• Legendary North Shore Lifeguard Mark Cunningham on Pipeline

Legendary North Shore Lifeguard Mark Cunningham on Pipeline

If we’re talking about moments in time out at Pipeline, then one man whose had seats from the lifeguard tower as well as in the lineup firsthand for millions of Pipeline moments is local boy Mark Cunningham. His experience out there, both saving lives and riding waves spans over a handful of decades and his perspective is always unique and continually fresh. We picked the old grom’s brain a little and here’s what he said…

What are some the gnarliest things you’ve seen over the years out at Pipe?

Mark: Wow, where do I begin? For years I’ve said there ought to be a shuttle bus, or shuttle ambulance between Pipeline and Wahiawa Hospital on those really big days. But I mean, as a lifeguard I’ve seen tens of thousands, maybe millions of wipeouts and they’re all potentially deadly. Doesn’t even have to be too big or radical looking—if you hit board or bottom in a certain way, you could lose your life or your life could change. I guess I’ve seen too many to choose one specifically.

It’s like, you see the impact zone at Pipeline, and then you see a guy wipeout there and it’s like, ‘Holy shit…is he okay?’, but by the time a rescue is made, the guy’s being flushed to Gums with the current and passing Ehukai Beachpark toward Pupukea. So a guy’s almost never in that intense impact zone for too long, maybe only there for one wave or two and then you’re getting flushed.

But recently, I remember Mikey Bruneau had a wipeout that broke his board in two places and exploded out every one of his fins. It was a type of damage I’ve never seen happen to a board. And Mikey was able to just walk away from it. It’s just warriors that take it on and they’re incredible athletes and the risk is crazy.

What about some favorite performances over the years?

I remember in the 70’s I was out there bodysurfing after high school and Rory Russell and Gerry Lopez were doing these Blue Angel tricks where they were taking off together and sharing waves and weaving. Like, they were in the zone and riding barrels together, like synchronized surfing. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen anything like it since.

One of my more recent favorite memories was the year Jamie O’Brien won the Pipe Masters as a grom. He just had this youthful enthusiasm. He strung it together heat after heat. Then what I remember most was that he wore his jersey the entire afternoon all the way to the party at his house and into the early morning. He wouldn’t take it off and I thought that was so classic. But with Jamie’s approach, he just toys with the wave. He makes it look easy, just like the Irons brothers and Kelly and John John, too. It’s an amazing approach.

How do you see the wave as a bodysurfer, compared to a surfer?

Well, as a bodysurfer, I got ringside seats to the greatest spectacle in the world, and I feel so honored to have been a part of the water patrol since its inception and I’ve had the best seats in the house watching the world’s best surfers surfing Pipeline. It’s pretty crazy watching some of these guys endangering their lives in front of a crowd as the world’s greatest sportsmen.

And what about your relationship to Pipe as a lifeguard?

I’m lucky that I had a great crew of guys with me. It wasn’t about “Cunningham saves the world at Pipeline” [laughs]; I’ve had co-workers and teammates and I could only go bodysurfing when my partners had my back. And now I’m just really proud of this young generation of lifeguards who are so focused and competent and good at what they do. I just wish everyone a safe North Shore and Pipeline experience.

What do you think your memorable Pipe Masters experience was?

I’d have to say the year before last when Gabriel Medina won the world title…that crowd on the beach was something else. The scene, the energy and the enthusiasm of the surf sports community…I mean you can always talk about the Irons and Kelly and the rookies and John John as a teenager or Dorian/Slater Backdoor duals, but surfing has become so big and popular, when I was out in the water that day on water patrol, looking back at the beach and seeing that Brazilian Storm swarming Ehukai, that was pretty cool to see how huge surfing has become and the part the Pipe Masters played in all of it.


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