One For Rell
With Her Death, There Is Life
- Bruce Jenkins
Thursday, January 15, 1998
NOTE: Rell Sunn died Jan. 2 at the age of 47. She
lost a long and difficult battle with cancer. The news rocked
the surfing world: for while her passing was considered
inevitable, it nevertheless seemed beyond the realm of comprehension.
For hundreds of surfers, particularly the countless kids
taken under her wing, it was like losing a member of the
family -- a second mother or in some cases, a very real
and surrogate parent. Life will never be the same around
the west side of Oahu, where Rell lived and surfed her beloved
Makaha. Women's surfing has lost its most regal and gracious
ambassador. But in death, there is life. Through the pain
and suffering comes strength and satisfaction -- from the
memories of Rell and the way she enriched our lives. There
was a time, just two years ago, when people celebrated Rell's
spirit, even as her condition was declared terminal. She
was having so much fun, making so many others feel good,
there was no appropriate mood but the positive. In her memory,
here is a column that ran in Surfer Magazine in the spring
of 1995. It is the complete, uncut version, containing material
next time you go surfing, catch one for Rell.
of Rell Sunn are at ease now, because there's no more use
in crying. Surfing's most heartbreaking story has taken a
magical twist, and the Queen of Makaha is in her prime. Outsiders
bring their maudlin curiosity, desperate to comfort this 45-year-old
woman with cancer, but the friends know better. You don't
feel pity for the best female longboarder in the world, for
a woman whose diving ability remains legendary, for someone
whose relentless spirit and generosity capture the essence
of her people. You see Rell's life for what it is: A treasure,
perhaps richer and happier than ever before. "A surf
bum? I love being called that," she says. "The most
stressful part of my day is what board I'm gonna use."
lies the beauty. Over the years, she has known the hardship
of two divorces, devastating breakups, down-to-the-bone finances
and single motherhood, not to mention the ravages of chemotherapy.
She always endured, with a smile and funny stories and the
knowledge that surfing would see her through. And now, at
a time when others would be emotionally and physically beaten
-- if not dead, outright -- she has health, true love and
serenity. So this is not a time to pity Rell Sunn, nor to
shed any tears of sorrow. It is a time to celebrate. * * *
within a 2-minute walk of the Makaha surf, but the sounds
come first. Without even leaving her bed, she spots the wind's
angle on her curtain and hears the cars roll by. "There
goes so-and-so, bad muffler. Uh-oh, he didn't come back. Must
tell her everything about swells, revealing their size and
direction by the way they hit the reef. "My favorite
size is like 4-5 feet (Hawaiian style) from the northwest,
and it's such a nice sound; it's almost sexual. There's a
blow hole in front of the house and you can hear the rocks
sighing as the water goes through." She lets out a sigh
and smiles. "If it's bigger, it's just a consistent noise.
And if you hear it echoing way on the outside, you think,
Oh my God, where am I gonna surf today?"
late January on the West Side, and this is a good day. Dave
Parmenter, Rell's loving companion for more than a year, pulls
a huge bottom turn on one of his own Aleutian Juice masterpieces,
a four-stringer 10-0. Buffalo Keaulana glides effortlessly
into the inside section, switching stance. His son, Rusty,
surfs to the beach with a spear gun in one hand, a mask and
snorkel in the other. Lance Ho'okano heads back to the lineup
with a live turtle on the front of his board. The lifeguards
are out: Mel Pu'u, Dennis Gouveia, Dean Marzol and the formidable
Pua Mokuau, one of Makaha's many talented women surfers. Lots
of laughter, no arguments. Plenty waves for all, none to spare.
is like Cheers, where everybody knows your name," Rell
says from the beach. "Nothing changes here. It's like
being in a time warp. Lots of longboards. See a little rainbow
coming out of the corner, and everybody's moving slower than
anywhere else on the island. Look at this set! Maybe the swell's
kickin' back up, who knows?"
