By Rex Dubiel –
Rell Sunn is a legend throughout Hawaii, and in surfing communities around the world. She rode waves with grace and fearlessness. Her spirit was the embodiment of aloha – loving, giving, and sharing. Rell lived her life with compassion and touched the hearts of everyone she met. As this exotic Hawaiian-Chinese beauty gracefully surfed across the globe, she made new friends everywhere. Her curiosity was contagious! She was constantly looking for adventure, and with her tenacity, she always found it! Rell had the ability to talk almost anyone into anything, so she always had companions in her quests. She thrived on creating enriching experiences, always coming up with bright ideas and drawing those around her into the excitement of the hunt – for waves, fish, antiques, shells, vintage aloha shirts – you name it, and Rell was interested!
Born on the West Side of Oahu, Rell grew up with her sisters and brother riding waves in Makaha. From an early age, she challenged herself. She was the consummate water woman – a surfer, first, and then a free diver, canoe paddler, and lover of the sea. Rell would dive for dinner. She was so good at capturing octopus, she acquired the name, “Squid Eye,” given to those who know exactly in which rocky hole their prey lives. She dove deep, too, up to 80 feet. Rell had encounters with sharks and sometimes had to give up her catch so she wouldn’t be the shark’s catch.
As Rell matured into a champion surfer, she found her inimitable style – casual and full of grace. She could easily ride the nose of a board, dancing back and forth, as she glided down the face of the wave. At 14 she joined Randy Rarick’s surf team. In 1976 Randy was just initiating the birth of the world surfing tour with Fred Hemmings. Randy was the Tour Director for eight years and on the first world tour, he chaperoned Rell and her peers as they surfed the best waves on the planet. One of her competitors, Betty “Banzai Betty” Depolito, said, “You almost never wanted to beat Rell because she was so nice”. Rell loved children and children loved Rell. She was always ready with a kind word and heartfelt advice making each child feel special. When her daughter, Jan, was having her 5th birthday party at Alii Beach Park in Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore, Rell had one of her bright ideas. Why not hold a surfing contest for kids? Rell Sunn’s Menehune Surf Contest is past its 35th year. Skill Johnson, a well-known announcer and auctioneer, got his start at the contest and has been running the event ever since. Last year in the waves at Alii Beach Park, there were 275 competitors ranging in age from ages 2 to 12. Held every October, it’s a great kickoff to the surfing season on the North Shore.
There is also the West Side Rell Sunn Menehune Surfing Contest held every Thanksgiving weekend at Makaha that’s in its 36th year. Because Rell was an expert swimmer and because she was strong, intelligent and quick on her feet, she was chosen to be the first female lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu. She guarded the beaches at her beloved Makaha making sure everyone stayed safe. With that job, Rell was able to surf on her breaks and at her favorite break. She had the best of both worlds – looking out for others and riding waves.
Known affectionately as the Queen of Makaha, Rell’s home always had an open door, an invitation to anyone who wanted to come over surf, or just talk story. No board? No problem. always had extras and encouraged visitors use them. If she wasn’t in her house, aptly named Rell’s Motel, you could count on her being down at the beach. Her home was full of love and collectibles and she was forever bringing people together. Being around Rell’s spirit of aloha, made others feel special, and a visit to her home was full of memories. Jeannie Chesser was one of Rell’s closest friends. They met in 1971 when Jeannie was photographing a surfing contest in Makaha and approached Rell with pictures after the event. Being single moms and diehard surfers, they connected and were constant companions. When was off island surfing competitively, Jeannie would keep her daughter, Jan. Jeannie and her son, Todd, would spend the weekends with Rell and surf the West Side of Oahu. They became “ohana” which means “family” in Hawaiian. “Rell taught me to share, not just with my friends and family, but with everyone. Her generosity was legendary”, Jeannie remembered as she spoke of her close friend.
Rell put up a brave fight when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. She kept her spirit alive, continued surfing, and, instead of keeping a secret and being quiet, she bravely started “kokua (‘giving back’ in Hawaiian) groups”. She would speak to seniors and encourage them to visit the doctor for screenings. Yes, Rell was always thinking of others even during her darkest days. She fought the disease with grit and always wore a smile. Her positive attitude inspired others as she educated them about early detection of breast cancer.
Jan, Rell’s daughter, remembers her Mom, “ She inspired me to always be nice and generous to others. To take young children under my wing and teach them right from wrong and humility and to love. She showed me that you didn’t have to have much to help another in a bad situation, so you should always give. She inspired me to live my life to the fullest. No regrets and try new challenges and adventures always! I definitely learned through her…….Life is too short, so LIVE IT!” Rell Sunn passed away in January of 1998 leaving the spirit of aloha in everyone she had touched. She will always be an inspiration to others encouraging them to LIVE ALOHA every day. Please heed Rell’s advice and celebrate her life…be generous with words and deeds, take care of others, and take care of yourself, too.
The Hawaii Dept. of Health, BCCC Program, offers free mammogram screenings for those who qualify. Phone: (808) 692-7460 for more information. Mahalo to George Downing, Tom Servais, Skill Johnson, Rick Williams, Jeannie Chesser, Jeff Divine, Randy Rarick, Betty Depolito, Jim Russi, Bernie Baker, Claudia Kravitz, and Jan Sunn-Carreira for their insight, perspectives, and memories of Rell Sunn, the Queen of Makaha.
I had a old surfing friend from Santa Barbara that had cancer the same time as Rell.She used to call him and encourge him.She was sick at time herself,but she was still looking out for others.I never had the chance to meet her but fell in Love with her like so many others.The Mother Teresa of Surfing
Yes, Jeff, Rell was an inspiration to all of us. Her spirit of aloha is still radiating across these islands.