Surfing champion Rell Sunn fought almost single-handedly to grant women access to the sport at a time when it was still very much a male-dominated pursuit, and along the way emerged as one of the top female longboarders in the world. Often compared to Duke Kahanamoku , considered the founder of modern surfing, Sunn was "the modern archetype of the Hawaiian water-woman," declared Independent writer Andy Martin.
Sunn was born in 1950 in Makaha, on the west side of the island of Oahu. Her family was of Chinese-Hawaiian heritage, and her middle name, "Kapolioka'ehukai" meant, prophetically, "heart of the sea." The beach near her Makaha home was famous among surfers for its waves, and she began surfing there at the age of four. At the time, women surfers were a rarity—"although women had surfed alongside men in Hawaii for centuries," noted Robert McG. Thomas Jr. of the New York Times. "Since the arrival of Western missionaries in the 19th century their participation had been discouraged. In the 1950's, boys rode the boards, and girls stayed on the beach, tanning their bodies and looking good in bikinis."
First Competed at Age 14
Sunn was devoted to the sport as a youngster, and entered her first competition in 1964, at the age of 14. As with many of the early contests she competed in, there were no "wahine" or women's categories, so she simply registered alongside the boys. As a young woman in the early 1970s, Sunn worked hard to establish a parallel women's circuit with other early women surfing champs like Joyce Hoffman and Linda Benson, and became one of the co-founders of the Women's Professional Surfing Association in 1975. When a ranking system was established, Sunn held the number one spot in the world for a time.
Not surprisingly, Sunn was a strong swimmer, and was Hawaii's first female lifeguard; at times she was treated rudely by men she had rescued. Proud of her Polynesian heritage, she was also a skilled spear fisher, and once wrote an article about capturing a prize, 45-pound ulua fish. She speared it, then followed it down with her snorkel on. "I sunk the fingers of one hand into his eye socket and gripped the spear shaft protruding from his head with the other, and began to guide him out and up toward the surface," she wrote in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Back on her board with it, she saw a tiger shark coming after her, and was forced to let the ulua go; the shark devoured it within seconds, and Sunn made it to shore safely. She observed that in the water, "under the deceptively placid surface, was a world blind to gender. Though I was taught by men, I was formed by and subjected to the rigid laws of a seemingly lawless realm that treated me and every grazing ulua or marauding shark with the same utter equanimity."
Inducted into Surfing Walk of Fame
Sunn also took part in Hokule'a crew events. These involved a double-hulled canoe similar to those used by Polynesians who came to Hawaii from the South Seas around 800 C.E. She was also a key figure in a project that gave underprivileged Hawaiian children the chance to make a sailing trip around the state's islands, giving them a deeper sense of their cultural heritage. A respected surfing instructor, she established the Menehune ("little people") Surfing Championships in 1976, which became the largest junior surf competition in the world. She was one of the first five women inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California, in 1996. That year, she also received the Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturer's Association.
Sunn was a local celebrity on Oahu. "Hawaiians considered her a state treasure who used her fame to celebrate Hawaiian culture," Thomas wrote in the New York Times, and fellow lifeguard Brian Keaulana asserted that Sunn "was the greatest in surfing, swimming, sailing, spearfishing—but more than that, she was the embodiment of the aloha spirit," he told Martin in the Independent. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983, she endured a mastectomy, and then a bone marrow transplant. After losing her hair because of chemotherapy, she went out surfing wearing a swim cap soon afterward; when her fellow surfers saw this, they arrived the next day wearing similar headgear in solidarity. Sunn often begged doctors to discharge her from the hospital, and they would do so only on the condition that she rest at home; instead, she returned as soon as possible to the waves with her board. She was fond of saying that surfing was, for her, the best therapy.
Succumbed to 15-Year Fight
On New Year's Day of 1998, Sunn's friends brought her on a stretcher to the beach so that she could taste ocean one more time; she died the next day at her home in Makaha. She dismissed the idea that with her death she would arrive in paradise. "There's no better place than Makaha," Sunn was quoted as saying by Martin in the Independent. "This is heaven on earth." Two weeks later in Makaha thousands attended her memorial service. Four years after her death, Sunn was the subject of a documentary film, Heart of the Sea. The Rell Sunn-Queen of Makaha award was established as part of the University of California at San Diego Luau and Long-board Invitational, and is bestowed annually on an individual for his or her cancer-fighting efforts.
Sunn was profiled in a 2001 book by Andrea Gabbard, Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women Surfing. Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer Greg Ambrose reviewed it and discussed the tremendous changes in the sport in Sunn's lifetime alone, exemplified by the 2002 film Blue Crush. Sunn was a rarity on the waves in her teen years, Ambrose noted, "but as the 21st century gathers momentum, more wahine young and old are reveling in the ocean's exhilarating embrace, and capturing a larger share of contest prize money, sponsorships, media attention and respect from their fellow wave riders.… Somewhere, you just know that Rell Sunn is smiling as wahine take their rightful place in the ocean."
|1950||Born July 31, in Makaha, Hawaii|
|1964||Enters first surfing competition|
|1975||Co-founds Women's Professional Surfing Association|
|1976||Establishes Menehune Junior Surfing Championships|
|1977||Becomes Hawaii's first female lifeguard|
|1983||Is diagnosed with cancer|
|1998||Dies in Makaha at age 47|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY SUNN:
"A Young Woman and the Sea." Honolulu Star-Bulletin (January 12, 1998).
Altonn, Helen. "Aloha, Rell." Honolulu Star-Bulletin (January 17, 1998).
Ambrose, Greg. "'Girls' Make a Comeback in the Waves." Honolulu Star-Bulletin (June 24, 2001).
Ambrose, Greg. "Sunn Gets Her Chance to Shine." Honolulu Star-Bulletin (August, 8, 1996).
Martin, Andy. "Obituary: Rell Sunn." (London, England) Independent (January 16, 1998): 19.
Oda, Dennis. "In Memory of Rell Sunn." Honolulu Star-Bulletin (January 13, 1998).
Oldfield, Andy. "Book of the Week." (London, England) Independent (June 4, 2001): 6.
"Rell Sunn (Obituary)." San Francisco Chronicle (January 6, 1998): A17.
Thomas Jr., Robert McG. "Rell Sunn, 47, Hawaiian Surfing Champion." New York Times (January 26, 1998): A17.
Sketch by Carol Brennan
Awards and Accomplishments
|1982||Rated number one women surfer in International Surfing Association rankings|
|1996||Inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California; received Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturer's Association|