Sunn, it could be any season, any year, any era. She's like
a little kid, hurrying down the beach to go surfing. She knows
her calling, just as she always did.
was 4 years old and I knew I was in love," she says.
was surfing. We grew up right around the corner there (past
the Makaha point), and it was always a mad scramble: five
Sunn kids, fighting over the one board we had, and if you
lost out, grab one off the beach, surf as long as you can
before the owner finds out (laughs). As I got a little older,
every board I ever got spent a night in my room, sometimes
in the bed, and I'd touch the rails and fondle it. That's
just the way it's always been. Can
you imagine being four and knowing what love is?"
seemed to be a bit of destiny attached. Her middle name, *Ka-polioka'ehukai,*
means Heart of the Sea.
Hawaiian grandparents name you before you're born," she
says. "They have a dream or something that tells them
what the name will be." Hawaiians also have a knack for
giving people rhythmic, dead-on nicknames, and for young Rell
they had a beauty: Rella Propella.
godmother called me that because I was always moving so fast,"
says Rell. "To this day, people think my real name is
Rella. Actually I was born Roella, a combination of my parents'
names: Roen and Elbert. But I hated it, and no one used it,
so I changed it to Rell."
is a fascinating blend of Chinese (father) and Hawaiian-Irish
(mother). "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, go for it, get out there.' And
the Irish part says, 'Well, I don't know. Maybe a beer first.'"
Invariably, the Hawaiian side takes charge.
and now, Makaha was special: a fantastic wave from 2 feet
to 30 feet. It was the center of the surfing universe in the
1950s, when Rell was growing up, and she couldn't get enough.
"People like John Kelly, George Downing and Wally Froiseth
were my idols," she says (remarkably, the wives of Downing
and Froiseth are both distant relatives of Rell's mother).
"And 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. "
knew the great Duke Kahanamoku from several meetings, including
a trip with the Hawaiian surf team for the 1966 World Contest
in San Diego. That lit a fire for traveling that still burns
hot, taking Rell to Australia, South Africa, Tahiti, Brazil,
France, Peru, New Zealand, Fiji and China, among other exotic
locales, over the years. It also inspired her to join the
first women's professional tour in 1974, a period now warmly
remembered as a
golden age featuring the likes of Margo Oberg, Jericho Poppler
and Lynne Boyer.
say, 'Oh, you must have struggled so much from the beginning,
you poor pioneer surfers.' I wouldn't have changed any of
it," she says. "We were there for the adventure.
I never had a vision or desire to be the best in the world.
We didn't have people like Joyce Hoffman in our back yard
that we could emulate. My role models were people like Buffalo
and Rabbit Kekai, who really weren't competitors, they just
had good fun. You know, lose your board, bodysurf in, and
it feels so good, leave your board on the beach and
bodysurf a couple more. We were fortunate to have the Makaha
International every year when I was a kid, and that was *the*
contest back then, so we got to hear all kinds of great stories.
As a woman, I swore they would not be stories that belonged
only to men. I knew already. I was hungry. Out of Africa.
Out of Makaha."
had no idea that women didn't surf big waves. Why would she
think that? She took on Makaha point surf with her sister
Kula (also known as Martha, herself a Makaha International
winner) whenver the big swells arrived. They were both out
in 10-15-foot surf by their late teens. "I used to stay
with Rell at Makaha, and it was the time of my life, "
Boyer recalls. "That's where I really learned to surf.
My whole thing was catching the biggest wave, and I had one
of my worst experiences there on a 15-foot day. I got caught
inside, saw stars, and just barely made it. That kind of humbled
me about big waves. But when it came time to prove myself
at Sunset, that experience really helped."
was our upbringing," says Rell. "Back then, people
really watched out for each other. Without leashes or anything,
if you couldn't swim 15-foot surf, you couldn't surf it. You
were one of the boys, and it was a wonderful world."
and her good friend Jericho always seemed comfortable in menacing
surf, whether it was Makaha, Sunset or Haleiwa. Oberg and
Boyer, meanwhile, were two of the hottest surfers of all time.
