Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Legendary Surfer and Queen of Makaha, Rell Sunn

I never had the opportunity to meet her, but this site would not be complete without a feature on one of the first true waterwomen, Rell Sunn.  Often referred to as the "Queen of Makaha or First Lady of the Sea," Sunn was a quintessential waterwoman, excelling at all watersports, including surfing, bodysurfing, swimming, spearfishing, and open-water outrigger canoeing.  Her Hawaiian middle name, Ka-polioka'ehukai, means Heart of the Sea, also the name of a documentary about he life.

Photo credit to: Rell Sunn Educational Fund

Sunn was born in Makaha, a beach town on the leeward coast of Oahu and started surfing at age 4 in Makaha, and was entering competitive surf meets by the age of 14.  Not all surfing competitions had women's divisions at this time, in which case she would enter the contest and compete successfully against her male counterparts.
Sunn was a pioneer in women's competitive surfing and water sports.  She became Hawaii's first female lifeguard in 1977.  In 1975, Sunn was one of the original members of the first women's professional surfing tour.  Faced with what they saw as frustrating inequities between male and female surfers, Sunn, along with other female surfers, founded the Women's Professional Surfing Association in 1979.  She also founded the Women's Surfing Hui (organization) in Hawaii.  In 1982, she ranked first in the international professional surfing ratings.

In 1982, during a pro surf meet in Huntington Beach, California, Sunn felt a lump in her breast which turned out to be breast cancer. When she was diagnosed in 1983, her prognosis was for one year. Sunn continued to surf every day for 14 years after her diagnosis, despite the pain and chemotherapy associated with the disease.

Following her diagnosis, Sunn became a radio disc jockey and surf reporter, a physical therapist at a Waianae care home, and a counselor at a cancer research center. She helped pilot a program for breast cancer awareness at the Wai'anae Cancer Research Center that involved educating local women about the causes and prevention of breast cancer.

Rell Sunn died on January 2, 1998, aged 47. More than 3,000 people attended her memorial service, where her ashes were scattered in the ocean off her native Makaha.
Photo credit to: Rell Sunn website

The world of surfing lost a great ambassador that day, but her radiant spirit remains with everyone she touched and ripples on to this day.  Rell Sunn’s inspiration grows with each running of her annual Menehune Surfing Contest.

Rell Sunn Official Website
Heart of the Sea site
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