Rell Sunn: an inspiring surfing legend who embodied the Aloha spirit | Photo: Heart of the Sea

Rell Sunn left a wave of influence that extended far beyond the island's shores, changing the surfing world and impacting her community profoundly.

Born on July 31, 1950, on the sun-baked beaches of Makaha, on the west side of Oahu, Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn was not just a woman of the sea but also the heart and soul of Hawaiian surfing.

Her middle name, Kapolioka'ehukai, a name gifted by her parents, translates to "heart of the sea," a testament to her lifelong bond with the ocean that was apparent from her earliest years.

Rell Sunn's first encounter with surfing came at the age of four when she began to master the waves on her family's single battered surfboard, the only board she would ride until winning a contest later in her life.

The child of a "beachboy" - a professional lifeguard, surf instructor, and an occasional tourist guide - she was as much raised by the sand and surf as by her father in a modest Quonset hut.

Rell had four siblings: brother Eric and sisters Val Fenwick, Anella Dehr, and Kula Sunn.

She honed her craft amidst the world-class waves of her hometown, often under the watchful eyes of surf legends like Duke Kahanamoku.

Despite hailing from an area overshadowed by Oahu's famed North Shore, Sunn stood tall as a fearless figure amidst the massive waves that would batter the Makaha reefs.

Rell Sunn: the regular-footed Queen of Makaha excelled in big waves  | Photo: Rell Sunn Educational Fund

A Woman Surfing Makaha

During the mid-1950s, Makaha was a magnet for surfing legends like Kahanamoku, Rabbit Kekai, and Buffalo Keaulana.

The town's winter surf was the ultimate proving ground for surfers, challenging them with the most giant, rideable waves perhaps in all of Hawaii.

Inspired by the heroics of these men, a young Sunn envisioned a world where women could also weave such enthralling stories.

She later revealed that her courage while tackling the monstrous Makaha waves was a product of her belief in aumakua, the protective spirits of Hawaiian culture.

At age 14, Sunn began to compete in surf meets, frequently against men when no category existed for women.

Her fearlessness and grit were rewarded in 1966 when she was invited to the World Championships held in San Diego.

However, shortly after, Sunn moved to Oklahoma with her boyfriend, putting her surfing career on hold.

The two married and had a child - Jan Sunn-Carreira - but the union was short-lived.

In 1972, Sunn, now with her daughter, returned to her beloved Hawaii, answering the call of the sea once again.

After a five-year hiatus, Sunn found herself amidst a performance revolution in surfing, but she picked up right where she left off, bringing a sense of unmatched poise and grace to the waves.

Rell Sunn: a talented Hawaiian surfer with an infectious smile | Photo: The Lost and Found Collection

Diver, Spearfisher, Swimmer, Lifeguard, and Champion Surfer

Sunn's prowess extended beyond surfing.

In 1975, she became Hawaii's first female lifeguard, a respected position in a culture that prizes ocean competence.

She was also an adept diver, spearfisher, open-water swimmer, and paddler, displaying the breadth of her oceanic skills.

Brian Keaulana, a Makaha surf legend, lauded her diving capabilities, recounting how she would effortlessly retrieve fishing spears lost in depths where men dared not dive.

Rell Sunn's impact on women's surfing cannot be understated.

In the mid-1970s, she was instrumental in the formation of the Women's Professional Surfing Association and the women's professional surfing tour, advocating for equal respect and remuneration for women in the sport.

"Slender and dark-haired - by then known as the Queen of Makaha - she wasn't an attacking surfer like her Hawaiian peers Margo Oberg or Lynne Boyer," notes Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"She was smooth, cool, and composed, taking few risks, but often riding waves from beginning to end in a perfectly fluid motion."

In 1976, the talented regular footer got a B. A. in cultural anthropology from the University of Hawaii.

Rell Sunn: she fought breast cancer for 15 years | Photo: Rell Sunn Educational Fund

The 15-Year Battle Against Cancer

In 1982, while holding the rank of #1 on the women's surf tour, she discovered a lump in her breast.