"In terms of understanding the ocean, that was the best
group of women I've ever seen," Bernie Baker says. "You
could tell they knew where they were sitting, *why* they were
there, and what to do in big water. Everything was focused
on Hawaii then, so they almost had to dive into the winter
surf, and they shared a special little bond. With the women
today, Hawaii is just a one-week period in their life, and
then they're gone. "
opinion of surfer/journalist Sam George, "That was easily
the prime of women's pro surfing. Aside from their great ability,
Rell and Jericho were the most glamorous girls who have ever
done the tour, by far. They were a talented, dynamite combination.
I first met Rell in Australia for a Bells Beach contest in
1977, and she was doing a radio interview to stir up some
interest. Rell goes, "We want all you Aussie surfers
to come down here,
'cause we'll be rootin' for all the locals.' Well, she had
no idea what "root' means down there (imagine a four-letter
word). People went berserk, just turned out in droves. Two
beautiful girls, rooting for the guys at Bells (laughter).
But the thing about Rell, without even trying, she had sex
appeal. She was ju st plain sexy. And she knows that's lacking
women's tour today." It was Margo who first called Rell
"The Queen of Makaha." There was the hint of royalty
in Sunn's appearance and demeanor, and she was incredibly
popular -- almost in spite of herself. "She was the most
perfect beach woman I ever met in my life," says longtime
surf photographer Warren Bolster. "I had a huge crush
on her. So many guys did. She had beauty, elegance, extreme
coordinaton, and a very sophisticated surfing style. I can
still see her on Wide World of Sports, running up the beach
with a flower in her hair, doing the great commentary. She
became the first woman lifeguard (to work the
beach) in Hawaii. She could paddle a canoe, dive as well as
any guy, surf big waves ... I was always a little frustrated
she didn't do more for her own benefit. I mean she didn't
do *anything* to promote herself. You had to draw it out of
said she had no ambition to destroy her opponents in the water,
either emotionally or on the judges' cards. The contests were
too much fun for Rell to cop a killer instinct. And yet, she
twice finished third in the year-end world rankings. She ranks
fifth all-time in most Top 8 appearances (7). "I can't
even remember the years," she says. "Because it
didn't matter to me.
she points out cheerily, "nobody had more fun."
is a marvelous slice of Hawaiiana, full of tikis, koa wood,
paintings, surf photos and magazines, glass balls, historic
surfboards, pieces of coral and rocks found on the beach.
So where are all the old trophies?
junkiest things in this house are the boxes of trophies out
in the garage, rusting away," says Parmenter. "Even
the worst things out there are in better shape. Those Surfer
Poll trophies that most people have as centerpieces in their
house, they're just stuffed back there. Breeding grounds for
mosquitoes. Use 'em for tail blocks or something (laughter)."
* * *
said their goodbyes to Rell, privately, many years ago. Doctors
had given her no chance to live -- zero, forget it -- and
there seemed little reason to argue. Years of chemotherapy
had left her bald, rail-thin, almost unrecognizable. She was
on her way out.
Rell could have imagined herself surfing her way out of a
she has absolutely no sense of time, she can't remember the
year. Her loved ones are equally vague as they stash this
episode in the distant past. A pretty good guess would be
1987 or '88, the time she went to the M.D. Anderson clinic
in Texas for special chemotherapy treatment. What matters
is that Rell Sunn, hitting rock bottom with breast cancer,
slipped into unconsciousness.
friends and family grieved, dealing with the crisis in their
own way, Rell was surfing in her mind. "It saved my life,"
she says. "When I was in the coma, I was seeing a powder
blue -- that's the vision I had -- and I was dreaming that
I was trying to catch waves out at Waikiki. I was so frustrated,
because I kept paddling and paddling, and I couldn't catch
wave. It seemed like just a session, but actually Val (the
oldest sister) had been with me in the intensive-care unit
for a couple of days. Finally one swell bumped up, it caught
me, I stood up, and I was surfing! And I woke up and said,
"Val, did you see that, I finally caught a wave!' And
she was just beside herself, you know, "Rell, we've been
here for days, we thought you were gonna die.' But that kept
me occupied while I was in a coma. I've always said surfing
saved my life." She was first diagnosed in 1983, in California,
during a stop on the pro tour. The reactions ranged from shock
to abject disbelief.
