Mark Cunningham: lifeguard, bodysurfer, movie star.

A feel-great movie about board-less wave riders

Film / On a big summer wave at Point Panic, regular Barry Holt drops in on 56-year-old bodysurfing legend Mark Cunningham, who’s already deep in the barrel. “Ho! That guy aced you out!” I protest as the two men sled up and down the rolling face in tandem.

“It’s not an ace-out,” Cunningham corrects me. “It’s a shared wave.”

The two of us are watching the sensational new bodysurfing film “Come Hell or High Water,” directed by Keith Malloy, at the home Cunningham shares with his girlfriend, Katye Killebrew, on a ridge in East Honolulu. The 40-minute film contains awesome footage of 12-foot, cave-like monster tubes crashing down in a foot of water at the notorious Wedge in Newport Beach, California.

Cunningham talks up Wedge regulars as they appear on camera: Fred Simpson, inventor of Viper fins,and Sean Starky, who scores perhaps the best Wedge ride in the film. Modest to a fault, Cunningham is anxious to spread the attention around.

Not far from his TV sits a big splash of crystal, the Waterman of the Year trophy awarded to Cunningham during the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational in 1994. Back then, Cunningham was still a city lifeguard at ‘Ehukai Beach Park, where he presided over the breaks at Pupukea, the ‘Ehukai sandbar, Pipeline and Backdoors. Those breaks were the Niu Valley boy’s home and office for 20 years. He retired in 2005.

“Eh, who’s the guy with the white hair?” I ask him as he launches onto another wave on screen.

“It’s SILVER!” Cunningham shouts, correcting me again.

“Come Hell or High Water” has already copped the best film and best cinematography awards at both the 2011 London and New York surf film festivals. At an ultra-flannel San Francisco screening in November, it received a standing ovation.

Uh oh. Is bodysurfing going to be the next big new thing, with how-to articles in Men’s Health and Details?

“Same as it ever was,” Cunningham answers when I ask him if “CHHW” is going make his sport cool. “It’s too quirky and there’s no money in it. I don’t think this film is going to change it at all.”

The 40-minute film fizzes with the sheer playfulness of this most Zen of water sports. Over the years, various writers and filmmakers have tried to distill its essence, but I’d say no one has ever framed the raffish and rarefied pastime as joyfully and as clearly as Malloy and his ace cameramen Dave Homcy, Scott Soens and Jeff Hornbaker. Episodic and light-footed, the storytelling has no narration, just on-camera or voice-over interview material. The twangy, feel-good music includes contributions from Mike Kaawa, Leo Kottke and Malloy’s banjo-pickin’ brother, Dan. And it’s peppered with the funny, woebegone bellyaching of its Speedo-clad diehards, the most put-upon souls in the line-up. Oahu wave rider Chris Kalima complains bodysurfers are “the bottom rung.” Wedge regular Tom Melum laments, “It’s never gonna be cool. I never got any chicks bodysurfing, that’s for sure!”

At the climax of the ripping Point Panic sequence, Mike Stewart carves a jaw-dropping choreography of pirouettes and winged glides before he bails out just shy the rocks. “This is one of the best rides in the whole movie,” Cunningham tells me. “It’s just amazing what he does. Look at that, a reverse spinner. It’s just insane!” Stewart, 47, has become one of Cunningham’s best friends–and one of the few credible challengers for the unofficial Best Bodysurfer in the World title Cunningham has held for years.

The film climaxes with a trip to Teahupoo, the gnarly holy grail of wave riders, a reef pass on the island of Tahiti that compresses and warps ocean swells into ungodly, top-heavy traps of water. Call it Pipeline on steroids. It’s where Cunningham, Stewart, Kalima, Malloy and Durdam Rocherolle merrily bodysurf a crescendo of lefts against churning, royal-blue glass walls. Cunningham’s silvery head of hair makes him easy to spot among the wave riders as he takes drop after heart-stopping drop and locks onto long, masterful rides. He christens Teapuhoo with his patented iron-cross trim, with his dolphin-like ease. His most epic ride–a chicken-skin display of sheer control, sheer power and sheer fun–ends the movie. Cunningham is now famous, a celebrity, legendary even. In San Francisco he got his own ovation when, before the film started, Malloy invited him up on stage, where he said a few graceful, pitch-perfect words about Keeping the Country Country and the plague of plastics in the oceans.

He tells me people come up to him all the time to ask him what he’s doing now, if he’s still lifeguarding. “…and I go, ‘Well, no, I’m just enjoying life. I forgot to have kids and a mortgage, so I sort of have a low overhead. My car’s 30 years old. I’m a renter.’ I can’t articulate how lucky–I can’t believe what a great life I’ve had, and it’s kind of because I pursued my passion of swimming in the ocean. That’s really what it’s all about.

“I kind of zagged when everyone else zigged and went to college. I went to Punahou and from there, you know, you’re supposed to be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor or dentist…or the president of the United States who likes to bodysurf.”

A classic Cunningham zinger, bringing it all around, sprung from his built-in Irish blarney and polished by decades of shooting the shit on the beach with the best, most cocky watermen on the planet. Sea-blue eyes in the middle of his craggy weathered face twinkle as he smiles.

Come Hell or High Watershows at Ward Theaters on Thu., Dec. 8, 7:30pm $10, and for free Fri., Dec. 9, at Sunset Beach Elementary School For more information, go to Woodshed Films at [].