Toby Cunningham Interview from the 2003 Towsurfer Vault

April 23, 2003

by Eric Akiskalian

Toby Cunningham

Age: 25
DOB: 8-12-77

Height: 6’4″

Weight: 170lbs.

Hair: Brown

Eyes: Blue

From: Coronado
Current Residence: Point Loma
Occupation: Portfolio Manager for Stocks
Years Surfing: 16 years
Home Break: Todos Santos & Blacks
Years Tow Surfing: None, I am looking for the right partner first
Other Interests: Traveling, mountain biking, free diving and going to Mexico with my church to build houses for people in need.

Sponsors: Emerald City, Jedidiah & Christenson Surfboards

Awards: 2003 Billabong XXL Big Wave Paddle Award – Todos Santos

Toby Cunningham
2003 Billabong XXL Big Wave Paddle Winner

I remember the first time I met Toby on March 14, 2002, during a wild trip out to Todos. What we thought was going to be a big day, turned out to be a really windy shitty day. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to meet Toby and hang with him and couldn’t help but notice how non-pretentious and how soft spoken of a guy he really was. Here is this guy that charges Todos as big as it gets and he’s so mellow and down to earth. I remember asking myself how come I haven’t ever seen images of him in the mags or heard of him and it’s because he is as underground as they come. Toby doesn’t care about the exposure or the images and this is why he is where he is today. It’s all out of pure love for what he enjoys, and that is charging giant waves with his friends. Toby didn’t even know that he was a contender for these years XXL award until his friends called him and said his photo was on the XXl website. Now that he won the Billabong XXL Paddle Award the exposure and media madness is just something that will follow him and once again, he’s not looking for it in any way. If I know Toby, he’s just on another wild ride and enjoying it for as long as he can. While on that ride, he will share with many his faith and friendship and should you have the opportunity as I have to meet Toby you will be stoked to have done so.

<< font=””>- First off, congratulations on your win. Are you still on that big cloud of excitement after winning the Billabong XXL paddle award?
The excitement hit me as soon as I arrived at the awards. I didn’t know how big it was going to be. I was excited and nervous until I won and then I was just excited.

Have you had a chance to speak to Scott Winer the photographer that shot your winning wave?
No, but we e-mailed one another and shared our stoke that way.

Not very many people know you or have heard of you. When did you first start surfing big waves?
I started surfing big waves when I was 16 when I could drive. I had always dreamed of surfing big waves and that reality hit when I got my first car. I started surfing Blacks but after a point, the waves, no matter how big they got, weren’t enough and I wanted to take it to the next level. My friend at church, Joseph Descans with John Walla took me to Todos for my first time when I was 19. They took me out on a solid 15-20’ day, which was really awesome. I had a board with a chip in the right fin that made a super loud humming noise every time I took off. When I dropped in on my first wave, I was hooked for life.

Tell us about Todos Santos where you surf all the time. For those that don’t know, what’s the set up like?
Todos is an island off of Ensenada in Baja California. The boat ride costs around 130 usually split between 4 or 5 surfers. Depending on which boat you take, the ride out to the island can take from 30 minutes to an hour. It is a point break and is very easy to get caught inside if you aren’t paying attention every second you are out there. I surf a lot of La Jolla and Blacks. La Jolla gets me ready for waves in Tahiti and Black’s gets me ready for small Todos. I mountain bike, which helps with holding my breath and I lift weights in order to take a beating out there. Once a year I go down to Mainland Mexico and surf a wave that breaks like Puerto.

Have you paddled it bigger than the winning wave you caught?
No, but I have been out in bigger.