kept saying, it can't be you, Rell. You don't eat meat, you
surf all day, you're the healthiest person we know. That's
when you learn it can happen to anyone, and you'll go nuts
trying to figure it out."
remembers sitting in the doctor's office, weeping alongside
Rell, when the news came down. "There we were in the
very beginning, " she recalls, "and we were already
lost. Looking back, that was probably our lowest low. Because
every time Rell had a really scary moment, she had some kind
of amazing turnaround. And it's always been the urge to go
surfing, to get back in the water, that pulled her through.
If only everyone in her condition had something like that
to live for."
were times when Rell looked in the mirror and had her doubts.
"I was bald three different times, and once for two years,"
she says. "And, I mean, you don't just look bald, you
look ugly. You don't have eyebrows or eyelashes, so you look
like you're from Mars or something. People know you look different,
but they can't put their finger on why you're so extremely
who had come to know Rell fairly well, remembers getting a
call from her one night, not long after the diagnosis. "She
called and just broke down on the phone," he said. "It
brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. She didn't
want to burden anyone, but it just came out. That night I
said the longest and most sincere prayers of my life for that
person. But I could never have imagined how beautifully she
came through it."
spent a lifetime helping people on the West Side: saving lives,
getting kids into surfing, offering a spare room for the night,
giving gifts when there was no particular occasion, making
everyone feel special. Now, in a crisis, it all came back
to her. People dedicated themselves to the cause -- benefits,
fund-raisers, special visits. If unaware kids chided Rell
or belittled her appearance, Rusty Keaulana and Duane DeSoto
were "right there, like bulldogs," she says, "to
protect me from getting my feelings hurt."
was that unforgettable day at Makaha, capturing one of the
most touching moments in surfing history. Rell had been given
a skull cap to wear for protection against the elements, and
of course it looked positively horrible. One day she arrived
to find the boys -- Pu'u, Brian Keaulana, all of the most
respected watermen -- wearing skull caps to make her feel
better. "That was so neat," Rell remembers, adding
the inevitable touch of
humor: "Buff tried to do it, but he couldn't get it over
his hair. He looked like a clown. "
appearance is nothing less than stunning today. She's still
a knockout at 45, her flowing hair a gorgeous mix of black
and sun-baked brown. She gives you the stone-cold truth: "I'm
not treatable now, because they consider me terminal. There's
nothing more they can do." But the living, breathing
evidence suggests that a type of miracle has occurred.
beaten it," says Parmenter. "Because everything
from here on out is gravy, compared to where most people would
have gone. Just watching her in the year we've been together,
if that's any indication of how she's lived, she owes a debt
to the Devil. I'd rather live with that over me than the way
most white bread-Velveeta cheese-mayonnaise people live. I
mean, how many people have a canoe in their front yard? How
many people can bring up a fish they caught with a three-pronged
spear? She's just amazing. There's no comparison. "
* * *
really talks about the tough side, but it's there. You can't
be the first female lifeguard at Makaha without being tough.
You can't raise a daughter by yourself, or free-dive 80 feet
down with sharks hovering about. If you intend on making big
statements in a man's world, you need more than *aloha* and
a warm hug.
Divine, the noted photojournalist, knew all sides of Rell
Sunn in the late '70s and early '80s, when the two were in
love. He knew she was supremely giving, that she welcomed
friends and strangers with the purest form of kindness. But
he also knew that she held a black belt in judo, and that
you didn't cross her. "Her limit is way, way out there,"
he says. "It took a lot to set her off. But actually,
she could be a real bad-ass, and she got nothing but respect
was surfing Lower Trestles one time when a bunch of guys started
hassling her. She just got right up in their face, and I'm
thinking, God, these guys have no idea. Rell could just ...
whack! One blow, and your nose is broken. If it was really
life-threatening, she'd rip your eyes out if she had to."
