Solo Flight

Where Mark Cunningham took flight across the Atlantic. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The recent, well-publicized run of huge North Atlantic surf reminded me of something. It reminded me of one of the greatest surfing performances I have ever witnessed—on par with Mark Richards at Waimea Bay, Dane Kealoha at Backdoor, Tom Curren at J-Bay, and Andy Irons in Mexico.

In the fall of 2000, I flew to Ireland with a crew of pro surfers and we stumbled into a seemingly unstoppable series of gigantic extra-tropical lows. These storms produced huge and sometimes perfect surf conditions, and we dodged and weaved our way through the Irish countryside for the next ten days, scoring some excellent days and hunkering down with a fireside Guinness during the rest.

On our scheduled departure day, the biggest swell of all was supposed to hit…but so were gale force winds and rain. So with big, clean surf already under our belts, we decided to forego the impending swell and leave on schedule. The boys were headed to Europe, and myself back to California.

The crew’s plane left early in the morning, but my flight wasn’t until late in the day, so I made plans to check, and possibly surf, a fickle left point on my way to the airport—one of the few spots on the coast that might handle such conditions.

Pulling up to the left, it was hard to believe—despite a prediction to the contrary, it was clean and roping: Overhead, sunny, and glassy. It was like a reverse Rincon/San Miguel hybrid…with about 8 guys out.

I suited up and paddled out as quickly as possible, and I think I caught one good wave before it happened: Just like turning a switch on, a hideous side-shore wind began to wail, ominous clouds approached, and it began to rain. Cursing our luck, the other guys and myself eventually paddled in, and soon the lineup was pumping and empty and rainy and windy.

It was after I had changed out of my suit and was sitting in my rent-a-car when I saw it. In between wiper blade sweeps, a small round object appeared in the surf. At first I thought it was a seal, but then it moved and I realized what it was: A bodysurfer.

And after one wave it became very clear who this bodysurfer was: Mark Cunningham.

What I witnessed over the course of the next hour will stay with me for the rest of my life. Mark repeatedly swam way up the point, stroked hard under the hook, and then trimmed his ruler-straight body into the pocket—as you might expect—but then something else occurred, something unusual. The up-the-face devil wind was now so strong that after take-off, Mark’s body was lifted up the face, providing him with a higher, gravity-defying trim line for the entire length of the wave. This allowed him to get tubed, come-out, and then make sections that would normally consume him. Mark was literally levitating and soaring down the entire length of the point, arms extended like some sort of elegant bird.

What I realized later was that bodysurfing was the perfect—and only—way to successfully ride these particular conditions: unlike a surfboard, a wetsuit-clad human body was just supple enough to absorb the wave face chatter, and just stiff enough to project down the line. With knowledge, skill, and fin power, a master bodysurfer like Mark was able to turn a negative into a positive, and actually use the conditions to his advantage.

For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget the day that I saw Mark Cunningham’s solo flight across the Atlantic.