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Sunn, Rell


Soulful regularfoot surfer from Makaha, Oahu; a top-ranked pro in the 1970s and '80s, but better remembered as the embodiment of Hawaiian grace and warmth, and for her defiant but ultimately futile struggle with breast cancer.

Sunn was born (1950) in Makaha, the daughter of a beachboy, and raised along with four siblings in a Quonset hut. She began surfing at age four; at 16 she won the Hawaiian Junior Championship and was invited to the 1966 World Championships, in San Diego. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma with her boyfriend, where she got married, had a child, and got divorced. When she returned to Makaha with her daughter in early 1972, she hadn't surfed for nearly five years. Surfboard designs had changed radically during that period, but Sunn quickly regained her form, and was soon counted among the first group of professional women surfers: she placed third in the 1975 Lancers Cup, held at Sunset Beach, and in 1977—the first year of the women's pro tour—she finished the year ranked #6. Older sister Martha Sunn was also a top-ranked competitor in the '60s.

For the next seven years, Sunn was regularly in the top eight, and finished #3 in 1979 and 1982. Slender and dark-haired—by then known as the Queen of Makaha—she wasn't an attacking surfer like her Hawaiian peers Margo Oberg or Lynne Boyer; she was smooth, cool, and composed, taking few risks, but often riding waves from beginning to end in a perfectly fluid motion. Surfing magazine called her "the sport's premier female stylist." Sunn developed in other areas as well: in 1975 she became Hawaii's first female lifeguard, in 1976 she got a B.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of Hawaii, and in 1977 she founded the annual Rell Sunn Menehune surf contest at Makaha. She also had a brief second marriage in the late '70s. ("Rell made the worst choices in men," newspaper writer and friend Greg Ambrose lated said. "When I was working the night shift at the Star-Bulletin, she would come weeping and wailing her choices at midnight and I would comfort her. I would think, 'Rell, what about me?'")

Sunn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983, and began a 15-year battle that would involve chemotherapy, radiation, bone-marrow transplants, and a mastectomy. She fell into a coma in 1988 and recovered; she was given six months to live in 1991. But months and sometimes even years passed by with Sunn in seemingly perfect health, as she surfed daily, rode her bike, and traveled (including a first-of-its- kind surfing expedition to China in 1986). She worked as a radio DJ, computer operator, and physical therapist. Sunn married for a third time in 1994, to Dave Parmenter, a former pro surfer from California, 10 years her junior.

In part due to her drawn-long bout with cancer, Sunn was often presented in the surf media as nothing less than a beatific wave-riding saint. But there were other sides to her: she had a black belt in judo, told filthy jokes, and occasionally displayed a fearsome temper. She could be sweet and carnal in the same breath. "Four- to five-foot surf at Makaha is such a nice sound," she told surf journalist Bruce Jenkins in 1994, "it's almost sexual." Sunn was 47 in early 1998 when she died at her home in Makaha. Three thousand people gathered for her beachside memorial service during which her ashes were scattered into the Makaha surf, and her passing was noted in a three-column article in the New York Times, in which she was called "a state treasure."

Sunn appeared in about a dozen surf movies, videos, and documentaries, including Super Session (1975), Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing (1995), and Modern Legends in Hawaiian Surf (1995). Heart of the Sea: Kapolioka'ehukai, a documentary on Sunn, was released in 2002. She was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1996 she was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, and given the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association's Waterman Achievement Award; the following year she was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.

Sunn coauthored A Guide to Beach Survival (1986) and two children's coloring books, The Waves You Ride and Who is a Surfer, both published in 1995. Stories of Rell Sunn: Queen of Makaha, a photo-biography edited by Greg Ambrose, was published in 2010.