At 32, Sunn was diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer and faced her greatest challenge off the water.

Doctors gave her a year to live, but despite the grim prognosis, she refused to let the disease dictate her life.

She continued to surf, swim, dive, and paddle, drawing energy and purpose from the sea.

Alongside her physical endurance, Sunn channeled her experience into support for others, spearheading a counseling program for Hawaiian breast cancer patients.

In 1988, she fell into a coma and recovered; In 1991, she was given six months to live.

"But months and sometimes even years passed by with Sunn in seemingly perfect health, as she surfed daily, rode her bike, and traveled (including a first-of-its-kind surfing expedition to China in 1986)," added Warshaw.

Throughout her 15-year battle with cancer, which involved chemotherapy, radiation, bone-marrow transplants, and a mastectomy, she remained a beacon of hope and resilience, constantly giving to her community.

Sunn dedicated time and energy to Hawaii's children, founding the Menehune Surf Contest, an event for young surfers, and hosting an annual Thanksgiving feast where all were welcome.

She worked as a radio DJ, computer operator, and physical therapist.

Her enduring connection with the ocean and her unwavering spirit of Aloha left an indelible mark on the lives she touched.

Moreover, Sunn launched a counseling program for Hawaiian breast cancer patients, providing invaluable support and hope to many affected by the disease.

She was a role model, swimwear model, radio personality, and one of the first women to be inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California.

"There were other sides to her: she had a black belt in judo, told filthy jokes, and occasionally displayed a fearsome temper. She could be sweet and carnal in the same breath," underlines the surf historian.

In 1995, she married pro surfer and surfboard shaper Dave Parmenter.

Additionally, her life was documented in a 1996 French film, "Heart of the Sea: Kapolioka'ehukai," a biographical documentary directed by Charlotte Lagarde.

Donald Takayama and Rell Sunn: friends are forever | Photo: Rell Sunn Educational Fund

Death and Timeless Legacy

Rell Sunn succumbed to her long battle with cancer on January 2, 1998, at the age of 47.

The magnitude of her loss was felt far and wide, leading to a heartfelt memorial attended by 3,000 people, where her ashes were spread at sea.

The New York Times covered her passing and referred to her as a "state treasure."

In her life and legacy, Sunn embodied the Aloha spirit, the quintessential Hawaiian philosophy of love, peace, and compassion.

Auntie Rell, as she was also known, exuded warmth, welcomed all with open arms, and lived with a deep love for her community and the ocean.

Her fight for equality in surfing, her commitment to community service, and her remarkable resilience in the face of adversity remain an inspiration for generations to come.

Rell Sunn's legacy continues to ripple through the surfing world.

Today, an annual Rell Sunn Award is given to a female surfer who exemplifies the grace, spirit, and kindness that Sunn embodied.

Furthermore, the Makaha community and the broader surfing world continue to remember her through various memorial surf events, ensuring that her spirit rides on every wave.

Rell Sunn's life was an example of the power of the human spirit and the strength of her Hawaiian heritage.

Despite her struggle with cancer, she remained a symbol of strength, determination, and generosity.

She became more than a surfer; she became a state jewel and an embodiment of the Hawaiian aloha spirit.

As Fred Hemmings, a former surfing champion and Hawaiian State Senator, aptly put it, "Rell was always a giver and never a taker."

Rell Sunn appeared in several surf movies, videos, and documentaries, including "Super Session" (1975), "Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing" (1995), "Modern Legends in Hawaiian Surf" (1995) and "The Heart of the Sea: Kapolioka'ehukai."

She also co-authored "A Guide to Beach Survival" (1986) and the children's coloring books "The Waves You Ride" and "Who is a Surfer" (1995).

In 2010, Greg Ambrose authored a photo biography titled "Stories of Rell Sunn: Queen of Makaha."

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