RELL SUNN (1950-1998)
Aloha and welcome to the RELL SUNN chapter of the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection.
( Photo special courtesy of Tom Keck )
Initially, this chapter features "Rell Sunn, 'Heart of the Sea'" by Kalikiano Kalei and links to other Rell resources. Over time, additional writings and links will be added. To be notified of updates, please
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( Rell image courtesy of http://kurungabaa.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/rell10a.jpg )
Rell Sunn Internet Resources
- Official Rell Sunn Tribute Site
- PBS Video: "Heart of the Sea"
- Star-Bulletin, January 12, 1998
- Moores UCSD Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational Rell Memorial
- "Farewell, Rell" by Jai Maharaj
- In Memory...
- Rell @ e-Hawaii
- Queen of Surfing 1
- Queen of Surfing 2
- Rell Sunn Wiki
Some Rell footage in:
"Rell Sunn, 'Heart of the Sea'" by Kalikiano Kalei
When I was a child in the 50s, I did not have many heroes that I looked up to. Perhaps it was the result of having had a rather tumultuous childhood, complicated with the unanticipated sadness associated mostly with the premature loss of one’s parents. Perhaps part of the reason also was that I led a somewhat secluded life without many close friends and certainly no ‘regular gang’ to hang with. How ironic to reflect, then, on the fact that personal heroes were an aspect of life for me only after I had grown up considerably. Until then I was the only ‘hero’ I was personally aware of…a regard reflecting more my immaturity and lack of experience in the world than anything else. One needs, after all, to turn inwards first for whatever strength there is to call forth when adversity first occurs.
In today’s Hawaii, there has also been much change and not all of it (as in my own personal case) has been entirely good. Despite that fact, it is interesting to consider for a moment that the Chinese ideogram for ‘Danger!’ consists of distinct two sub-characters: one that signifies ‘change’ and one that represents ‘opportunity’. Change may your worst enemy or your best friend, depending upon many considerations. Most of the time it is a matter of will power and perseverance that makes the difference between the two.
While the changes in Hawaii that came about through the end of the traditional ‘kapu’ system, with its attendant deposing of the Gods brought to Hawaii by the Pacific Islanders from the Marquesas in the 1200s (and the coincidentally perfect timing of the first Christian Protestant evangelical missionaries who arrived almost simultaneous with that religious upheaval), change in all aspects of the human experience ironically remains the sole experiential dynamic that will always be a constant in an ever changing world and universe.
Thus, despite my own personal changes, brought about by pure random misfortune, and the collective cultural misfortunes suffered by the ancient Hawaiians at the hands of western outsiders (haole malihini, in the island idiom), both the native Hawaiians in their way and I in my own have been compelled by the forces of experiential reality to yield to the currents of life and adapt to changes time has brought with it.
So it was, when I first came to the islands myself, I viewed life through a new set of eyes and experienced events with a whole new set of understandings. It was fortunate in that I could absorb all the many new and strangely attractive aspects of island life unencumbered by any of the burdensome baggage that I had been handed as a child on the mainland, and could build a completely new set of values, based upon what I saw and encountered.
It was only after my arrival in Hawaii that I came to understand some of the greater insights that are one of the benefits of a mature outlook on life, conferred by age and experience. Suddenly, I became aware of heroic figures around me: ordinary people so successfully adapted to the formative geographic and social challenges of their island lives that they seemed to engender a natural sense of respect and appreciation in others like myself. Part of this nature was certainly due to the unique island culture that has been built around the traditional Hawaiian extended ‘ohana (family) model, with its deep-seated sense of communal responsibility, shared awarenesses, traditional values, and mutually supportive cohesiveness among its members.
As my understandings of Hawaiian traditional culture grew and took root (despite my being a pasty white Irish-French haole guy from o’dare), I found myself not only inspired by the ancient culture (that had been literally dismembered and reconstructed by western evangelical Protestant missionaries), but also very much aware of entirely new standards of individual worth and moral rectitude exemplified by certain outstanding Hawaiians of note and stature. In this manner I began to emulate a small group of Hawaiians I looked up to as role models who inspired me, and whose example I could attempt to honor and respect in my own life.
