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Mark Cunningham: The Human Pintail

Mark Cunningham Bodysurfing Pipeline

Mark Cunningham bodysurfing Pipeline.

Mark Cunningham is a bodysurfer.  In his words, he’s a “one trick pony” and he’ll guffaw at the mere mention of the title ‘waterman’.  But calling Cunningham a ‘bodysurfer’ is to call Kelly Slater ‘a surfer’, Picasso ‘a painter’ or Shaun White ‘that snowboard guy’.  Mark is magic in the water and has been referred to by those in the know as one of the best surfers to ever grace our oceans.  Watch his sections in Keith Malloy’s bodysurfing movie Come Hell or High Water and you’ll get a glimpse at his extraordinary abilities.  

Honing his skills at Pipeline in Hawaii (at which he also lifeguarded for 18 years), Cunningham developed a penchant for launching his body down the hollowest waves imaginable.  His unique approach blew the doors off everyone’s concept of riding a wave and he regularly bagged the biggest, deepest barrels with just swim fins, a speedo and some finely tuned flexing.  The coconut underground has stories about a lone speck bodysurfing maxing Pipe when not even board surfers wanted to give it a whirl.  And no, Mark won’t tell you about these days, simply because he’s not a chest-beater.  When I asked about the biggest day he had scored, he just mumbled something about not really being able to remember what people called it.

What’s mind-blowing about Mark’s bodysurfing is his control.  He’ll take-off late on an 8ft, spitting, hollow slab and not slide-out on the descent.  He’ll stick to the wave face like he’s got a Velcro strip taped to his abs.  It appears as though he’s directing the wave and will go in and out of the barrel at will.  It’s why he’s been referred to as “The Human Pintail”.  


Mark Cunningham & Kelly Slater Bodysurfing Sumatra

I can’t help but feel there’s a clear example of Cunningham’s influence in Slater’s mind-blowing backside approach to Pipe.  Slater’s butt and back drag to push deeper into the barrel was unprecedented when he first came onto the scene.  No one before had manhandled Pipe quite like him and that’s saying something given the performances of Gerry Lopez, Tom Carroll, Dane Kealoha, Rory Russell, Shaun Tomson, brothers Mike & Derek Ho and a whole array of other chargers.  Kelly Slater found a new way and it would come to redefine backside surfing in hollow waves.  So, where did the approach come from?  Was it part of the rumored deal that Slater made with the Devil? Thankfully, I don’t believe it was.  Slater had been going to Hawaii for many years before his breakout Pipe performance in 1992 and he would have seen Cunningham at his peak, ruling the Pipe line-up in his quiet way.  Given Cunningham’s use of every inch of his body (including his back, butt, legs, arms, chest and abs), it’s entirely possible that Kelly adapted elements of Mark’s technique to his surfing.  But good luck getting Mark to admit to this.  He’d scoff at the mention, because he’s just that understated. Rad guy. Game changer.  Truly let’s his bodysurfing do the talking.

It was my great honor to speak with Mark Cunningham and it was everything to keep my Mark Cunningham fan club membership under wraps.  Read on for our conversation…

Mark Cunningham - InnerViews

Mark Cunningham “InnerViews” from Korduroy. 

TSV:  So, though you are from Hawaii, you have East Coast roots, correct?

Mark: Yes, I was made in Hawaii, but I was born in Massachusetts.  My father was an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Agency and he got stationed in Hawaii during WWII.  My dad was pure Irish and my mom was pure Lithuanian and they were both from Boston. So, they went back east in 1955 so that I could be born and also so they could look after my two older sisters.  And then, when I was a couple of months, they moved back to Hawaii.

TSV:  Well, it also seems that you spend a fair amount of time in NY, given that you’ve gone there for several art shows and such.

Mark:  Actually, I’ve only been there a couple of times, which is a couple of more times than most Hawaiians.

TSV:  Haha, well, what have been your impressions, given that you’ve had gallery showings there and all?

Mark:  Yeah.  I refer to myself as an “Oahu Opihi”.  An opihi is one of those limpets that clings really hard to rocks.  I call myself that because I don’t get off the island much. You know, I got out of here several times in the last few years and when I go to the mainland, my head gets totally discombobulated.  I’m so used to being on the island and there’s the ocean and there’s the mountains and I know exactly where I am.  Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of our great country.  I mean, NYC is the capital of the world with its history, all the culture and incredible variety and somehow it keeps working 24/7.  Where do you usually surf?

