This is an interview from Surfline with Mark Cunningham. It pertains to body surfing, but much of it translates to mat surfing as well.
With over 20 years of experience as a lifeguard at Pipeline, Mark Cunningham has spent more time in the water at the “world’s deadliest wave” than most living souls. And that puts him on the long list of greats including Gerry, Kelly, John John, Derek, Andy, and so on.
But unlike his Pipe Specialist peers – who come from different eras and dominated the wave on the specific surf craft of their day – Cunningham occupies a special place amongst the ranks, since he does it without a board. In fact, Cunningham has made such a name for himself over many years of bodysurfing Pipeline (and other waves) that he’s often considered the world’s best in the sans-surfboard waveriding persuasion.
Which came first for you: surfing or bodysurfing?
Board surfing came first. I’m afraid to say how long ago that was, but it was before leashes were invented. It was also during that transition era, when the neighborhood guys were stripping down their longboards and trying their best to adhere them to the newer designs. But basically, we were riding really shitty equipment.
So, most of the time, I would fall off my board swim after it more than I was standing on it as a growth-spurting, gangly teenager. There was an older fellow at our local break who loved his bodysurfing; he was a part-time lifeguard at Sandy Beach. He saw me bodysurfing after my board all day long, and he said, ‘why don’t you try on these Duck Feet.’ And for that tall, gangly teenager, being in the water was much more comfortable than trying to dance on top of it.
What insights does bodysurfing give you into waveriding, which surfing doesn’t?
It gives you a different feel. You’re in the wave, you’re a part of the wave, the wave’s energy is going through you. Bodysurfing is a lot slower than board surfing. You don’t have this flotation device, which allows you to go much slower. It slows down the whole wave dance, as it were. And that gives you more time to feel it and appreciate it all.
I board surf still and I sorta get stage fright. I feel like I’m so exposed to the whole world. If it’s your turn and you’re in the spot, all eyes are on you. And those expectations aren’t put on you as a bodysurfer. Nobody expects you to rip, or to snag the wave of the day. That makes bodysurfing more enjoyable, less stressful – at least for me.
Physically, the benefits of bodysurfing – or swimming – are pretty apparent when it comes to surfing. But how can bodysurfing help your surfing mentally?
Bodysurfing affords you patience. You’re not going to get the peak wave, you’re not going to be in pole position. Likely, there’s going to be a surfer or bodyboarder who’s going to beat you to that spot. As a bodysurfer, you’re more of a bottom-feeder sitting in the channel. You’re feasting on the scraps, hoping guys will eat shit, and you can pick off their wave on the shoulder. In that sense, it sort of humbles you; it makes you appreciate waves a bit more, because when you get one it’s a real treat. And because, with a board, you’re paddling like a rabid dog and going after anything you can catch. You’re not as mobile bodysurfing. It slows things down a bit.
It teaches you an appreciation for waves and how precious they are. A long ride bodysurfing is only a couple seconds before you’re swallowed by whitewater. Bodysurfing makes board surfers appreciate waves when they’re going so far and so fast and how much ground they’re covering.
How do you approach a wave differently in bodysurfing versus surfing?
Just like board surfing, it all depends on the break – how crowded it is, how fast it is, is it a pointbreak, is it a slammer. At this point in my life, I like longer and gentler rides. But growing up at Sandy Beach, it was the quick reflex of hard, dumping shorebreak.
Positioning in bodysurfing is definitely different. For example, out at Pipeline, you’re not going to be jockeying for position at the peak. Even if it was empty. It’s just too steep and too fast; the body can’t do that. So, you’re more so on the shoulder, where you at least have a chance to ride the wave for a little while, as opposed to the wave freight training without you.
What does bodysurfing offer that surfing does not?
It’s definitely a lot easier to travel as a bodysurfer. All you need is a pair of fins and a towel. It’s also a great workout, head-to-toe. You’re constantly treading water and that’s a full body workout just to stay afloat. I also think bodysurfing is more of a challenge than board surfing. Because like board surfing, the takeoff and the drop-in are the hardest to learn. But once you’re on the face, and you’re trying to achieve that synchronicity with the wave, you don’t have that flotation device. Your body is the board, and you’re trying to get 150 or 200 pounds of weight moving on this wave all on its own. That makes it a bit harder of a workout than board surfing.
What makes for a good bodysurfing wave?
Well, here’s an example: you never see a bodysurfer backdoor a wave at Off-the-Wall. It’s way too fast, steep, and hollow. A guy can drop in and get a glory shot, then get worked on the reef. On the other hand, you’ll see quite a few guys bodysurfing the shoulder at Pipeline, because it will taper off and it will peel towards the Gums sandbar. Obviously, I’m prejudiced towards Ehukai sandbar. I love sandbars, because I don’t have to worry about being pummeled on rocks or reef. And then going the other direction from Ehukai, Pupukea is a fun, softer, slower wave. I really enjoy bodysurfing there. Whenever I’m watching surf videos, if I see guys doing a bunch of cutbacks, I think that’d be a good bodysurfing wave. I’d be able to get a good glide on that wave. That snowballing whitewater will propel me down the line.
Then, in California, the preeminent spot is the Wedge. And I’ve seen beautiful shots out there, which make me fantasize about getting a piece of that. But in reality, it’s more often than not a crazy, life-threatening, crash-and-burn on the sand type of wave. Don’t get me wrong, the Wedge is an amazing wave. But I’m glad I’m not 20 years old anymore, because I’d have to go prove myself out there.
What makes for good bodysurfing fins?
I’ve been wearing Da Fin for about 20 years, because it’s a very soft shoe pocket and a plenty powerful blade. Back in the day, when I first started lifeguarding and bodysurfing, you had two choices: it was either the ultra-soft and comfortable Churchills, which weren’t powerful; or you had the Duck Feet that were longer and stiffer, and although they were less comfortable, they were more powerful.
Nowadays, with the advent of bodyboarding, there are so many fins on the market that I just tell people to go with whatever fits their foot the best. A lot of those bodyboarding fins are shorter and stubbier – the bodyboarders don’t need as much blade; and they want to pull their fins out of the water for aerials and drop-knee – whereas I think bodysurfers want more power and more blade.
What are some tips for surfers looking to get into bodysurfing?
Make sure your suit stays on. Know how to swim. Kick like hell when you’re in the water – and that means matching your momentum with the wave, which is so much harder when you don’t have a board under you. And finally, come out of the water smiling. If you don’t come out of the water more stoked than when you went in, then you’re doing it all wrong.