These individuals were not astronauts, ball players, rock stars, stock brokers, or theoretical physics scientists, but ordinary Hawaiians possessed of those most basic personal qualities we define as character, high-mindedness, personal courage, and that most wonderful and uniquely Hawaiian quality of all called the ‘Aloha spirit’. They were people who in addition to possessing great personal character, had a broader and more compelling awareness of how inherently connected we human beings all are: how very much we need to accept each other as members of a vast family of similar beings, despite our visual appearances, varying skin colors, and differing personal outlooks.
On of the first of my newly discovered Hawaiian heroes was, perhaps understandably, the revered Duke Kahanamoku. As someone who not only typified great strength, both physical and moral, Duke had a singular nobility of nature (again, a manifestation of the aloha spirit) that impressed all who came to know him. ‘The Duke’ was simply one among a small but significant number of great Hawaiians that fate has graced the islands with, but clearly one of the most outstanding and beloved Hawaiians of the present century. I have never met a single person in the islands who ever had less than the highest regard for Duke and for the selfless effort he maintained throughout his life to spread good will and encourage uniform regard and respect for people everywhere. It was no accident that he was regarded as the ‘Ambassador Emeritus’ for all Hawaii toward the end of his long and eventful life, for he was always radiating warmth and good will among all who came in contact with him. His was the primal essence, in my opinion, of what we today call the ‘aloha spirit’.
Another personal hero I acquired was Eddie Aikau, of whom as a lifeguard and expert Hawaiian waterman it was admiringly said that no matter what the circumstances, no matter how great the challenge, or how intimidating the wave, “Eddie would go…” The story of Eddie’s life is as fascinating in its own right as was the Duke’s, beginning with his early introduction to surfing as a local keiki (child) at Waimea Bay (North Shore, on Oahu), and although Eddie was visited with personal misfortunes that are the ineluctably common fare of all mortals everywhere, his personal values, sensitive insights, physical strength, and great character stood out above his adversities for all of us to admire. As a kid who was always (and remains) one of the world’s worst surfers, my respect and admiration for Eddie Aikau’s abilities on the waves simply increased proportionately. I may not have been able to stay on a wave (even a small one) for more than a few minutes, but that didn’t keep me from maintaining the greatest possible regard for Eddie as both a devoted lifeguard and extraordinary Hawaiian waterman. Like the Duke, he was as at home in the water as out of it, and in the end, when he vanished at sea, going for help on his surfboard from the stricken outrigger Hokule’a (‘North Star’ in Hawaiian) on 17 March 1978, the true essence of Eddie’s aloha spirit shown out as an all-illuminating source of selfless giving. After years of conjecture by many about exactly what it was that set Eddie apart as a person of admirable substance, most today agree that it was that unique Hawaiian spirit of love for the ocean and kindred regard for others’ welfare and safety that motivated Eddie throughout his life—both as a lifeguard and as a waterman. That is also the spirit of aloha.
Now I am as aware as anyone that too many ‘heroes’ in our modern age are an artificial contrivance in many instances: deliberately fabricated, scripted, and purpose-created iconic representations of euphemistic worthiness deliberately engineered or exploited by media and public relations flacks. While I would never demean the pseudo-heroic regard accorded public servants like firemen, police officers, and other public service functionaries, we as a nation all too often seem obsessed with a need to create and embrace exemplary heroes. As Joseph Campbell observed, decades ago, human beings have a powerful, primeval need for heroes we may look up to from the midst of the wilderness of our collective uncertainties. Many modern heroes are therefore the result of wish-fulfillment artifice and foundering collective moral insecurities, and are quite often enshrined as paragons of admiration (more often posthumously, of course, because it would never do to call a hero a ‘hero’ to his face and laud his achievements too loudly). Even in overstated American culture, that would be an all too unseemly American proclivity, it would appear. If you ask anyone who has been adulated as one of these ‘heroes of the moment’, he will be the first one to set you straight about the fact that no ‘hero’ ever sets forth to be deliberately heroic. Most will admit only to being ‘ordinary individuals that fate and circumstances have simply placed in a particular spot, at a particular time, and that they reacted as almost anyone would under similar life-threatening constraints: instinctively and unthinkingly. Still, we need to believe in our heroes…
That all having been acknowledged, the kind of heroism that I refer to here is not of the spectacular, splashy sort, nor is it the typical venue of firemen, policemen, and others who protect the public welfare. The heroism I refer to is a more ordinary type of nobility consisting of an unconscious desire to do the best one possibly may for one’s fellows. To live life honestly, positively, and always courageously, but while so doing to never lose sight of the basic need to regard all live on this planet with humane respect. Above all, it incorporates an unconscious selflessness in the going about of that life and a natural embrace of the high minded potential we human beings may live up to in our short span of ordinary mortal life on earth. It is no coincidence, to my way of viewing all this, that the core of it all is encapsulated within that state of grace Hawaiians call the ‘Aloha spirit’, that kindred concern for all life, everywhere, mixed together with a genuine love for every aspect of the natural world we inhabit.
