Issue 8.1: 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."

Mark grew up in Niu Valley, just east of Honolulu. "Bodysurfing was a lot more acceptable and popular in those days," he recalls. "You had to know how to swim and bodysurf. It was much more a rite of passage." Now fifty, he is as enthusiastic as ever about his aquatic trysts with Mother Nature. His 6’4" lanky build flows gracefully on the wave, proof of his intrinsic connection with the water.

"A big part of the magic is that you have to be there," he says. "You have to be focused. Sitting out there, it’s hard to be distracted about mortgages, traffic, the grocery list, the to do’ list...Even when it’s inconsistent, you’re still in the moment. You’re thinking, Oh gosh, there’s another double rainbow,’ or, Is that another humpback whale out there?’ That’s hard to do in this day and age.

"The important thing is to come out of the ocean with a smile on your face," he says with a wink. "If you don’t, you’re doing something wrong."

When it comes to competition, Mark Cunningham’s nemesis is his best friend, Mike Stewart. The forty-one-year-old, blue-eyed, buzz-cut blonde from Laupähoehoe is one of the best bodyboarders on the planet. He is as ordinary as the boy next door, riding his bike to check the waves, stopping to say hi to friends and neighbors—watching him, you’d never know he’s a nine-time bodyboarding world champion. But when you see him in the water, there’s no question: He dominates the waves, gliding fluidly and spinning effortlessly.

"I’d like to take a look at his passport," Mark says admiringly. "When bodyboarding was booming, he circled the globe countless times, but he still kept a home base on the North Shore. It’s unbelievable what Mike has accomplished on a bodyboard. And when he sets his board aside, he is still one of the biggest, unsung wave-riding heroes out there."

photo: Wayne Levin

For over a decade, Mike has been the undisputed favorite in the bodysurfing contests. He’s won the Pipeline Classic ten times in the past fifteen years, the last four in a row. But he remains humble.

"Bodysurfers ride waves for the pure pleasure of the experience, not for the money, not for the recognition," he says. And it’s true: Bodysurfing is not a high-profile, commercially backed sport the way that board surfing is ("there’s not a lot of logo space on bun-huggers," Mike jokes). But there is an unspoken tribal respect for bodysurfers. A surfer tethered to his floating board is easily humbled when someone swims out to face the same perilous conditions with no safety net. "In the water, bodysurfing is so unthreatening to other forms of wave-riding that it is basically off the hierarchical radar," Mike says. "It is the only form of wave riding where you can walk up to practically any beach in the world without having a stigma attached to you."

Still, at a renowned and crowded surf break like Pipeline, bodysurfers must sometimes be scavengers, forced to take the leftovers. They sit more inside the take-off zone, waiting for someone to eat it so they can take off on the shoulder.

One of the most recognized Pipeline riders is the booming Alec Cooke, a.k.a. Ace Cool, a wild-haired, sun-kissed surf reporter for the North Shore News and big-wave maverick who refuses to grow old. Ace is a gregarious, hyper-energetic surf hound who runs around like a beachcomber version of Don Quixote. His privacy and peace is found in the monster surf. "No one sees, no one knows..." he says mysteriously, "but you’re there all alone with the ocean, and you get a feeling that Nature and Mother Ocean feel your joy and share your excitement, thrills and enjoyment. It is very gratifying."

Several of the world’s most famous and talented surfers—Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, the Malloy brothers—free themselves from their boards (and the fame they’ve gained from them) to engage in a more soulful exchange with the waves. The heat sheets for the Pipeline Classic always include the names of pro surfers. Professional water photographers and beach lifeguards are also avid bodysurfers, an occupational benefit.

"All North Shore lifeguards are very adept at bodysurfing. It’s an essential lifesaving skill, and it keeps them fit," Mark points out. "We’re happy that it’s somewhat under the radar, somewhat underground. Deep down inside, bodysurfers are proud to be bodysurfers."

