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Vol. 8, No. 1
February/March 2005


The Flow Masters 

by Catharine Lo

Mark Cunningham at Waimea Bay.
photo: Wayne Levin

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor or a used car salesman, short or tall, black or white, rich or poor, young or old—the love for the sea is universally felt. When the water washes over you, your outer identity dissolves, and it comes down to you and the ocean. Maybe you seek to conquer waves the size of buildings, maybe you simply enjoy bobbing up and down near the shore. Either way, the vast infinity of blue makes your earthbound worries seem minor. For those moments, you are anonymous, and you are free.

When it comes to relinquishing their earthly ambitions, bodysurfers are among the most abandoned creatures on the planet. With nothing but swim fins and Speedos, they engage the waves and let the ocean take over. They are purists to the nth degree. "On a board, the focus is on the way the board is flowing, the way its edge or rail is trimming," says Oahu bodysurfer Chris Robinson. "Bodysurfing is more direct. The focus is on the entire body, from hand to feet, feeling the flow of the energy." The result, he reveals, is "a sense of flying unassisted."

Each winter, the world’s most prestigious bodysurfing contests are held at the indomitable Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. This year, the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, the world championship, takes place January 29 to February 4; the Quiksilver Ke Kaha Nalu Hanana O Ehukai runs from March 27 to April 4. Pipe is a great place for spectators—waves come crashing down like guillotine blades less than 100 feet from shore. "The waves are so close, you can sense the exhilaration of the riders, and you can feel the pain of the wipeouts," says legendary bodysurfer Mark Cunningham. And when it’s big, it’s brutal: "At big Pipeline, the thrill factor changes. It goes from being pure fun to pure fun punctuated by absolute terror," says Chris.

When it’s big, ten-foot waves rear, pitch and explode into cavernous barrels just a few feet above jagged reef. Typically the sacred domain of expert board riders, this wave is reserved for surfers who are willing to assume the ultimate risk for the ultimate thrill. The bodysurfers who compete at Pipe are the best in the world; to say that these water men are adept at their sport is, as Southern California bodysurfer JT Nickelson puts it, like saying a NASCAR racer knows how to drive.

Mark Cunningham
photo: Rick Gomez

For eighteen years, Pipeline was Mark Cunningham’s office. The high-profile lifeguard, who is one of the world’s truly masterful bodysurfers, saw much of modern surf history being made, and he’s on a first-name basis with all of surfing’s greats. Transworld Surf calls him "the lifeguard of the Universe."