In Hawaii, this sense of ‘Aloha spirit’ that has always typified the highest traditional cultural values of the islands incorporates all of the qualities I mentioned above: a loving respect for others (especially family and community), a kindred awareness of the shared fate and destiny of all human beings, and a profound regard for the natural world, its vast oceans, and natural resources: a world that is that is not just our home, but our critically important life support system. Within that context, a remarkable Hawaiian woman whose name means ‘heart of the pluming waves’ once defined the ‘Aloha spirit’ as being: “…simple, really…you give and you give and you give…and you give from here (the heart), until you have nothing else to give.”
I have always thought that was a particularly beautiful way of describing the aloha spirit, since this definition comfortably parallels the best Christian traditions of ‘loving thy neighbor as thyself’ (something even someone like myself, who although raised as a Christian, but who no longer holds those beliefs, may appreciate and readily accept) and always striving to do good works.
All of this leads me to another personal hero of mine, or should I say ‘heroine’, for the individual in focus here is indeed not a kane (man) but a wahine (woman)…a wahine, a sistah, and a kumu (teacher). That individual, by given name was Ruella Kaolioka`ehukai Sunn, although she was more commonly known as simply ‘Rell’, or ‘Auntie Rell’ to her friends and family on Oahu. Rell was later lovingly regarded on her native island (and indeed throughout most of Hawaii) as ‘the Queen of Makaha’ for the inspiration she provided as a role model for women and particularly women surfers (‘wahine he’e nalu’), who were prior to her time disregarded as merely pretty sex objects in a predominantly man’s sport. It is about Auntie Rell Sunn that I wish to write at some length here, for she strongly exemplified in the ordinary living of her life the aloha spirit of the Duke and Eddie Aikau that is today so seldom seen in the vain, self-absorbed, and impersonalised modern American culture that has in recent decades been forced upon Hawaii.
Rell Sunn was born on Oahu in 1950, which is about 4 years after my own birth (she would be 57 today, if she were still with us). Rell was the 4th of 5 children born to her Chinese father, Elbert, and her Hawaiian-Irish mother, Roen. I can’t help but take some pride in knowing of that special merging of blood lines in Rell’s ancestry, since these three cultures are remarkable among all those in the world for having achieved special greatness throughout recent past centuries. The Sunns were not well-to-do, but simply an average local family who lived the ‘ohana tradition of respect and love for family. Rell’s father, Elbert, was a beachboy at Makaha Beach. They lived right around the corner from the Makaha Point, at the very doorstep of the beloved Kai (ocean) that has always been so much a part of the ancient Hawaiians’ lives. Rell was quickly introduced to the ocean almost as soon as she could walk.
Rell once said in an interview that “Most Hawaiian grandparents name you before you’re born. They have a dream or something that tells them what the child’s name will be.” Rell’s full first name (Roella) came about as a partial combination of her father’s and mother’s names (‘Roen’ and ‘Elbert’), although it was revealed by a family member that a fond family nickname for the energetic young keiki was ‘Rella propella’, a humorous reference to her boundless enthusiasms for the ocean she loved so much. Her middle name, ‘Kapolioka’ehukai’, may be loosely translated in Hawaiian to ‘Heart of the Sea’ (although it more accurately translates to ‘heart of the pluming wave spray’), a beautifully appropriate name for someone to whom the ocean meant so much. Rell said she personally hated her given name ‘Roella’ and since no one ever used it anyway, she simply changed it to ‘Rell’ and went on from there. To this day, many who came to know her mistakenly think her name was actually ‘Rella’, rather than Rell.