thing is," says Rell, "around Makaha, guys never
thought of us girls as in the way. We're all connected to
the soul part of surfing out here. But I go to California
or Ala Moana and watch guys pick on women, and I can't believe
it. They start terrorizing me and it's like, "Shut up,
buddy, or I'm gonna kill you.' They look at me and they know
I mean it."
were the rarest of occasions. More relevant, says Divine,
was Rell's toughness in a crisis. "Lifeguarding is a
really tough thing," he says. "You get situations
where people get so panicky, you literally have to knock 'em
out. Otherwise they'll take you right under, and you both
drown. She's had so many rescues, she should get a citation.
One day a group of Japanese people had a barbecue going at
Pokai Bay, and one of their little babies was
drowning in the water. They had no idea. Rell was there in
a second, rescued the baby, and they just freaked out. They
were so embarrassed, they put the barbecue in the trunk, rounded
up everyone and left.
of the time lifeguarding, she was really sweet, giving out
food to tourists and kids, making sure everything was OK with
everybody. But if somebody got out of line, maybe some Waianae
girl showing up with a pit bull and acting like a jerk, Rell
would get right in their face and neutralize 'em. That would
end it real quick."
found Rell incredibly generous -- to a fault, sometimes.
so loving; people are attracted to her like moths. Great people,
sincere people, but also a lot of nuts. You'd see 'em coming
at the beach, and I'd be, "Please, don't invite 'em over.'
But oh no, here they come (laughter). Rell would lend someone
her lawn mower, her surfboard, her car, her clothes, anything,
without giving it a second thought."
once again, there was a limit. Divine remembers a guy named
Jason who began stalking Rell: writing her letters, making
lewd comments, promising he'd kill her one day so they could
meet in heaven.
guy would talk like a dolphin," says Divine. "Really
radical, disturbing stuff. Normally he'd just get worked (by
the locals), but he'd bring sandwiches to everybody so they'd
think he was a regular guy. But Rell was really getting upset,
and the message got through. One day Jason came to Makaha
and they broke both of his feet."
* * *
Sunn's *menehune* contest enjoyed its 20th season this year.
That's 20 years of fun and aloha spirit for the surfing kids
of Hawaii, 20 years of enlightenment for skeptical parents.
Sunny Garcia came out of Rell's program and credits her to
this day. Johnny Boy Gomes was another -- "a puppy dog,"
as she describes him. Virtually every top Hawaiian-raised
surfer had the pleasure of surfing Rell's contests at Makaha.
But perhaps no story matches that of Keoni Watson.
he was 10 years old, Keoni figured he was about the least
cool kid on the West Side. He was a local, but with his white-blond
hair, goofyfoot stance and a board that literally came out
of a trash heap, he felt a little weak. "I was just a
kook going left at Makaha," says Watson, now 22. "It
was only a matter of time before I busted up my face on the
remembers it, "I always heard about Rell's contest, but
I was really shy about it. I wasn't real big on surfing in
front of people on a board that some guy found in a Dumpster.
But Rell got on my case, and she wouldn't let up. She would
come by every day and tell my mom, "We gotta get Keoni
in the contest. It's the best event -- nobody loses, everybody
wins, everyone gets a prize. it's a great day.'
tried to avoid it, but every day Rell would come to my house,
pick me up, take me to the beach and teach me how to really
surf backside. And if there was no surf, we'd talk about waves,
go fishing, whatever. You can go to a beach where there's
absolutely nothing going on, but if you're with Rell, all
of a sudden there's something happening.
was still scared about the contest, but one day I come home
and there's an unreal, beautiful thruster in the house. Used,
but in really good shape. Rell had brought it by for me. Now
I had no excuses. I had to go surf that contest. I can't remember
if it was that year or the next, but I wound up winning the
surfing and bodyboarding divisions. I walked down the beach
with five dollars and came home looking like I'd robbed a
store. I had a
brand-new surfboard, brand-new bodyboard, a pair of fins,
two trophies and two bags full of wax, stickers, all kinds
of stuff. And I knew right then. This is me. This is what
I want to do."
began entering amateur contests, Rell made sure he had sponsors.