Tell us about that session on December 16, 2003, out at Todos.
My friend Brandon called me up the night before and told me it was on! I met him, my friend Big Dave and my friend James at the local Denny’s to carpool to Ensenada. We arrived around 9:30 in the line-up, which was probably the latest I have ever arrived at Killers. I watched the surf for about 5 minutes and saw the set that I needed to see. I suited up, prayed, and paddled out. I saw on the boat a wave that broke way outside the boil so I decided to go and catch one of those. I waited for about 15 minutes until the BIG one rolled in. I was sitting a little deep but it looked do-able. I paddled as hard as I could and it let me in. The wave jacked as soon as I stood up and even harder half way through. I was thinking to myself that this is a long drop. I made it down to the bottom and started bottom turning. At about the lower shoulder, it whacked me off my board and shoved me super deep to the point that my head felt like it was going to explode. I cleared my ears and started my way to the top. I got about 2 feet from the top and it wouldn’t let me come up. After a couple seconds of that, it let me up only to see the biggest wave of the paddle session land two feet in front of me. I took about 5 of those on my head and Ken Collins, who got a nasty beating out there earlier, came by on his ski and said that I had 4 seconds to grab on. I couldn’t pull myself up so I grabbed the last ring on his sled. He punched it but all that was spitting out of the ski was foam and air. I looked back and saw the wave in back of me and looked up and couldn’t see the top. I closed my eyes and just held on. I then felt my feet lifting from underneath me because of that wave. And then Ken must have hit solid water because we jetted out of the zone.

I know you have been charging Todos as big as it gets for some time and you have been doing so without any expectations and just for the love. When you first heard that your photo made it into the contender list of this year’s XXL awards it must have been a trip, what were you thinking?
I thought it was cool. I always thought the pros would be the only ones up on that website. All my friends called me up and wished me luck and my family was super stoked.

What was it like for you to be at the XXL Awards and meet everyone?
That was the best night of my life. I met some of the most inspirational surfers to me personally. It was good seeing Garret. I met him about 7 years ago in G-Land and he still remembers me as the kid who asked so many questions about surfing. I really wanted to see Laird because he is the most incredible surfer I have ever seen. Laird has been a role model to me not only because he charges beyond belief, but because he is an inventor. While I was in Rapa Nui two years ago, people were telling me he was surfing on the hydrofoil. That just tells me that he is beyond modern day surfing. Too bad he wasn’t in there.

What are you going to do with the $5,000.00 you won?
I’m getting ready to buy a condo in a few months and that money will come in handy.

Who have you done interviews with since the win?
Fox News and Billabong XXL. I have two more today including this one and one tomorrow with the Union-Tribune.

Any new sponsors call you?
Not yet, but I think they will soon. I spoke with Emerald City and they said that there are some sponsors in the works.

Rumor has it, you might be looking for a tow partner so that you can take it to the next level?
I would like to take it to a new level and learn to tow. I am actually going to take a PWC class soon to get the basics down. I have a long way to go because I want to ensure the safety of others and myself around me. I also need a ski!

Do you have anyone in mind?
Someone who is responsible, someone who I can trust my life with, someone who loves to charge big paddle waves and most importantly, someone who is in it for the right reasons! I had tried to tow once and had a really bad experience early on this season. This is because I was with the wrong person.

How important is safety to you while surfing big waves?
First and foremost, safety and prayer are the most important things to me. I would never think about surfing giant waves without taking a moment to do a prayer for my safety and those that are around me. I try to keep my eyes on all my friends and others in the lineup and make sure all is going well. Being trained in emergency response, I am able to respond quickly if need be.

What do you do when you are not surfing?
I mountain bike every week when there is no surf with, “The Rock”, which is the church that I go to. We have some hardcore mountain bikers that push me to my limit. I make my money by running my personal stock portfolio. I also enjoy going to Mexico with my church to help build houses for the less fortunate.

You are a strong believer in God. Is there anything that you would like to leave with our readers with respect to your faith?
Well I want my actions to speak louder than my words. I try to humble myself as much as possible and also want to be a good influence on people in general, especially kids. I do believe in the Bible and the joy that I get with being in the presence of God is unexplainable. It is really nice to give my problems and daily stresses to The Lord. Psalm 93: 3-4 is one of my favorite passages. “The seas have lifted up, O Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea- the Lord on high is mighty.”

Toby, we are all really stoked for you and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Thanks for the interview and we’ll talk soon.
You have been a good friend Eric and very supportive with my exposure as an underground surfer. I like what you are doing with our sport. With you and others like you, big wave surfing will grow beyond even what it is now. I also want to say that I was honored meeting some of my competitors, Eraldo and Gary. They are awesome people who have a passion for what they do. The Bible says that with the faith of a tiny mustard seed, you can move mountains. With me, my faith lets me ride mountains. Thanks Towsurfer for this opportunity to share with many.

— © Copyright 2003 Akiskalian