Sachi Cunnigham: More Water, More Waves, More Chaos
Sachi Cunningham extended me a personal invitation to join her on the boat at Mavericks on December 8, 2020. The adventure enabled me to experience the magnificence of big wave surfing and intertwine that with my passion for photography. By allowing me to discover this riveting mix of art and mother nature, I was able to deeper understand Sachi's love for water photography. I am profoundly grateful for this life-changing experience and for sharing it with you through the withitgirl platforms. Nina Morasky, January 2021
Early Morning at Maverick's
Not even 24 hours after being invited by Sachi to join her at Mavericks, I showed up at Pillar Point Harbor in the pitch dark with only a couple of hours of restless sleep. I spent the previous day preparing all my camera and personal supplies, and basically, everything I could think of, knowing that I would be on the boat for almost 11 hours. The excitement was definitely there- but the unknown was daunting. I grew up in the nearby town of Pacifica, CA, and have been surfing most of my life, so I am familiar with the ocean but have never come close to seeing 50-foot waves. I know enough people who have surfed or photographed Mavericks to understand mother nature's true power at the legendary break. I've heard the epic stories, but also the scary ones.
Sachi and I met in the parking lot at 5:45 am, and she was already changing into her wetsuit. Her energy matched the vibe of everyone who was preparing to go out; complete stoke and excitement. We sorted out our things into dry bags and headed down to meet Captain Jared Pepper on his large zodiac boat. He had traveled down the day before from Humboldt County to prepare for the spectacular day at Mavericks. Already on the boat were the photographers Audrey Lambidakis and Pedro Bala, who were like us, also beaming with anticipation and a tinge of exhaustion. After securing all of our gear, reviewing the game plan and rules, we set out to Mavericks.
The sun was starting to peek out from behind the mountains. As we started getting closer to the break, the pounding of the waves became audible. Each wave was like a masterpiece from nature; clean, overwhelmingly grand, and powerful with the offshore winds creating trailing shapes and colors. It is here I began to understand Sachi's deep passion as I watched her in awe facing the beauty of the Maverick wave.
The feeling of that morning was unparalleled; constant astonishment and cheering, and the thrill of hearing "out the back!" when a big set was coming. As the excitement continued to grow and the waves consistently rolled through, Sachi became antsy and couldn't wait any longer before getting in the water. Despite her eagerness, she was meticulous and diligent in her process.
Sachi holds herself with impeccable strength, and fellow photographers, surfers, and captains know and respect her. She introduced me briefly to Bianca Valenti, who was on a neighboring boat. While Sachi is usually on assignment, today, she was shooting purely for her own enjoyment. While she was preparing, I asked her how long she usually swims. She responded with, "Usually 1-2 hours, but on a day like this… my adrenaline will kick in, and I will stay out until I can't anymore."
Aside from physical strength, it was clear that she understood how to navigate the water as well as the surfers. Sachi has mastered three crucial things:
1) How to keep yourself safe.
2) How to position for good shots.
3) How to stay out of people's way and have good etiquette.
She was often just left of the surfers on the shoulder, supporting herself with her legs and using her upper body to hold up her camera. Her view was more intimate than mine, but I was still consistently shocked by the magnitude of the waves rolling through, often squinting and realizing a surfer was beginning their descent down. I would hold my breath, waiting to see if they would make it or not.
After over two hours of swimming, Sachi made her way back to the boat. Once she settled, we began talking about her backstory, stopping once or twice every minute to take some pictures.
Early Water Years
Sachi was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She developed a relationship with the ocean while visiting her grandparents on Capistrano beach during the summers. Sachi's father bodysurfed and introduced her to the sport, which complemented her interest in swimming. By the age of seven, Sachi began swimming competitively and continued through her sophomore year at Brown University. Though she stopped swimming, she competed in water polo during her four years at college. In Sachi's words, "That was a big part of it, and it's why I'm able to do what I do. But in terms of getting to know the ocean, I was only able to do that for two weeks every summer."
Photos by Tim Cunningham: Sachi on Capistrano Beach age 5 + Sachi diving into the Highland Park Pool in Pittsburgh, PA, while learning to swim at age 4.
Sachi was 16 when she bought her first DSLR camera, but at the time, she didn't even know what water photography was. When asked when she first was exposed to action water photography, she said, "It wasn't until I saw a documentary about Aaron Chang, and I was like, what?! They're in the water, and they're shooting? Those are my two favorite things! So I just stored it and told myself that I was going to do that someday." Sachi's first job out of college was teaching English in Japan. She used her income to buy herself a camera and water housing. She found connections to water photographers in Tokyo and did a mentorship with one of them, helping her to chip away at this dream.
