Mark Cunningham: the Pipeline bodysurfing master loves long rides | Photo: Art Brewer

He is a Pipeline specialist who doesn't need a board to get barreled and noticed. Mark Cunningham is the human torpedo and probably the most admired bodysurfer on the planet.

He uses his body like a surfboard and has been "The Transformer."

Mark Cunningham was born in 1955 in Milton, Massachusetts, to an Irish air traffic controller father and a Lithuanian mother.

After World War II, Mark's father was stationed in Hawaii, so a few months after he was born, the family moved to the archipelago so they could also look after his two older sisters.

Mark rode his first waves at Waikiki in Honolulu, Oahu, at age nine.

But at home, things weren't easy. The adults struggled with alcohol abuse.

"It wasn’t like I was getting any physical or even mental abuse," Cunningham revealed in a 1994 interview with Bruce Jenkins for The Surfer's Journal.

"I've never complained about those days. But no, there wasn't a lot of support. It was never, 'Let's pack the picnic basket and go watch Mark compete.'"

However, MC felt good in the water and was soon taking on Makapuu and Sandy Beach before graduating at the North Shore of Oahu.

This was before surf leashes were invented.

Mark Cunningham: probably the most experienced bodysurfer in the history of the sport | Photo: Cunningham Archive

A Prolific Bodysurfer

Mark attended Punahou School like the surfing gods Fred Hemmings, Jimmy Blears, Gerry Lopez, surf photographer Don King, and former US president Barack Obama.

Fred Van Dyke and Peter Cole were teachers there, too. They all had a passion for ocean and wave riding in common.

So, the melting pot set the perfect stage for Cunningham to become the waterman's waterman.

In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Mark Cunningham described himself as a "gangly and uncoordinated teenager."

Cunningham initially surfed a reef off Niu Valley, his childhood home, but this was in the pre-leash era.

Being a surfer then required strong swimming skills and a basic knowledge of bodysurfing to ride waves in after losing one's board.

Cunningham once described his board surfing skills as a "comedic routine," acknowledging that he spent more time swimming than riding the board.

He also contrasted the experiences of surfing on a board and bodysurfing.

While board surfing made him more visible and conspicuous due to his height, bodysurfing offered a more intimate and personal connection with the ocean.

This sentiment was further echoed in his comments about the sensation of being close to the wave and enveloped by it rather than being on top of it.

The feeling of the wave's power against his chest was likened to "a fire hose spraying water," a sensation he deeply cherished.

An older neighborhood resident, Herbie Kaninson, who was lifeguarding at Sandy Beach, noticed Cunningham's swimming and bodysurfing skills.

Noticing his struggles, Kaninson gave him a pair of fins and started taking him to Sandy Beach, near where he grew up.

This experience introduced him to the world of bodysurfing, a natural and enjoyable activity for him during the pre-bodyboard era.

Cunningham was in ninth grade when he first bodysurfed Pipeline.

In 1974, as a senior at Punahou High School, he kicked off a 15-year domination of the North Shore Expressive Surfing Contest and the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, which Mark won several times between 1980 and 2000.

Mark Cunningham: the bodysurfer is also a passionate artist | Photo: Billabong

From College to Tower 26

In the mid-1970s, the man who preferred to be "totally immersed in water" gave college a try by enrolling at UC Santa Barbara and becoming a water polo team member.

However, during his sophomore year's Christmas break in Hawaii, he discovered his father was seriously ill with cancer.

Mark chose to remain at home to support his family.

Following his father's passing two months later, Cunningham felt there was no reason to go back to California.

At the time, the bodysurfer was as fit as he had ever been and starting to master Pipeline like only a few could.

At 20, Mark Cunningham was already an accomplished athlete and a sharp competitor, claiming most regional, national, and international bodysurfing competitions and titles.

His biggest opponent and rival has always been Mike Stewart. But that's in the water. Out of the water, they're friends.

"Mike Stewart is the best bodysurfer in the world. He's like Kelly - he's an alien. He and Laird [Hamilton] and Kelly are definitely from another planet," Cunningham once stated.