TSV:  A little all over, but usually Seaside Heights, Spring Lake and everywhere in between. It’s a great stretch, especially in the winter, much like you guys on the North Shore.  Of course, it’s nowhere as big.

Mark: I’ve never surfed in NJ, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures and I know it gets good.

TSV:  Oh it does.  So, in terms of your art, are you looking to do more? What’s down the road?

Mark:  Yeah, I’m a quasi-artist. I’m a retired lifeguard by trade [29 years total] and calling myself an ‘artist’ is a bit of stretch and an insult to artists.  But, my ex-wife is a photographer and we were together for 18 years and she taught me an awful lot about composition, balance, how nice things look together etc and I’ve always appreciated that.  It’s funny, but when I’m bobbing in the channel, I tend to line-up with the water photographers and I so appreciate the imagery they collect, because that’s my little zone and I can relate to it. I just appreciate art and creativity. I’ve been collecting things off the bottom of the ocean for many many years and I started to create things with it and that was my first venture into it and hopefully there’s more where that came from.  The materials are there.  I just have to get off my lazy ass.  

TSV:  Well, I loved the Found Objects exhibit in NYC.

Mark:  Partners & Spade is a great organization and that was an honor to have that exhibit.

TSV:  Watching ‘Come Hell or High Water’, I was blown away by the fact that you never ‘slid ass’ when dropping into even macking Pipe. No matter how steep or hollow a wave was, you always held your line.

Mark: I carry a heavy hand.

TSV:  Hahaha…I can’t even begin to ask you how that’s possible, if just out of respect for the work and time you’ve put in…

Mark:  Well, that’s good because I could never explain it.  It’s just developing a feel for it and the repetition.  People always ask, you know, how I do it, and it’s just your body torqueing and reacting to however the wave hits you and getting you from Pt. A to Pt. B without sliding out.  Riding a wave is just so ‘NOW’ that you can’t even think about it.  It’s just pure reaction.

TSV:  Well, it made me think a lot about George Greenough with his Velo board and ½ inflated air mats that he used in his work with flex and weight distribution and I wondered if anyone has ever somehow applied your techniques to board design.

Mark:  No. Thank God. The highest compliment that I ever got…and it may have been Sam George or Gerry Lopez…was that he called me ‘The Human Pintail.”

TSV:  Oh that’s perfect!

Mark: You know though, you do slide out.  I mean there’s no edge on a human body.  You’re just trying to find something to ride on, to control the human body by things that stick out or whatever…But the body is the slowest surf craft without a doubt.  

TSV:  But you seem to have better control than any other type of craft.

Mark:’s a different type of control. I would never say one’s faster or slower than anything else. It’s just all very different.

TSV:  And what about handplanes?  There’s a big push, even out here on the East Coast, for those.

Mark:  Isn’t that crazy?!

TSV:  Crazy!

Mark:  On the West Coast too! All the surf shops have handfuls of ‘em. And I think that’s wonderful.  It’s the embracing of the philosophy of different crafts for different waves…There’s guys on the North Shore that rip on those things.  I just like the freedom of bodysurfing and not being attached to a board.  The real plus side…is that they give people an opportunity to use their hands and ‘shape a board’.   I mean, people could grab a scrap of lumber on the side of the road and make something out of it—give it rails etc, whatever it takes. There’s a company called Enjoy Handplanes and they make beautiful ones. I believe the reason is that they’re using recycled broken surfboards and their handstraps are made of neoprene from recycled wetsuits. Plus, they’ve got some beautiful artwork on ‘em too.  It’s another option.  It’s just fun.  And every craft has its day.

TSV:  So, what does Pipe mean to you?

Mark:  I just can’t believe how lucky I am to live and work there and watch the show all those years.  Regardless of the surfers, the white sand beaches and coastline is just stunning. It’s got so many different moods and there’s a nice community that lives here.  People forget that it’s like a neighborhood and community…When I was first going up to Pipe in high school, I would see Butch van Artsdalen (the original Mr. Pipeline), then Rory Russell, Gerry Lopez, Jackie Dunn, Brian Bulkley…then on it went with the Irons brothers, Kelly, John John.  It was great to see what incredible athletes these guys are and what an incredible challenge it was to surf Pipeline.  