After living in Japan for two years, she saved money and traveled to Southeast Asia with surfing photography in mind.
"I invested almost 6,000 dollars in the camera and housing before I had shot a single frame in the water. I think I just knew instinctively that it was something I was going to like. Sure enough, as soon as I experienced a big swell in Indonesia, I was totally hooked."
Back in the USA
When she returned from that trip, she knew that she wanted to be a water photographer but had no job opportunities, connections, or savings. Luckily, she is also passionate about filmmaking and began finding work in that area. She started as a production assistant and worked her way up, with filmmaking always paying the bills and water photography being on the side. When Sachi moved to San Francisco for the first time in 2000, she was dating a big Ocean Beach/Mavericks surfer and got to know the community. On a day with big swells, she watched the surf at Ocean Beach when she noticed a small orange cap bobbing around in the waves. She realized it was Judith Sheridan, a known female body surfer. Intent on speaking with her, Sachi said she put on her wetsuit and swam out to her. She told me, "People always ask her to take them out bodysurfing or to explain to them how she does it. But she told me, 'You're the only one who swam out to talk to me.'"
This anecdote perfectly encapsulates Sachi's nature to take the initiative, which is pivotal in her journey to having her dream career.
I asked Sachi if there were any other female bodysurfers or in-water surf photographers that she looked up to. Her answer was, "No. That's why she was so important," referring to Judith Sheridan.
Sachi attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, to study journalism and film. Soon after, she began working for the LA Times. Sachi and her husband Zach Slobig worked tirelessly and were "bummed about surfing in LA," which eventually wore on them. They quit their jobs, bought a truck, and took a year to drive from LA to Chile, surfing the whole way down. While in Chile, San Francisco State University offered her a position to teach journalism. The hours would give her more flexibility to pursue her water photography career. They moved back to San Francisco, where she soon began her teaching job and gave birth to their daughter Nami. With her new schedule, she said, "I made it a priority to finally chase the dream of doing water photography. I don't think I ever set out to be a big wave photographer. I live in a big wave place. And I love it! "
"The more time I spent in the water, the more I wanted to do big waves. And here I am!" Sachi said this to me as massive, 3-4 story sized waves crashed behind her. "It's a lifestyle," she said. "It helps my mental and physical health, and it's where all of my friends are from."
The first photo Sachi ever sold was to Matt Warshaw, a surfer and an editor at Surfer Magazine. She took the sale as a sign that she was supposed to be a water photographer. Sachi’s passion had taken her around the globe, photographing and surfing. I asked her about what it has been like to work and surf in various spots such as Asia, Central, and South America. Sachi said, "That's what's been so wonderful about surfing and traveling. It's the same everywhere, in certain respects."
Sachi's success involves a lot of initiative, self-advocacy, and persistence. Her advice to girls navigating the surf culture-whether, it's surfing, photography, or bodysurfing, is "Believe in yourself. Go for it. Try not to be intimidated. I didn't surf for the first 20 years of my life. I was so embarrassed, intimidated, and worried. Oh- and my persistence." Sachi emphasizes the importance of time and respect within the surf culture. Creating relationships with surfers, photographers, and editors will take time and commitment. There have been mishaps in her career, but it's important to deal with those scenarios the same as she describes complicated situations in the water.
"Part of wiping out is letting go. Not trying to control it. Being fine with the chaos of it all," Sachi explained.
Sachi went back out for a second round in the water in the afternoon. After an hour and a half, Sachi got out of the water and onto a Jet Ski. She continued photographing until the sun was setting. Even though we had been out there since sunrise, the day had flown by. As the light faded away, I felt tremendous gratitude for having experienced such an unforgettable day with Sachi and her community. Surfer Grant Washburn even named it an "all-time day" at Mavericks, and he has been surfing there for about 30 years.
Reflecting on the day, I believe that it only happened because of two things. I took the initiative in reaching out to Sachi, and she thoughtfully gave me the gift of experience, perhaps the greatest gift of all. She handed me the key to creating more opportunities for myself by posting and publishing my photos.
I will keep her wisdom in my mind as I continue to work towards my dreams, and someday I hope to uplift someone the way Sachi Cunningham did for me.
All photos by Nina Morasky unless otherwise stated in the credits
Check out Sachi's work on her Instagram @seasachi.
You can find more of my photos on my Instagram feed, @ninamorasky.
My other crewmates, Audrey and Pedro, are extraordinarily talented, and you can see their work on their Instagrams, @audrey_lambidakis, and @surf.travel.explore.
Captain Jared Pepper was absolutely incredible. If you are ever interested in hiring a boat for commercial, research, or contract purposes, reach out to him on his Instagram, @halcyon_offshore.
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