocean Beach on Saturday morning.

Come Hell or High Water is the Endless Summer of bodysurfing – by far the most thoughtful, best-crafted documentary on bodysurfing: From the braddahs at Kewalo Basin to the boys at the Wedge. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for the segment on Don King and his autistic son Beau and the therapy they find together in bodysurfing waves. And there wasn’t a dry throat for the finale, which threw Cunningham, Mike Stewart, Keith Malloy and Durdam Rocherolle into grinding Teahupoo for a bodysurf session.

Come Hell or High Water was a hit at the film festival, and Cunningham stood out on the screen and in the crowd, because he stands about six foot four and is topped with a head of million-dollar hair silvered by decades of ocean and sun exposure. Just as Kelly Slater rocks the chrome dome, Cunningham makes a head of silvery hair look golden.

When there was a shooting up the street the crowd milling about outside moved inside quickly – but everyone felt safer because Cunningham was there.

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