Mark shifted from side to side in the hotel lobby armchair. Having just arrived from a lifeguarding contest in Virginia Beach, Mark looked every inch of 6’4. As he told us about growing up in Honolulu in the veritable hotbed of future Oahu surfing legends, I tried to imagine the tall, awkward 18 year old plunging into the waters at Ehukai, all in the days when Pipeline was the brutal proving grounds for the world’s most adventurous wave riders.
It was true. His arms and legs looked almost too long for his body, like stretched coils bouncing with each long step. And it’s no secret those coils run smooth when balanced in salt water. Later we swam in the shadow of the Oceanside Pier and his movements turned to silk. He chatted up other bodysurfers, hooted for the boys and rode straight on closeouts. Mark was at home in the Pacific.
His Irish-Lithuanian roots raised him in the suburbs of Oahu. Wanting the cheapest beers in town, Mark’s dad often made trips to the local Elk’s Lodge with Mark in tow. Young Cunningham would hang around the lifeguard who was the first to get Mark into a pair of swim fins. To Mark, the teenage lifeguard was the epitome of cool. He tried his hand at other activities too. Mark played baseball for years, but found himself wanting more and more water time. He loved comics, but instead of idolizing Superman and Batman he was fascinated by the adventures of Tarzan. Tarzan, lord of the jungle, based on a man thriving in the wild with little need for technology or collared shirts. Another icon Mark would one day emulate in his own way, saving people from the dangers of mother nature.
Cunningham dabbled with organized swimming and played water polo at UCSB for a couple of years. In 1975 Mark joined a try out to be a lifeguard. The test involved swimming round the Ventura pier, but the Hawaiian wasn’t keen on cold water swimming. He concocted a Bengay/Vaseline mixture and lathered himself up for the task. He stood in a long line of boys breathing warm air into their hands and shaking for heat. The young Hawaiian was stoic and focused. He recalls the heat of the Bengay was trapped by the Vaseline burning and challenging his resolve, but as soon as he hit the water he was thankful. The risk paid off and Mark was stoked to make $10 an hour for the rest of the guard season.
The following year, an already homesick Cunningham learned of his father’s passing. Mark found his way back to Oahu where he again tried making something of the nonaquatic life. Life as a real estate agent in Waikiki was a position that promised comfort and potential for monetary success. Something wasn’t right. Maybe he didn’t have the salesman’s skills or maybe he didn’t want to. In either case, Cunningham’s lifelong passion was ignited on the sands of Ehukai in 1976 when he first became a lifeguard at Pipeline.
Mark spent just shy of 30 years guarding the lives of people walking, swimming and surfing the North Shore of Oahu. As he talks about the legendary waterman he had the honor of serving beside, Mark’s pride is apparent. He is a “Lifeguard for life.” Cunningham has appeared in iconic surf films, donned the pages of popular culture print articles and carried the 11-time world champion surfer up the beach in quintessential moments, but the man is lifeguard through and through. He says, “I’m just a retired lifeguard living on a pension.”
We spent the weekend around Oceanside with many of California’s top bodysurfers. Mark was rarely alone. We witnessed young children and salty veterans alike take humble approaches to shake Cunningham’s hand. Mark gave his attention to each pilgrim and the only time his answers were short was when he was running to get ready for a heat. The check-in table called several times, “Mark Cunningham please check-in for your heat.” The announcer’s voice more nervous as we inched closer to the start of his heat. The rest of us chuckled and craned our necks to see where the world’s most famous bodysurfer could be hiding. Mark took long, casual strides to retrieve his cap and greeted the rest of the competitors just moments before the horn sounded.
This was Mark, taking relentless attention and praise with quiet gratitude. He was content to talk shop and demonstrate his waterman prowess. When speaking with him on the sand his eyes would track the horizon. Faithful training never fails. Cunningham’s casual personality did little to hide his deep reservoir of passion for the Ocean and all that it offers. The 59-year-old has dedicated his life to what he described as “the ultimate impact zone: where the Earth meets the sky and water” and if you happen to find yourself in the waters of the North Shore someday that’s where you’re like to find him.