You can get surfing lessons, kite surfing lessons, SUP lessons, but to my knowledge there is no such thing as bodysurfing lessons. And rightly so. A big part of bodysurfing’s allure is its free-form, dance-with-water expressiveness. But there are tips that can enhance the experience. And who better to give them than The Human Fish himself, Mark Cunningham? I have watched Mark streak Superman-like across a fifteen foot wall of sapphire blue at Pipeline.
I have watched him torque and turn with the grace of a dolphin along a waist-high, barely-breaking comber at Queens, in Waikiki, the spot where the great Duke Kahanamoku once surfed. In the film Come Hell or High Water he does epic things in the surf, and if you watch closely you see that there is nothing static about his approach, he is forever bending and shape-shifting. I called Mark out of the blue one day. I had my self-interest in mind as well as yours.
Jamie Brisick: If you were to hand out advice to someone hoping to improve their bodysurfing, what would you say?
Mark Cunningham: Go swimming. Spend as much time getting your gills wet as you can, whether it’s treading water, snorkeling, riding combers to shore—just get wet, and if you’re lucky go play in the surf. And get a good a pair of swim fins.
How did you get so good?
As a kid in Hawaii you spend seven days a week in the water. I went to Makapu’u and Sandy Beach before boogie boards were invented. Everyone was a bodysurfer to some extent. So just spending a lot of time at Sandy Beach watching the good guys and the lifeguards and what they were doing.
Was it just mimicry?
Yes. But also no. People have always asked me, “What’s your elbow doing? What’s your shoulder doing?” But I can’t describe it. Every wave is different. You’re bending and torquing and reacting to what a wave gives you. It’s just so sensual. It’s all feel.
In all your years of bodysurfing was there an apex moment when it all came together, a session, say, above all the others?
No. I’m still looking for that moment. Bodysurfing is humbling. You can’t rip the way you can surfing or boogie boarding.
Do you have a favorite bodysurfer, someone who really inspires you?
Mike Stewart. My dear friend. It seems like he's always able to have more of his body out of the water than most bodysurfers creating less drag. And it’s almost like his body has muscle memory from having a bodyboard under it — he bodysurfs like he has a boogie board under him.
What is it like bodysurfing big Pipeline?
Humbling. And scary. I’m very, very choosy about the kind of wave I want. Mostly I’m a spectator out there now ‘cause it’s so darn crowded. I still pick and choose and get lucky, but I go out there with very low expectations. Mostly I’m swimming out there to be surrounded by all that energy, and to get a front row seat for some of the best wave riders in the world.
So in summary, what are the most important fundamentals?
One is being a strong swimmer. I did a lot of pool swimming when I couldn’t get to the ocean. Sometimes not being distracted by waves or rocks or seaweed you can just really zen out in your swimming and find really fluid body dynamics. And then once again, the love of it. I just love it love it love it so much, that whole act of entering the ocean and riding the currents out and getting flushed into a channel and then trying to find position and trying to jockey for a wave. . . Bodysurfing is hard. You don’t have a board helping you out. Another pointer is: Make sure your bathing suit is going to stay on. Wear the least dragging bathing suit as possible, then kick like hell. That holds true for just positioning, playing your hunches, and just sort of jockeying around. You can’t sit in one place waiting for the wave to come to you — you have to go after it. But, the most important thing is to come out of the water happy. Whether you caught a wave or not, come out stoked.
Photo credit: Todd Glaser & John Hook