Rell Sunn, Queen of Aloha

Her middle name, Kapolioka’ehukai, means Heart of Sea. Her grandmother gave it to her after a dream she had before Rell was born. It was destiny written on the stars.

Rell Kapolioka’ehukai Sunn was born on July 31, 1950 in Makaha, Oahu (Hawaii). She was the 4th of 5 brothers and sisters born to her Chinese father, Elbert, and her Hawaiian-Irish mother, Roen. Raised on the beach of Makaha, Rell developed a deep connection to the ocean. “Before I could read words, I could read the ocean, I could read the tides, the wind on the ocean,” she recalled.

Rell started surfing at the age of 4, at the time that Makaha was one of the most popular surfing spots. Surfers Buffalo Keaulana and Buzzy Trent, her mentors, taught her not only surfing, but how to dive and spear. “I learned how to dive from Buffalo and Buzzy Trent, who lived at Makaha back then. Those guys taught me how to listen. I learned so much from their stories; I knew how to dive Makaha before I even started. It made me such a better person, made me creative. If there’s no food on the table, go catch it”, she said.

While cultivating a strong relationship with the ocean and celebrating her Hawaiian culture, Rell became a soul surfer, free-diver, canoe paddler, spear-fisher, first female lifeguard in Hawaii and hula dancer. But more than anything, she became a mentor to children and an inspiration to everyone around her. Rell embodied the aloha spirit and touched many people with her grace, wisdom, warmth and enthusiasm.

Photo by Jeff Divine

When Rell started competing around the age of 14, there was no women’s category and females would surf against men. In 1975, she helped found the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) and a couple of years later, the Women’s Professional Surfing (WPS), establishing together with other surfers like Margo Oberg, Jericho Popple and Lynne Boyer, the first professional tour for women.

In 1976, Rell inaugurated the Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest at Makaha Beach. What it started as a surfing contest organised for her daughter’s birthday, became an annual surfing event for kids to promote self-confidence and give them the opportunity to feel successful, have fun, keep them away from trouble, and take care of the ocean. She used to say to them, “we have to take care of the ocean because the ocean takes care of you”. Almost every top Hawaiian surfer had the good chance of surfing Rell’s contest. The Menehune Surfing Competition is still being held every year at Makaha.

While surfing a pro surf contest in 1982 at Huntington Beach, Rell felt a lump in her breast. That same year she was ranked number one in the world of longboard. In 1983, she was diagnosed with breast cancer that had metastasized to other parts of her body. Doctors gave her less than a year to live, but she bravely fought cancer for 15 years. After her diagnosis, Rell continued surfing everyday. She believed in the healing power of the ocean and surfing was her best therapy. When Rell lost all her hair through chemotherapy, she wore a swimming cap on her first day back in the water. The next day, all the Makaha boys were wearing swimming caps too.

During those years, when she was not surfing or going through her cancer treatments, she was helping pilot a program for breast cancer awareness at the Wai’anae Cancer Research Center, sharing her experience and educating local women about the causes and prevention of breast cancer. Spreading the Aloha spirit.

Rell Sunn died on January 2, 1998. Thousands of people attended the memorial service at the Makaha Beach. All touched by her great warmth and aloha spirit. “The aloha spirit is real simple”, she said. “You give and you give and you give… and you give from here (the heart), until you have nothing else to give”. After her ashes were scattered over the ocean, hundreds of surfers made a last ride with Rell. ‘Queen of Makaha’, ‘Queen of Aloha’.

Photo by Tom Keck