In 2016, I was lucky enough to come across a flyer on Instagram for the Rockaway Beach Bodysurfing Competition. Being from Hawaii, I missed events and communities like this so much–I knew I had to go check it out. I couldn’t imagine what kind of people would show up, or that there'd even be enough bodysurfers around to hold a competition in the first place. I'd never seen anyone really bodysurfing on the East Coast.
While transferring at Broadway Junction at 8am the morning of that first competition, I spotted another guy with swim fins on the platform. It’s one thing to spot fellow surfers with their boards on the subway trek to Rockaway, but seeing another bodysurfer was like discovering some underground society. I was alone–the contest felt like something so otherworldly I didn’t even think to invite my surfer friends. I wasn’t sure who would be able to relate. I remember showing up early, seeing the organizers set up a tent, and picking a spot between it and the water, hoping to get a 360 view of the day's events.
I had just started at Noah, and had it in my mind that if this event was legit, I would want to get the brand involved in some way. The first piece of content I can remember working on at Noah was a blog post about Bodysurfing. Summer was about to hit, and Brendon (a bodysurfer himself, to my surprise) had ordered swim fins and hand planes for the shop. I was tasked with introducing our public to a sport that seemed almost alien to New York. The footage I used for the post was definitely from somewhere else.
So I’m on the beach at this first ever Rockaway Beach Bodysurfing Competition waiting for everyone to show up, and I see a silhouette of a man on the boardwalk that looked oddly familiar. As he walked onto the beach, some 30 yards away, I realized it was Mark Cunningham. If you bodysurf, you know that Mark is legendary. As fellow legend Mike Stewart put it, “He’s got so much experience and he’s just like on such another level. He’s like a 10th degree blackbelt you know. He’s a master at what he does but he’s gone beyond that.” Mark had moved to Hawaii in the mid-70’s and found that bodysurfing went hand-in-hand with lifeguarding up on the North Shore. It was an essential skill, but he developed it into something beyond that. Here is a video of Mark bodysurfing at pipeline.
So Mark puts down his stuff not too far from me, spots me (there weren’t many people there yet), and walks right up to me, extends his hand, and says “Hi, Im Mark.” In that moment he embodied everything the bodysurfing community is all about. This guy didn’t know me, but treated me like family—pure Aloha. We sat and talked about Hawaii for a little bit, and about how excited I was to see something like this happening here, and then he went over and unpacked his suitcase full of DaFin swim fins. They were for anyone who didn’t have fins that day.
That first year turned out to be incredible–the waves were pumping and the competition was stiff. It was obvious that most of the participants, which included many lifeguards, waterpolo players, and regular surfers, were strong swimmers. It was crazy to see such a diverse group of watermen and women come together for such a relaxed but serious event.
Mark ended up winning. By sheer coincidence, he'd happened to be in New York for another event and had heard about the contest. He'd even built the trophy that was awarded to him when he won, which is now used every year and passed on. Each year's winner gets their own plaque attached to the back.
What’s so rad about the bodysurfing community is that no one was upset that this master bodysurfer had shown up and taken first. Everyone was just stoked that we all got to watch him. That attitude is what bodysurfing's all about. In Mark’s own words: “Hawaiians showed me that it’s not always about the biggest wave or a huge barrel, it’s just about being in the ocean and having fun.”
On the train ride back to Manhattan, I made up my mind to return the next year, properly document the day, and find a way for Noah to support it.
After speaking with organizers Jeremy, Claire and Mike, Noah proudly provided t-shirts for the Second Annual Rockaway Beach Bodysurfing Competition. This meant the money from entry fees (much of which had previously gone into making t-shirts), could go toward other competition expenses, and the excess could be donated to various causes in and around the Rockaway community. These have included battling the Williams Pipeline Project, and, this year, Bahamas hurricane relief.
The success of 2016 meant word had spread. More people showed up in 2017, and the competition was even more stiff. We also had even better waves. Ryan Struck and Brian Wengrofsky were kind enough to share their photos and video footage with me, which I used in Noah's comprehensive recap of the day on our blog. I took Brian’s raw footage and created one of the things I’m most proud of: the competition video from that year.
Again, it was notable how diverse the competitors were. There were 15 year olds and 60 year olds, huge guys with enormous bellies, small guys covered in tattoos, 6’4” guys ripping in cargo shorts. People came from New York, New Jersey, and Long Island, and some were passing through on vacation. It felt like a family affair.
Cut to 2019, the 4th annual contest (and the 3rd sponsored by Noah). This year had the potential to boast the best waves on record, but, in a strange turn of events, the NYC Parks department shut down all beaches ahead of Hurricane Dorian! It forced us to move the event back a day, a day Surfline was reporting would be flat.
The organizers were mystified by such a knee-jerk reaction from an agency that didn't seem to understand the geography they're entrusted to manage. They tried reason, they tried outrage, they tried shame, they tried everything, but NYC Parks wouldn't budge. To make matters worse, some of the top bodysurfers in California had traveled across the country to participate, which made the sudden beach closing even more painful.
But these esteemed guests, as well as many of the organizers and myself, still showed up on the day the contest was originally scheduled to bodysurf on our own. And the waves were bananas, coming in clean at 10-12 feet on the biggest sets. We were all in the water looking around at the clear beautiful day, cursing the Parks Department for forcing us to cancel. But none of us were truly worried about when the official contest date was. It was enough to be together bodysurfing on a day with conditions we knew would be one for the books.
I had approached Ryan Struck ahead of this year’s competition to help me encapsulate the soul of this event. The goal was to showcase the competitors, soaking wet and sandy, out of the water, and highlight the diversity of such a skilled group of watermen and women. We set up a backdrop on the beach so we could shoot portraits in a way that stripped away their surroundings and focused on their personalities. These people and their spirits were the true heart of this event, and that’s what I wanted to communicate.
Below are some of the portraits that Ryan captured that day. The last is of local Sandon Karinsky, who came in first–his second consecutive win. The surf also didn’t end up being totally flat, so there were just enough waves for a nail-biting final heat. Second place went to Shayne Macintyre from The Wedge, and third was taken by hometown legend & hero Bridget Klapinsky.
The camaraderie of the bodysurfing community is unmatched, and hard to find in any other sport or activity. There is no ego, just pure stoke. We hope that spirit comes across in these photographs, courtesy of Ryan Struck.
By Auriel Rickard
Content Manager for Noah