She talked his mom into getting him a new surfboard. "And
she taught me all kinds of things about strategy. She's the
sweetest person, but you should hear the stuff she taught
me to do in heats! I mean heavy, no-prisoners stuff. And it
worked. I listened to everything she told me. It was always
me, Ross Williams and Jason Magallenes in the top three around
Hawaii when we were growing up. And even then, she still took
care of me. Every night she'd have at least three things going
on -- parties, dinners, speaking engagements -- and she'd
always talk my mom into letting me go along. If I was late
for something or didn't do my homework, she'd tell my mom,
"Sarah, the waves were so good, the inside section was
just going off,' and my mom couldn't even get a word in. She
knew Rell was teaching me all the right things. I could have
been down at the mall, smoking and drinking, but I was hanging
out with Rell Sunn. It was an honor. Auntie Rell. The best."
the word of Rell's cancer spread around the West Side, young
Keoni sensed the vibe. "She kept telling me everything
was fine, but I knew something was wrong. Finally one night
we were at this party down the street from my house. I was
hurting so bad inside, I couldn't stand not knowing any more.
I guess she looked at me and knew it was time. So she said,
"Why don't you go home, go to sleep, and later I'll come
wake you up and we'll talk surf talk.' I went home and didn't
sleep at all; I was just waiting there. Sure enough, she came
over and told me what was going on. I just ... I cried for
days. And of course, for Rell it was about *me* having a problem
now. She was consoling *me.*"
safe to say that the nervous, blond-haired kid has gained
a bit of confidence. He's already on the alternate list for
the Eddie Aikau big-wave invitational. He's on Brian Keaulana's
canoe team during the Buffalo Big Board contests. Last February,
on a jagged, rainy afternoon with nobody around, he paddled
out to Makaha alone and rode a 20-foot wave -- backside. This
New Year's, just to say he rode the first waves of '95, he
and a friend
went out to bodysurf Pipeline. At night. On the second reef.
With no fins. Keoni Watson charges so hard now, they call
Rell have known? What could she possibly have seen in the
kid back then? "He had that look," she says. "You
could see it in his eyes."
* * *
evenings are soft and quiet around Rell Sunn's neighborhood.
You might find her playing the ukelele on the front porch
-- or maybe that's Dave Parmenter strumming away. Dave has
found a new life with Rell in Hawaii, well removed from his
beloved central California, and he is a changed man.
sure, he surfs and shapes as well as ever. Longboard, shortboard,
he'll make it, then he'll rip on it, whatever the conditions.
But Parmenter never really liked Hawaii. He was one of the
great North Shore cynics, and as a writer of uncommonly keen
perception, he found the sultry climate an obstacle to productivity.
began to change in early '94, when Dave and Rell found themselves
on the same surf trip to Christmas Island. They talked surf
into the late hours, sharing the depth of each other's knowledge.
She broke her board one day, borrowed Dave's. "And when
she did a drop-knee cutback," says Sam George, who was
also on the trip, "you could see it right then. Dave
passion went unspoken as Rell flew back to Hawaii. Then, one
flat winter day, she was diving along the Makaha reef when
she came upon an old, crusty surfboard fin. Curious, she scraped
off the debris and saw these words:
by Dave Parmenter*
out of their hands now. "That was like a bolt of lightning
from heaven," Dave recalls. "I mean, I didn't have
many boards in Hawaii, and none on the West Side as far as
I knew. That was too much. I booked a flight over, and I've
been here ever since."
got 10 years on him, and at first glance they appear to be
worlds apart. And yet ... "We're so alike, we recognized
it instantly," he says. "I've never come across
anyone as passionate as I am about surfing and all the romantic
elements about it. There's nobody else like Rell. There never
has been. She's like a female Duke Kahanamoku. The differences
in age, culture, where we lived, things like that are inconsequential
compare them to eternity. I mean, what comes if you don't
try it?" Both are worldly veterans of the scene, yet
both have a child's enthusiasm for surfing and its potential
for lifelong rewards. Rell sees Dave's spirit, even his looks,
in a classic Tom Blake photo on her living room wall. For
Christmas, she gave him an old-time balsa board. Most guys
would respond, "What's this piece of junk?" Dave
was smitten. "Great board for its time," he said.
