Every so often in life, we are lucky enough to come across a seemingly ordinary person with an extraordinary soul. Someone who makes an impression on people not only with their incredible accomplishments, but more so because of their tremendously kind hearted and moving spirit. Such a person was Rell Sunn.
She was born in Makaha in 1950. This town on the west coast of Oahu has always been impoverished and has dealt with crime and troubled youth. Despite this fact, its mostly native population and sheer beauty make it an important part of the island and of Hawaiian culture. It is a place that Rell Sunn chose to live her entire life. At the tender age of 4, Rell learned to surf. Her foundation of becoming a true waterwoman was set very early in life and never slowed down as she became accomplished at spearfishing, bodyboarding, outrigger canoeing, and just about anything else involving the ocean. She was also passionate about the preservation of the natural beauty and culture of her beloved Hawaii, and it was this passion that showed through in everything that she did.
Throughout her life, she saw the need to help out the kids in her community by steering them away from crime and showing them that there were fun and healthy activities that they could take part in and that they could succeed in life. She started a menehune surf contest for kids in 1976 and this event is still held annually and is eagerly anticipated by the entire community. Rell was a strong activist for the youth in Makaha and provided many services to them, from organizing events, to providing free surfboards for those who could not afford them.
She was also instrumental in introducing women into the world of pro surfing and helped found the Women’s Professional Surfing Association in the early 1970’s. An excellent surfer herself, Rell ranked 3rd 2 years in a row in the women’s pro tour, which she also helped establish. To add to her accomplishments, she was named Hawaii’s 1st female lifeguard in 1977, a real honor in the islands, and she was ranked the best female longboarder in the world in 1982.
Makaha has what is probably the largest concentration of women surfers anywhere. There, they are considered equals to their male counterparts in the waves, and Rell was instrumental in making sure that this, the way of the ancient Hawaiians, held true in her little region in the world.
Apart from her accomplishments and her physical beauty, though, was the tremendous beauty within her. Rell cared for people intrinsically and took care of friends and strangers alike in any way that she could. She often spoke of the beauty of the ocean and the magical powers that surfing held in a way that was healing and inspirational to others.
It was this love that helped her through her own personal tragedy. For in 1983, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the rest of her life, her prognosis was that she had only 6 months to live. Instead of just succumbing to the disease, she lived as full a life as possible. She actively participated in awareness education for the disease, bringing in funding and raising the importance of environmental protection, for she believed that environmental toxins had caused her cancer.
It was indeed surfing that helped her through her 15 year battle with cancer as she would often dream of it, or just escape into the ocean and feel healthy and whole again.
Sadly, on Jan 2, 1998, the cancer overtook her and she died quietly in her sleep.
Rell Sunn’s middle name was Kapolioka’ehukai and meant “heart of the sea”. It would seem that her path was chosen for her even at birth. She has gone down as a true Hawaiian legend that will never be forgotten.
Rell Sunn is called the Queen of Makaha. She is the embodiment of the spirit of aloha. Her true heart and wonderful work will forever be inspirational and the world was lucky to have known her during her reign here on Earth.