Hey All,

First apology goes to Captain Mike Cunningham, the unidentified Manhattan Pier kneeboarder from last week's Sunday Joint. Mike was the best bodysurfer in the state during the 1970s and '80s, possibly in all of Mainland America, possibly the world, but he had the bad luck of being the same age and having a near-identical name as Mark Cunningham, who of course lived in Hawaii and famously plied his craft at Pipeline. So while Mike has a large but hard-to-pin-down number of world bodysurfing titles (six is a good guess), his surf-world reputation is shadowed by that of Mark, who has a large but hard-to-pin-down number of Pipeline Classic bodysurfing titles (four?) and is the subject of a Pipeline-situated documentary, Waves to Freedom. Mark was and remains the bodysurfing GOAT.

But our estimation of Mike should notch up now that we know he had major kneeboarding chops as well. Here he is at Puerto Escondido, swinging both ways, early 1980s. Mike Cunningham is another reason why my body may travel hither and yon, but my heart is always in South Bay.

mike cunningham
mike cunningham

Second apology goes to Manhattan Beach itself, because it isn't always a two-mile closeout, as I suggested last week. It is nearly generally much better-shaped than the beaches north (Venice and Santa Monica) and south (Hermosa and Redondo), it has rideable surf when everywhere else save Huntington is flat, and a few times a year it gets really, really good. For proof, we go back to Mike Cunningham (who later became an LA County lifeguard captain): "Yes, that photo is of me at the pier. Taken in 1977 by John Post. Big south swell in September. Bill Robinson was guarding at the pier that morning. I worked that afternoon. Got waves all the way to 14th Street, then walked back." Fourteenth Street is four blocks north of the pier, so that is a very long ride—the opposite of a closeout, you might say. If the wind blows hard west for two days then stops overnight and goes offshore, you get this:

manhattan beach, marine street

What a pleasure it has been, this week and last, putting together various and sundry pages on the Benson sisters, Blanche and Becky, the much-traveled military brats who in 1967, along with the rest of their peripatetic family, landed and stayed for good in Hawaii.

Let's get the contest stuff out of the way first. Blanche is a four-time Makaha International tandem division winner, and I know there are tandem world titles to be had, but everybody knew the Makaha contest was the one to win, big two-person enchilada, and Blanche made her victory-stand debut—with handsome thick-chested beachboy and SUP inventor Leroy Ah Choy—way back in 1968, when she was just 14 and had been living in Hawaii for less than a year. She won three more, quit surfing completely in the mid '70s, un-quit 30 years later, trained like a Navy SEAL and took a tandem world title in 2007 at age 54. 

Becky Benson, meanwhile, is a two-time state champion (women's division; she never got into tandem); a semifinalist at the '72 world titles, and finished #3 behind Margo Oberg and Lynne Boyer in the '77 WCT ratings. A mini-retirement followed, then Becky came back to win the debut Op Pro, in 1982, defeating Pam Burridge in the final. 

becky benson, op pro, 1982, huntington beach

But let's put the results and ratings aside. What is so fascinating about the Benson sisters is how the two of them—and the entire Benson clan; led by Col. Albert Benson, the decorated and crew-cutted patriarch—went straight from landlocked Cuero, Texas, to full ohana status among the very best (and, often, very private) North Shore surfers and their families. Blanche explains:

My parents were not typical military parents. Their motto was to get out and enjoy new places, get to know the locals, get involved in the local way of life. So I don’t think we had even unpacked when Daddy took us down to the Greg Noll surf shop and bought my brother, Guy, and myself surfboards. He said, 'If we’re going to live in Hawaii, you’re going to learn to surf.'

Blanch was riding big Sunset with Eddie Aikau less than two years after getting her first board. Tiger Espere was a close family friend. Col. Benson, who helped things along by buying a camera and shooting pictures every weekend, wherever it was happening, Ala Moana to Makaha to Haleiwa, would take hot-rat truants like Larry Bertlemann and Michael Ho back to the Benson house to stay the night because that was better than the boys sleeping on the beach, like they planned. Becky:

My dad just had a way of getting along with people. I never really thought about it until recently. But looking back, it's like, Wow, we were just a haole family from the Mainland, right off the plane, didn't know anybody, and somehow we made friends with a lot of the local families. My dad was just that kind of person. We'd go to the Aikau’s house for parties. They'd come to our house for slideshows. It grew from there."

Read Becky's full interview here.

Doug Walker's recent Lost and Found book, featuring the work of Al Benson, shows that the Colonel, well-meaning as he was, was a hobbyist-level photographer. But there is a set of images at the back of the book that have settled into my heart, and it has everything to do with what Becky and Blanche say, above. Or what they don't say, rather. Meaning—this is a truly mixed group, where race is, maybe not absent, but not foregrounded. But let's go straight to the photos, some of which ran in a 2022 Joint, some I'm posting for the first time. All taken by Col. Benson. 

Encyclopedia of Surfing
clyde aikau, fielding benson
barry kanaiapuni, BK
Encyclopedia of Surfing
blanche benson, eddie aikau
Blanche Benson, Leroy Ah Choy

I don't want to overstate the case. Everything you see, above, is cherry-picked. The camera comes out at happy moments. Unflattering photos get tossed. I pick the shots here to hopefully illustrate the point I'm trying to make. All worth keeping in mind.

That said, there is something special and possibly unique going on there at the Benson and Aikau homes, (where the party photos were shot), and at many, not all, North Shore surf breaks. Everyone's guard seems to be lowered. Why? My not-especially-original guess is that, first, Hawaii was and remains, by far, the most mixed-race state in America, which in itself does not solve racial problems but at least sets the table. And second, surfing itself has a leveling quality. You may be singled out and unfairly treated for being a kook, Val, non-local, longboarder, booger, SUPer, and etc. But the usual markers we use to ID and divide ourselves—clothes, car, zip code, nationality, skin color—don't matter in the lineup, or matter less.

Again, we're talking about small and limited progress. The Bensons and the Aikaus and the rest of the people you see above, in the scale of things, did not make so much as a dent in racism. They did not, as far as I know, even push against it with any conscious thought. They went surfing, the Colonel took photos, and when the slides came back from the lab, somebody ran down to buy a case of Primo, somebody else made a few calls, out comes the projector and screen, guests arrive, the lights go out, and everybody sits there watching and freestyle-commenting and laughing and breathing beer fumes into the living room while the Col clicks through the shots. Flip the LP over and do it again.

We should acknowledge the achievement there. Surfing, in the moment, does an end-around on racism. Surfing is an accidental agent of change. It is Stax Records '66—same formula. Play hard and purposefully, together. I daydream about these color-blended scenes, the Memphis studio and the Benson living room. Come for the racial uplift, stay for "Midnight Hour." Come for Eddie Aikau's bow-legged fade at Sunset, stay for the racial uplift.

Feels like I'm kidding myself by even writing that, but look at the pictures.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week.


blanche benson, eddie aikau

[Photo grid, clockwise from top left: Mike Cunningham, the Wedge, 1987; Col. Al Benson, 1967; Blanche Benson at Haleiwa, 1970, photo Benson; Becky and Blanche Benson and unidentified, Ala Moana,1970; Blanche Benson and Kalani Vierra, 2007; Becky Benson dancing in Torquay, Australia, 1977. Mike Cunningham, bodysurfing and kneeboarding at Puerto Escondido, around 1980. Empty waves at Manhattan Beach, 1979, photo by Brian McStotts. Becky Benson, 1982 Op Pro, photo by Jeff Divine. All party and beach photos by Al Benson, shot between 1967 and 1969.]