Commenting on her fascinating (and formidable) admixture of Irish, Hawaiian, and Chinese ancestry, Rell once remarked “It’s like we’re at some big luau and everyone says, ‘Come on, Rell…go dance!’ The Chinese part of me says, ‘No, stop it; don’t make a fool of yourself.’ The Hawaiian part says ‘Yeah, sistah. Go for it. Geev’em! Ged ou’ dere!’ And the Irish part says, ‘Well and good, but first a wee pint of Guinness!’”
Having had her home on the island’s West Side at internationally famous Makaha Beach, the ocean formed a spectacular backdrop for her entire childhood. With the world focused as it was on Makaha’s legendary surf in the resurgence of interest in surfing that hit Hawaii in the 50s and 60s, Rell’s childhood senses were saturated with the surfing activity that had become such a major activity at Makaha. With the encouragement of such notable surfers as ‘Buffalo’ Keaulana (one of Hawaii’s ‘grand old watermen’ of today), ‘Rabbit’ Kekai, and ‘Buzzy’ Trent, little Rell quickly came to worship all that surfing represented.
“John Kelly, George Downing, and Wally Froiseth were my idols”, Rell noted. These inspiring role-models taught the young woman how to listen and from their captivating talk-story sessions about surfing, she learned an enormous amount of information about the ocean before she even started surfing it. Before long she seemed to have developed what amounts to a sort of profoundly empathetic sixth sense about the ocean and its many moods that would serve her well in the years to come.
Her family had at the time a battered old longboard and with it Rell entered the surf (under the watchful eyes of family), starting at the tender age of 4 years. She quickly gained exceptional mastery of the ocean waves she loved so much. Later, her water skills won her a surfboard of her own in a contest. She laughed about that, observing that at this early age she had already learned what it was like to love, having objectified that old surfboard as something sensual and alive and deserving of her affections as much as the family poi-dog. Rell even put the board on her bed at night, she once confided, giving it pride of place alongside her as if it were the family dog! Continuing to talk of her early childhood days, she admitted that if the family board were in use, she or her sibs would grab any other board belonging to someone else that was temporarily not in use and sneak out to surf with it. If there was no board available, the keiki would simply body surf.
In the 50s, as renewed interest in surfing grew, girls were regarded as not really belonging on the waves, for despite the ancient traditions of Hawaiian he’e nalu (in which women and men enjoyed surfing equally), more recently men came to consider surfing as a special venue for their exclusive use. Since there were no well-known women surfers at that time to emulate, Rell thought of herself as simply ‘one of the boys’ and didn’t let any sexist bias of that sort put her off the further discovery of this exciting sport. Consequently, she learned from her heroes with the same alacrity as her male peers.
As Rell grew, her abilities grew commensurate with her enthusiasms, to the point that she was more fish than human in the often daunting curls and monster swells that characterised Makaha’s winter surf conditions. Several times she met the great Duke Kahanamoku, including one memorable instance during a trip to the San Diego World Surfing Championship with the Hawaiian contestants, when she was 16 (1966). That experience, plus living at Makaha where the big yearly Makaha surfing event took place, confirmed her conviction that women could and would soon create a much deserved place for themselves among the top surfers of the day. In her opinion, it was merely a stoke waiting to be grabbed and she went for it with typical passion.
According to her peers and those who knew her, she had little fear of the often formidable surfing conditions that could be found at Makaha and she was regularly surfing 15 foot swells in her late teens. As Rell explained it, she had absolutely no fear of drowning or dying in the water, due to her strong belief in the presence of protective aumakua (ancestral spirits) who were always nearby. At the time, Makaha was still really an ‘ohana thing, since everyone who surfed the beach looked after each other the way family would, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety. It was a closely knit community—both in the water and out of it.