"I don't think it's a stretch to believe it was shaped
by Joe Quigg."
but reluctant pro surfer throughout the '80s, Dave sees well
past the North Shore contest scene now. He understands what
it means to paddle out at Waikiki or Makaha and find Rabbit
or Buffalo out there, styling on a longboard. He finds so
many of the sport's legendary names -- Kelly, Downing, Froiseth
-- alive and well. He sees little kids with more water knowledge
than longtime surfers he knows back home. He sees people
judged on their merits as a person, not where they're from.
"This was always the mecca of surfing," he says,
"and that power is still reverberating here. There's
so much to learn in Hawaii, from so many people. Living with
Rell has made me realize that."
Rell, she had just about given up on relationships. "I
had a breakup so devastating, I figured I could just die,"
all my women friends were reinforcing this thing about how
bad men are. Then I met Dave, just a young curmudgeon, but
with a wonderful innocence to him. He taught me to admire
and respect the people I play with every day. He's given me
a reason to really love living. He shapes so darn good, he's
kind of gotten that stoke back for me. And he's inspired me
to surf a lot better, give a few waves away. usually I'd go
out there and try
to catch everything, not feel the slightest guilt. Now I watch
Dave give every wave away, maybe just go left over the reef,
and I found it's OK to do that, you know? It's easy."
is easier now. Although Rell has sources of income -- radio
surf reports, hosting various events, advising the Patagonia
company on design and surf-related matters -- she pretty much
calls her own shots. "It's funny that I learned it when
I got older," she says.
apply for jobs and say, "I don't start work until after
9. The mornings are mine. And if there's a low tide, I might
stay a little longer (laughs). I'll work 'til midnight for
you, I'm real loyal, but I'm a surfer.' It's always nice to
find other people who are tuned into that."
people give up surfing in their 30s, if not earlier, and they
don't even know why. "Just didn't have the time,"
they might say. "I don't know ... it just got away from
me." Maybe they should listen a little closer to Rell
frees everything up," she says. "It's just the best
soul fix. Life should be stress-free, and that's what surfing
is all about. It's something you do in your sleep, with your
eyes closed; it's something you'll constantly embrace and
be passionate about, and whatever it takes, you're gonna do
it, because nothing else in the world can give you that kind
Makaha, they know. The great man, Buffalo, has watched Rell
blossom from "a little China doll," as he called
her, into a fully grown woman through surfing. "How is
she? You can see her out there surfing. You can see she's
all right," he said from the beach.
natural style. You see people with three fins, doing all these
maneuvers, but she just does nice long bottom turn, graceful,
walks up to the nose, does cheater five or hang ten. Really
the dogs know. Rell had 13 dogs at one point in her life,
and they all surfed. The sole successor is Shane, hanging
out on Rell's front lawn, waiting for the next session. "Dogs
go out once, and from that point on, they know they're different,"
she says. "Shane surfs, he canoes, he rides on the front
of my board. He comes back here, kind of crosses his leg on
the porch, looks at the other dogs, and he's like, "Yeah
... riff-raff.' All animals are that way. From the time they
get on that board, they know they're special. Brian (Keaulana)
took a pig out there once. Pig acted differently from that
day on. Went back to the farm and had an attitude."
* * *
a sly one, Rell Sunn. Her life today is a wonderful contradiction.
Waste no time with sorrow, because you'll miss the incredibly
wide-spreading fun of it all.
she doesn't surf big waves any more ("Kinda hard to do
the sign of the cross and catch a wave at the same time"),
but when the big *tsunami* watch came down last -- mer, she
was out at Makaha, ready for anything. It was 6 feet, perfect,
and on the rise, when they evacuated the beach. She was the
last one left. They had to talk Rell out of the water by helicopter.
is just a myth to this woman. "I think she invented the
phrase "Hawaiian time,'" jokes one of her closest
friends, Jeannie Chesser. "She's always late, no matter
what. Meet you at 1 o'clock? Hey, she might never show. She's
one of those people who will be late for her own funeral ...