Nevertheless, "The Human Pintail," as he is also known, once said that "the term 'bodysurfing contest' is an oxymoron."

Competition and bodysurfing are somehow an impossible, incompatible paradox that he embraced.

In 1974, the bodysurfer began lifeguarding in Santa Barbara before taking on the same role for the City and County of Honolulu at Banzai Pipeline in 1976.

The lifesaving occupation on the North Shore would last 29 years.

Throughout this period, Cunningham witnessed the evolution of wave and tube riding from Gerry Lopez's golden years to Kelly Slater's and Andy Irons's spectacular showdowns.

In three decades, Mark lost around six beachgoers to rough seas but saved hundreds alongside lifeguard partners like Terry Ahue and Sean Ross.

He was a lifeguard at Ehukai/Pipeline's Tower 26 for 18 out of 29 years.

On April 1, 2005, the bodysurfer-turned-lifesaver retired.

"There are a lot of lifeguards who have made a lot of rescues," he told Tim Ryan of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

"It doesn't make any difference how many you save - you never forget the ones you don't."

Kelly Slater and Mark Cunningham: celebrating the Floridian's 11th world surfing title | Photo: Scholtz/ASP

Cool, Charismatic, and Art-Oriented

Mark Cunningham is naturally friendly, laid-back, and low-key.

His friends underline his sense of humor, open mind, humility, coolness, and smooth personality.

One of his friends is Kelly Slater, the multiple-time Pipe Master.

In 2011, Mark Cunningham carried Kelly Slater on his shoulders when the Floridian won his 11th world title in San Francisco.

Interestingly and paradoxically, he was once a founding member of the surf gang Hui O He'e Nalu, or Black Shorts.

"I was at one of the first meetings, and it took all the balls I had to say, 'I want to be a part of this, but I’m not beating anybody up,'" he told Bruce Jenkins in 1994.

"All the guys are like, 'What the hell are you talking about? We’re going to kick some ass here.' But I felt the emphasis on violence was uncalled for."

Mark Cunningham is 6'4". He co-designed M.C. Amber, the DaFiN pro signature swim fin model.

The tall and lean torpedo person who mastered the art of bodysurfing and loves long rides is also a passionate artist.

Along the way, Mark has collected items from the sea, like broken surfboard fins, lighters, gold rings, parts of surfboards, sunglasses, expensive watches, and fishing stuff.

He keeps all these unique and old things in his garage, which he turned into a place for making three-dimensional art sculptures in Kāhala.

Each artwork tells a unique story.

Mark Cunningham: One of the Best at Pipeline

Mark Cunningham: he helped develop the DaFiN pro signature swim fin model, M.C. Amber | Photo: DaFin Hawaii

He was married for 18 years to Linny, a photographer who attended New York's Parsons School of Design.

Now, he's in a longtime relationship with Katye Killebrew.

Mark co-founded and helped launch the Oahu Junior Lifeguard Program and Defend Oahu Coalition and got involved with the Plastic Pollution Coalition and 5 Gyres, among other non-governmental organizations.

Mark Cunningham was inducted into the Hawaiian Waterman Hall of Fame in 2014.

The legend that rejects the legendary status has been featured in several movies, including "Waves to Freedom" (1988), "Primal Surf" (2000) "Pure Blue (2001), "Sprout" (2004), "A Brokedown Melody" (2004), "Come Hell or High Water" (2009) "Dirty Old Wedge" (2016), and "Pioneers of Pipeline" (2022), among others.

He is also one of the riders in "The Plight of the Torpedo People," a bodysurfing photo book featuring stunning shots and words by Dave Parmenter, Bruce Jenkins, Chris Burkard, Keith Malloy, and Jeff Johnson.

Iconic surf photographer Art Brewer (1951-2022) showcased Mark's distinctive riding style in his 2013 retrospective exhibition "Art Brewer: Surf Evolution."

Randy Rarick once said Mark Cunningham is one of the ten best surfers ever at Pipeline.

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