TSV:  But you have to know that you’re in that group?  You’ve been called one the best waterman at Pipe over the last 30 years.  

Mark:  Don’t believe the hype.

TSV:  Haha!   Come on, you’ve got to let that into your heart!

Mark: I just do and let others comment on it. I’m honored that people think of me like that, but I don’t know that I am worthy of the title…I’m a one-trick pony.  Some of my friends are incredible free divers and pull their dinner out of the water or they sail or jetski or paddle into monster, crazy waves and I just go swimming.

TSV:  Well it’s what you love doing.  

Mark:  It is. At 58, I feel pretty blessed to still be able to go for a swim.  [And by “a swim”, Cunningham means bodysurfing maxing Pipe!]

TSV:  Did you ever find another Pipe out there?

Mark:  As I said, I don’t get off the rock much….But I’m sure there are other Pipelines out there. There has to be. Pipeline is not the end all, be all. It is a fun, dangerous and challenging wave. It’s the deadliest wave in the world, but there are thousands and thousands of great waves in the world that haven’t seen exposure and they should count their blessings.  As I get older, I don’t need a Pipeline.  I’d take something a little more user-friendly. (Laughs)

TSV:  So, what’s next for you?

Mark:  Ummm…I really want to see what’s going to happen with the ASP in the next couple of years, as a fan of surfing.  I want to see where this new ASP organization is going to take it.

TSV:  ZoSea, right?

Mark:  Yes.  I was in California a couple of weeks ago for the United States Lifesaving Association’s annual competition…and the World Bodysurfing Championships, which I made the final and was happy with that.  

TSV:  Wow.

Mark: But in between both, I went to the ASP office in Santa Monica with a couple of mutual friends and, as a fan of pro surfing, I’m just so excited.  They boiled [the new arrangement with ZoSea] all down to the desire to make pro surfing even better.  Billabong, Quiksilver, Volcom, Rip Curl and the others have taken it about as far as they can and now ASP wants to see a bit more continuity to the tour and let those companies go back to producing product, which is what their thing is, whereas the ASP can produce the events/contests themselves and maintain control of all 12 events.  The sponsors will still be a part of it.  Anyway, I’m excited to see what the ASP does!  I’m looking forward to this winter because I want to bodysurf some more.  I want to get some discipline and create some [art pieces] with the things I’ve found along the shore and if I get to do a little travelling, that’d be great.

TSV:  Are you involved with the ASP at all?

Mark:  Not officially.  I might get involved with their water patrol or safety, but that’s still being talked about…The lifeguard in me is always concerned about safety.  

TSV:  That’d be a nice gig to be able to travel with the tour.  

Mark:  Yeah! It would be. Hey, just in closing, I’d love to say a bit more about Come Hell or High Water.

TSV:  Of course!

Mark:  We did a little barnstorm tour with Patagonia on the West Coast and given some of the response we got with this movie, I am just so touched and honored and blown away by how kind people are in  their response to the film.  The biggest compliment I received-and I heard it more than once-was someone saying, ‘Your film inspired me to get a pair of fins. The last time I bodysurfed was over twenty years ago and I saw your film and now I’ve got a pair of fins in my car.’  I have such a love and passion for bodysurfing and I had no idea how many people have thanked Keith for making that movie.  I just feel so lucky that my sport was represented in such a quality film. I feel very fortunate for that.

TSV:  I have to tell you that it was absolutely mind-blowing.  It definitely gave bodysurfers a deserved spotlight.  

Mark:  I think bodysurfing guys walked around with their heads held a little higher after that film.

TSV:  That film did for me with bodysurfing what bodyboarding with my step-son did and that was opening up my mind to riding the right craft for the given conditions.  It completely shredded my thoughts of what was cool or not cool.

Mark: I encourage people to go bodysurfing if just for another perspective on waves.  You know, getting through rips or paddling for waves, your whole dance is different.  And you see things from water level as opposed to sitting on a board 4 feet above the water.  It’s just different.

TSV:  Well, we can’t thank you enough, Mark, for your time today.  Very much appreciate it.  

Mark:  Alright, man.  Good chatting with you, Mike. Take care.

So, expand your understanding of the ocean and how you see waves by getting some fins and perhaps even a speedo. It’s right up there as one of the most fun things you can do with barely any clothes on!