Come to think of it, she *is* late for her own funeral (laughter)."
enough, says Rell: "It's all one day to me. I never look
back at dates. Don't need to, I guess. Move fast and the wrinkles
won't show. " Exactly. With a fax machine, computer,
VCR, answering machine and other modern conveniences in her
home, Rell is not quite as behind as she may appear.
to be in a form of retirement. Surfing gets top priority,
every single day. But while she is beyond her own cancer treatment,
she offers constant help to other women, to the point where
hundreds of previously unaware Hawaiians get checked regularly
for telling signs of cancer.
she can't hold her breath for two minutes any more, but she's
probably good for one minute at an 80-foot depth, and she
stacks all of the odds against her. "She wouldn't think
of using a tank, or a spear gun," says Parmenter. "She's
into the sport of it. She doesn't ambush a fish; she tracks
it, gets it into a certain type of situation. She knows every
hole in that reef, every mood, every nuance. If she's going
to bring home dinner, she's going to do it fairly."
she's not quite as active in the community, but how can you
tell? If anyone asks, she'll come out for the full eradication
of sharks, who have clearly multiplied in their near proximity
to surfers and divers in recent years. She speaks on behalf
of Hawaiian sovereignty and has long been a proponent (along
with Jan, her daughter) of the traditional Hawaiian hula.
When Ricky Grigg announced his public support of the controversial
Obayashi project for North Shore development, Sunn unleashed
an angry, detailed report in the local media. She is totally
relaxed and a full-time surfer, yet she seems to be everywhere
at all times.
changes her priority more rapidly than most, because every
moment counts," says photographer Linny Morris Cunningham,
who generously offered Rell Sunn lore she had researched with
her husband, Mark. "Time is her currency, and each day
represents a fortune to be gained or lost. Everyone wants
her input, access to her energy or even to just talk to her
for a moment. To clasp her hand or share her easy embrace
is to experience the
closest thing to immortality that most of us will ever know."
she hits the water, Rell is pure magic. Pua Mokuau has followed
her lead as a top female surfer, Makaha lifeguard and spiritual
soul, "and I have so much aloha and love for Rell,"
she says. "But when we compete in longboard contests,
the woman is hard to beat! Come on, man. Forget first place.
She out-paddles all of us, even now. Girls get so discouraged,
but I tell them, if you love surfing the way Rell does, maybe
that's the only way you can beat her."
no sympathy. Rell is well past it now, past the treatments,
past the latest miracle cure. Tell her a good surf story now,
or a salty joke. Or listen to her friend Jeannie Chesser for
the real lowdown: "I was shattered at first, but now
I just give her a hard time about everything. I mean, she
surfs every damn day. Pisses me off (laughter). Poor Rell?
Give me a break. Everybody's giving her love, staging all
these fund-raisers, giving her money, and she gets to keep
surfing. She can't call me for sympathy. She's the luckiest
girl in the world, and I told her so."
is the woman who surfs her way to survival. Lucky are the
ones who meet her. She is here with us now, and it is only
the beginning, for Rell Sunn will be here always.
Dave and Rell were married not long after this article was
written. Keoni Watson is now on the cherished main list of
24 surfers for the Aikau contest. Pua Mokuau also died of
breast cancer, early in '97, and Jeannie Chesser lost her
son, Todd, to the 25-foot surf of Oahu's outer reefs. Dave
plans to stay at Makaha, surfing and shaping out of Rell's
house. Shane the dog is still around, but looks lonely. In
the last week of her life, Rell invited all of her friends
to the house for an unspoken goodbye. Most of them were unprepared
for the shock of the occasion. The sight of her -- withered,
drawn, unable to speak -- left all of them relieved when she
passed on. Services were held Jan. 17, on the beach at Makaha.
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