As Rell grew out of her keiki days, in addition to her cultivation of exceptional skill on the longboard, she also blossomed into a stunningly beautiful, naturally attractive, and charismatic woman who could (and often did) melt the hearts of any man within eyesight. Everyone who had ever known her, either as a close friend or as a distant acquaintance, would agree that she had a healthy natural sex appeal that worked effortlessly for her. Despite this essence of a deeply female allure that radiated naturally from her, she remained light-hearted and completely unaffected by her beauty, and was about as far from being a vain, self-centered person as any breathtakingly desirable young woman may possibly be. The key to this unforced and supremely relaxed air of nonchalant self-deprecation, she explained when asked, was that she was always far more interested in the simple joys the ocean provided her than in any other aspect of her personal life—frequently including her own best interests! As a result, Rell’s graceful qualities, her effortless beauty, and exceptionally appealing qualities never once outshone either her formidable skills on a surfboard, or her sense of humility. To everyone she remained a fair-minded, open, friendly, genuinely charming, and sincerely generous person of great personal warmth.
Many men, including both those involved in the surfing scene and those who were not, fell heavily for this combination of assets that made her stand out so uniquely among her peers. She was, after all, a rare individual: a woman who was as good looking in a swimsuit as she was a talented and seriously capable contender on a surfboard. Thus, she continued to impress everyone who came into contact with her, all of whom noted she seemed to have a most perfect, most positive attitude towards living life as fully as possible by anyone blessed with all of her obvious gifts and attributes.
That is not to say that Rell didn’t have to pay her dues throughout life, since early on she did run into that unseen brick wall that constituted male resentment over having a woman challenge their fragile egos on the waves. To her credit, she could give as good as she got when required, competing fairly and with great strength, both moral and physical, against these firmly entrenched male biases. Having taken martial arts training, she held a Black Belt in Judo and was also familiar with the native Hawaiian martial art of Lua. A contemporary who once watched her surf amidst displays of sullen hostility by a few males, remarked on how he almost feared for her antagonists’ safety, knowing that she could probably have easily broken a nose, or wrapped them around a coconut tree if she had any such an inclination (an ability they had no knowledge of, of course) in the course of enduring their jibes and taunts. The fact that, according to a former close friend, she could be a ‘real bad-ass’ (the Hawaiian locals would say a ‘real Tita’) if pushed to the farthest limit of her resources, was not known by many, since her patience and tolerance were exceptionally long.
It may well have been the Irish temper and the Hawaiian strength of character from which that steely resolve derived, but whatever the source, Rell never let herself be put off anything she aimed at. You don’t free-dive to 80 feet, swim with Tiger Sharks, and be the first female lifeguard at one of the most famous beaches in all Hawaii without having substantial inner toughness. And you don’t make strong statements in a man’s exclusive arena without being able to give more than a friendly greeting and a warm hug.
Jeff Divine, a photographer who later came to become well known for his surfing images and who took many of her, shared his insights into Rell’s personality, acquired when they were in love many years back. He saw her respond once to a fusillade of abuse from some young male surfers with an unexpectedly strong ‘in your face’ reflex that clearly impressed them with her potential to back up her words with action. “You didn’t cross her”, he stated. “She had a certain toughness about her in a crisis. Lifeguarding is a difficult thing, really. You get people in situations where they are so panicky you literally have to subdue them by knocking them out, or they take you right under with them. She could do that, if necessary.” She was so generous and so loving by nature, however, that you would never guess that buried not so deeply inside that lovely creature was this Titanium determination to rise to whatever challenge presented itself. Some would call this a characteristic not ununique to both Hawaiian and Asian women: the so-called ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’ nature that is not always readily apparent under that attractive, feminine exterior.
Regardless of her inner substance, Rell, despite all of her superb physical attributes, her mental toughness, and superior skill on the waves, demonstrated none of the selfish desire to destroy her opponents in the water that is so common in today’s (2000s) professional surfing contests. Remaining composed and centered despite any bitterness or vindictive competitiveness she may have encountered, she was simply able to give it everything she had for the sheer joyous energy high the ocean provided her with. Rell Sunn was, in her appreciation of the water and her great respect and love for it, what we today call a ‘soul surfer’. That is, she surfed as if the ocean were her religion and she were its worshipper.
In addition to excelling as a surfer, Rell was also an exceptionally skillful free-diver, an excellent outrigger paddler, whose abilities as a waterwoman were honored by being made the very first woman lifeguard at Makaha Beach (something that no other woman had ever achieved in Hawaii prior to her being granted that exceptional recognition). Her superb physical coordination, her remarkable ability to hold her breath underwater, her exceptional sense of timing and balance….all were simply equal parts of this unique woman’s entire suite of extraordinary resources in the water. Rell Sunn remained a true Hawaiian ‘waterwoman’ of the highest caliber throughout her life.