I saw him beat the surges under him,
And ride upon their backs; he trod the water,
Whose enmity he flung aside, and breasted
The surge most swoln that met him; his bold head
Bove the contentious waves he kept, and oar’d
Himself with his good arms in lusty stroke
To the shore, that o’er his wave-worn basis bow’d,
As stooping to relieve him: I not doubt
He came alive to land.
–William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Laird Hamilton
photo: Eric Aeder

Even the Bard tried to capture the essence of bodysurfing in words. It’s not an easy thing to do: Surfers often can’t fully convey the extraordinary fulfillment they feel on their profound, transcendental rides—their words are like postcards that can’t do justice to breathtaking landscapes. Still, you can always sense the deep commitment to the ocean and the sport. In 2000, Chris Robinson posted a series of personal vignettes about surfing Pipeline by moonlight:

"There’s something mystical about being out in six-feet Pipe by yourself in the moonlight. No, no, I wrote mystical, not stupid. Strange moods and emotions well up."

On another night, he found himself trading waves with Kelly Slater:

"Tonight was a mixed plate, had some of that fear thing. Five-feet-plus, scooping off the reef, cracking Pipe, inconsistent so it was hard to gauge where to line up. As the last boards went in, there was another bodysurfer dropping in to some nice ones. We’re talking and he’s in the know,’ and I’m thinking, this guy looks like Kelly Slater.

Dark, yea, so I ask who I’m talking to, and he says, Kelly.’

We continue talking, then he gets one and is gone. Everyone is gone.

Clouds started to hinder the light show, and it’s hard to tell where the horizon is. I’m thinking, It’s going to go black, then white, then this white boy is going to be getting funky on the reef....’

Blue phosphorescent spots form when I stroke through the water, a potentially dangerous distraction. Got some good rides.

I only mention Slater to show he’s got soul."

Chris grew up close to Newport Beach in the ’60s, near a notorious bodysurfing spot called The Wedge. His childhood heroes were the veteran bodysurfers he saw around him, and now he has filled their shoes. An electrician by trade, he lives in Haleiwa and each winter hosts an entourage of the world’s best bodysurfers in for the big surf. One of his perennial houseguests is French bodysurfer and photographer Laurent Masurel, who lives in Biarritz and has a gentle, unassuming demeanor; he speaks softly, often apologizing—needlessly—for his English.


photo: Wayne Levin

Laurent recently collaborated with writer Hugo Verlomme on the most comprehensive reference on bodysurfing in the world, the book Bodysurf. In it, they claim this about Pipeline: "La violence de la vague n’empeche pas d’apprecier l’aventure"—the violence of the wave does not inhibit the love of the adventure. Or, to put it another way: You may get hammered, but you’ll still be stoked.

Bodysurfers launching into the tube at Pipeline resemble daredevils blasted from a cannon, but with an inverted trajectory. Ideally, a west swell delivers long left barrels or a north-northwest swell opens Backdoor, Pipeline’s sister right-peeling wave.

When the swell reaches ten to twelve feet, an outer reef begins to break. It fringes at its crest, allowing surfers to drop in even earlier and to set up for the now-terrifying huge inside break. "To cope with second-reef Pipeline, you must be sure of your physical abilities," Laurent warns. "You must be a really good swimmer, trained in dynamic apnea. Don’t panic when you

see huge sets—you consume more oxygen. You must be Zen. I always say, You will finish at the water’s

surface.’ You must read well the waves, grab the wave and like to be afraid." The best bodysurfers, he says, can swim 100 meters in anywhere from fifty-two seconds to a minute.

"On a big day at Pipe...if you get sucked over the falls, it is like riding a boxcar off a cliff with a snowpack breaking loose and showering you with a world of hurt, diamonds and spray. Imagine a 200-car train derailing at Donner Pass in the winter."

photo: Eric Aeder

This description comes from another of Chris’ many houseguests, Pipe competitor Wild Bill Osgood, the Hunter Thompson of the bunch, who hails from the cold, dark waters of Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane. The gangly, animated Vietnam vet, who sports thick, horn-rimmed spectacles that make him look like Woody Allen, is now in his fifties. He recently relocated to Honolulu, and his bodysurfing paintings have found a home in a Waikïkï gallery. Still, he plays the role of starving artist, opting to camp in Chris’ backyard rather than crash on a couch.

As the winter waves break along the coast, the bodysurfers at Chris’ house spend their nights sprawled out, telling harrowing surf stories. They watch Monty Python and Tom Lynch bodysurfing movies. Their collective humor is, Chris says, rich, obnoxious and sarcastic. But when day breaks, the duckfins come on. Their surf arsenal includes aptly named artillery: Underwater Demolition Team fins, Vipers, WaveBlades and Surf Shooters. Their prey is Pipe, and they are going to kill it.