Rell Sunn was the modern archetype of the Hawaiian waterwoman. She was the female answer to Duke Kahanamoku, the mother of women's surfing in the 20th century.
She harked back to an ancient Hawaiian tradition, exemplified by such semi- legendary figures as Hina'ikamalama and Kele'a who, in the era before European contact, were reputed to be better surfers than men. When Captain Cook sailed into the islands for the first time, he noticed that men and women were equally adept in the field of water sports. The 19th-century evangelists soon put a stop to all such pagan pursuits. It was Sunn who put women back in the water.
Born in Makaha on the west side of Oahu, of a Chinese-Hawaiian family, she learned to surf at the age of four and first competed at 14. In the absence of a women's category, she would surf against men. She was formative in the creation of a parallel women's circuit and helped establish the Women's Professional Surfing Association in 1975, in which she was briefly ranked world No 1. She became Hawaii's first female lifeguard and learnt to put up with some of the men she rescued running away in shock and humiliation at being saved by a woman.
But beyond her iconic status among surfing women - which earned her a place in the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California - she also figured significantly in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the last few decades. She crewed in the Hokule'a , the traditional double- hulled canoe that mirrored the migratory path of the vessels that brought the first Polynesians to Hawaii a millennium or so ago. And she developed a project enabling under-privileged children to sail around the islands and thereby acquire a sense of their Hawaiian identity. She also ran an annual Menehune (little people) Surf Meet and had the charisma and the persuasiveness to set up sponsorships for up-and-coming young Hawaiians.
She not only loved her sport, but was gifted in communicating her passion to others, working as a surf reporter on KCCN radio and lyrically hymning the old wooden longboard in a Channel 4 documentary, Walking on Water. She put up a brave fight against cancer for 14 years, always maintaining that surfing was the best therapy. When she lost all her hair through chemotherapy, she wore a swimming cap on her first day back in the water, but felt deeply embarrassed in this most style-conscious of milieux. The next day the whole Makaha crew were wearing swimming caps too.
Brian Keaulana, a fellow lifeguard and now movie stuntman, said of her, "Rell was the greatest in surfing, swimming, sailing, spearfishing - but more than that, she was the embodiment of the aloha spirit."
Her ashes will be scattered tomorrow out on the lineup at her favourite break in Makaha. Sunn had expressed the wish that at her funeral mourners should not speak of her as passing on to a better place. "There's no better place than Makaha," she said. "This is heaven on earth."Reuse content