As Rell became increasingly known in the surfing world of the 70s, she dedicated herself to helping inspire other women to take the surfing challenge right into the sport’s male turf, promoting sponsorship of international contests and championing the sport for woman in a manner that allowed women to finally gain equal respect from their male counterparts after so many decades of being put down as mere, decorous ‘beach bunnies’. In 1976 she joined a small group of women on the first international pro surfing circuit for women, strongly rejecting the ‘tits and ass’ media angle being exploited to promote the event. In 1979, Rell helped form Women’s Professional Surfing (WPS), to give women a first time voice in the pro surfing community and to help establish a strong female presence on the surfing scene.
With no respite from her other concerns, Rell experienced a failed marriage that took her to Oklahoma, concurrently encountering setbacks in her personal affairs. Returning to Oahu with a child (Jan), she became a lifeguard at Makaha once again so that she could earn a living and take care of her daughter. Despite the pressing demand of her surfing career and the need to earn a living, she managed to raise Jan with wisdom, love, and clear competence.
Always an animal lover, Rell reportedly once had as many a 13 poidogs (the term give to that uniquely Hawaiian mongrel that is a mix of every breed imaginable) enjoying her affection at home. She would even take them out surfing occasionally, an experience that somehow seems to change a dog’s life. Seemingly, after having ridden a board through surf, there seems a sense about a dog that he is indeed ‘special’ among his canine peers…perhaps more special than the other land-locked il’io (dogs) in his neighborhood. Or so it seemed to Rell.
Despite all of her formidable abilities, her boundless energies, and strong mental attitude, in 1982, in the course of surfing a Pro Tour contest at Huntington Beach (CA), Rell unexpectedly noted a small lump in her breast while toweling dry. In 1983 she was diagnosed with severely advanced cancer, though still young and amazingly vital at the age of 32 years. At the height of her form as a professional woman surfer, in the best condition of her life, she quickly received a blunt prognosis that the cancer had already metastasized to other parts of her body, giving her less than a year to live by the best medical reckoning.
Most of us (including ALL of us who are male and don’t have all the complex physiological and biochemical plumbing that go with being a woman) simply cannot in our wildest dreams imagine the utterly stark and bitterly bleak horror that such a discovery has the power to convey. It could just as well have been a death sentence, so far advanced was the neoplasm in her body.
Despite the daunting prognosis, however, over the following 14 years Rell battled her cancer with the same resolute determination that all of her substantial enthusiasms allowed, forcing the growth into remission three times, suffering a mastectomy (resulting in one of her sponsors, a well known swimsuit manufacturer, dropping her from their roster of surfing stars), exhaustive and debilitating chemotherapy, and even a bone marrow transplant in the process. Through it all, she continued to surf and sustain her usual activities. Concurrent with all of the medical interventional therapy that would have probably destroyed most other women and rejecting outright any depression over her long term prospects, she managed to forge onwards in the world of professional surfing, modeling, and promotion of women’s causes, sustaining almost as much focused activity as she had before the discovery of the severely advanced malignancy.
Among her range of activities at this time was a determined new effort to foster breast cancer prevention among women and work to encourage new research into finding a cure for the disease, through a pilot program for breast cancer awareness at the Wai’anae Cancer Research Center in Hawaii. In a new involvement, he threw her energy into peer counseling Hawaiian women on breast cancer and self-exams. As she continued to amaze those who knew her with this seemingly inexhaustible display of courageous determination and despite the increasing chance of her losing the pitched battle, she maintained that characteristic great warmth and deep love for all things that is the essential matrix of the traditional Aloha spirit. It was, after all, a quality she was famous for aside and apart from her fame as a surfer and her life as a Hawaiian woman of character and ability.
