A Film About The Legendary Sunn

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - October 28, 2009
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Rell Sunn was the consummate waterwoman

Like many teenagers growing up in Hawaii, I, too, had a schoolboy crush on Rell Sunn. She was the “perfect local girl,” a combination of beauty and grace in the ocean, and had a smile that lit up the sky.

I remember sitting on the beach at Makaha admiring her powerful maneuvers as she carved out Makaha’s massive walls. Her style was fluid and effortless. She was truly the “Queen of Makaha.”

The teenager finally grew up, but the admiration for Rell and all that she accomplished and represented never diminished.

I recall the morning KHON managers informed me I was getting a new partner for our television coverage of the Na Wahine o Ke Kai canoe race. “Rell Sunn has agreed to be our race analyst,” said then producer Kurt Meyer.

It was instant excitement and nervousness. You have to understand, Rell was more than just a pretty face. She was a pioneer of women’s professional surfing, Hawaii’s first female lifeguard, an accomplished diver and a veteran of the Molokai channel.

She also was a cancer survivor.

Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983 and was given one year to live. Over the next 14 years, Rell’s cancer went into remission three times and she underwent a mastectomy and a bone marrow transplant. Yet she never stopped surfing, never stopped giving.

Tia Carrere will play Rell Sunn in an upcoming film

For years, “Aunty Rell” organized “menehune” surf meets, where every competitor was a winner. Rell worked tirelessly to find sponsors who donated gifts and prizes for all who participated. It was her gift to Hawaii’s next generation.

Rell met the television crew on Molokai. A potent south swell was pounding the island. “Ronnie, let’s go catch a few waves,” she said. Two local boys willingly handed over their boards and before I knew it we were out in the lineup.

The first wave rolled in and everyone made way for Rell but she fooled us. “This one is for you, Ronnie,” she yelled. I spun around and frantically dropped into a long, beautiful right. When I kicked out, I turned and witnessed true “poetry in motion.” The Queen of Makaha was already deep into her bottom turn wearing the biggest smile. We all watched with delight and enjoyed her amazing style and grace. It was magical. She ended her ride in front of me and I still remember her words, “This is what keeps me alive!”

I realized how special this moment was for her ... and I was there to enjoy the ride.

The following morning, the women hit the ocean for their grueling race from Molokai to Oahu, and the cameras started rolling. I recall introducing my new co-host and then sat back, listened and learned. Rell read the ocean and anticipated the women’s next moves. Her analysis was insightful, detailed and profound. She screamed with excitement as we zoomed past crews, and the women responded to her cries of encouragement. It was a special moment and, again, I was happy to be along for the ride.

After more than seven hours on the rough seas, Rell absolutely blew my mind when she quietly asked if I could drop her off at the hospital. Rell was late for another round of chemotherapy. Not once did she show she was in pain, when she obviously was. Not once did she stop smiling, when she had every reason to stop.

Over the next several years, our friendship grew. There were more surf sessions, more television specials and more memories. We laughed together and in the end we cried together.

Rell died on Jan. 2, 1998 at the age of 47. It was a sad day for family and friends, but a peaceful one for a woman who fought hard to make people happy.

Next spring, local actor Tia Carrere will star and produce a motion picture based on the life of Rell. Like many others, I’m looking forward to the movie. It will be a chance to watch one of my heroes on the silver screen.

It also will be a chance to be along for the ride ... one more time.

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