Another activity Rell undertook at this time was a surfing program for young children, called ‘The Rell Menehune Surf Contest’, within the community of Makaha Beach that at the time of the program’s establishment was beset with juvenile delinquency, drug problems, high school drop-out rate, and teen pregnancies. It should be noted that many of today’s hottest surfing sensations got their start in the Rell Menehune Surf Contest impelled by Rell’s determination to help Hawaiian keiki achieve excellence in their lives and rise above the often unhappy circumstances of their surroundings. Many of them today regard ‘Auntie Rell’ as their personal muse and inspiration for excelling in the sport of surfing.
Sadly, despite Rell’s seemingly inextinguishable strength and resolve, her condition continued to progressively worsen, until at the age of 46 years she was on the verge of finally being overcome by the spread of the fatal cancer to other vital organs. Less than two months before her demise from metastasis to the brain, Charlotte Legarde and Lisa Denker spent more than two hours interviewing her for the material that they would subsequently turn into an amazingly uplifting documentary about her life (and all that she had done to encourage women to take their rightful place as man’s equal). The name of that documentary is, fittingly, ‘Heart of the Sea’.
As the end neared, the outpouring of love and affection that had characterised her throughout her life returned to embrace her, as all Hawaii expressed its support for her. When she was so weak from the combination of her cancer and the ravages of chemotherapy that she could no longer paddle out into the surf, some of her many hoaloha would take her out and help her catch a final set of waves.
In January 2nd of 1998, Rell left an entire world marveling at all that she had achieved in her prematurely terminated lifetime to spread the true essence of the aloha spirit. Vibrant and charismatic, beautiful, talented, warmly generous to a fault, and always trying to do the best she could for everyone she met, Rell Kapolioka’ehukai Sunn is today rightfully regarded as one of those uniquely archetypal champions of all women everywhere who have fought against having the brilliant light of their energies shadowed by the often oppressive spirit of male chauvinism. To even superficially skim the many accolades and fond remembrances shared by those whose lives were profoundly influenced by Rell Sunn’s unquenchable spirit is to experience a melancholic, but emotionally uplifting inspiration. For many women suffering from cancer today, her story brings a powerful catharsis and message of renewed hope.
Among many, many reflections shared by those who knew her, is this one by former champion surfer, promoter, and Hawaiian State Senator Fred Hemmings: “Rell embodied everything that is great about surfing, but she grew larger than that. She represented the most basic values we hold so dear in Hawaii. Rell was always a giver and never a taker. To say she was a loving, giving, and always contributing personification of the Hawaiian aloha spirit is but a small testament to the immeasurable sum of her vital goodness.”
So great was Rell’s inspiring commitment to living the aloha spirit that even those ordinary souls such as myself, who never personally knew her, are profoundly affected by all that she represented in that highest possible living expression of everything that we have come to regard as being quintessentially Hawaiian. I for one, have gained the highest respect for ‘Auntie Rell’ in just becoming acquainted with her amazing story; I am only sad that I never had the opportunity of actually meeting her or seeing her on the waves she so dearly loved. I do take some small consolation in knowing that in concluding her physical life on the land, she has joined her ancestral aumakua (ancestral spirits) in the vast, life-giving oceans that constitute the Great Mother (Haumea) of us all and continues to regard those she leaves behind with love. Today, her spirit is truly one with the ocean, and nowhere more strongly than in the waters near her beloved Makaha.
I will close these words with a quotation that, although coming from a completely different venue (the aerospace world), I feel lends itself superbly to this remembrance of Aunty Rell. It is a quote from a letter sent to NASA Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter by his father, just before carpenter’s famous orbital Mercury spaceflight in 1962:
“You are probably aware that I am not a particularly religious person, at least in the sense of embracing any of the numerous conventional doctrines. Yet I cannot conceive of a man endowed with intellect, perceiving the ordered universe around him, the glory of the mountain top, the plumage of the tropical bird, the roiling mysteries of the ocean depths, the intricate complexity of a protein molecule, the utter and unchanging perfection of a salt crystal, who can deny the existence of some higher power. Whether he choses to call it God or Mohammed, the Turquoise Woman, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the Law of Probability matters little. I find myself, in my writings, calling upon Mother Nature to explain things, and citing Her as responsible for the order of the universe. She is a very satisfactory divinity for me. And so I shall call upon Her to watch over you and guard you, and if she so desires, to share with you some of her vast secrets which She is usually so ready to share with those who have high purpose.”
Mahalo for listening and Aloha Kakou!