Breast Cancer
Battle ended in January 1998.

Donation made by: Drew Santos
Tribute written by: Naomi Sodetani; Photos by: Jeff Divine.
Original article can be found at

Growing up in Makaha, the late pioneer surfer Rell Kapolioka`ehukai (Heart of the Sea) Sunn slept not with dolls but with her surfboards.

“Before I could read words, I could read the ocean, I could read the tides, the wind on the ocean,” she recalled. “I thought I knew everything I ever needed to know just from being on the beach. Everything. ”That knowledge nurtured the Native Hawaiian water woman throughout her life. It gave her a competitive edge during her vibrant professional surfing career, then offered healing refuge in a 15-year battle against cancer that finally claimed her in the prime of her life.

A two-and-a-half hour interview with Sunn, videotaped just two months before her death, provides the poignant, compelling pulse of “Heart of the Sea,” the first documentary to chronicle the life of the beloved local legend. The film is sprinkled with commentary by those close to her and reflects the love and admiration everyone shared for Sunn.

Dalani Kauhiou, who wrote an article on women’s surfing for H3O magazine in the 80s, was one of many inspired by Sunn and the pack of women surfers she met down at Makaha Beach. “We paddled together and they invited me to surf with them. What impressed me is that they were all working mothers, just like me, with a desire to see women’s surfing recognized.” She even recalls how women’s surf shorts were not being made at the time, despite many requests.

Kauhiou shares, ”Rell was the most beautiful thing to watch in the water. She always made it look so easy and graceful.At first I thought, ‘there must be some mechanics to it!’

”Sunn cherished the ocean as a benevolent realm where her `aumakua, ancestor gods, lived. “All our forefathers, all our uncles and anyone who had passed away were in the ocean, so there was nothing to fear,” Sunn explained.

Kathy Terada, a close friend of Sunn,offers vivid details that illuminate Sunn’passion for the sea. “I remember the marks of her dive mask always on her face,” and how she “had to sleep with Vaseline on her hands and feet, because they were so cracked from all those hours in the water.” And when surf wa sup, Terada chuckles, Sunn would take15-minute breaks to catch a few waves during hula practice.

Sunn’s daughter Jan Sunn-Carreira tells how her mother struggled to balance her dreams with the burdens of being a sole provider. While surfing competitively,Sunn worked as a lifeguard and rotated stints as a KCCN disc jockey and surf reporter to pay the bills.

Sunn-Carreira recalls how her mother always kept her best interests in mind.“Whether it was sending me toKamehameha Schools or putting me in piano lessons, she was always looking out for me, finding ways to teach me lessons.” Sunn-Carreira, who now has a17-month old daughter, Kamalani, realizes the value of those lessons as she raises her own daughter.“

She was everything for me: my mother,my father, my sister, my brother. Looking back, she was the whole package,”shares Sunn-Carreira. “What’s neat is seeing her in my daughter, Kamalani. Certain facial expressions or personality traits reflect my mother and we just have to smile.

”In 1982, Sunn felt a lump in her breast while toweling off. She was 32, in great physical shape, and at the top of her game as the top-ranked woman on thelongboard.

“Sometimes things happen in our lives. You just might hit a wall,” Sunn stated simply. “Mine was cancer.” Her eyes and smile radiate good humor as she reflects on her life and impending death without a whit of self-pity. The film traces Sunn’s wrenching 15-yearordeal through hospital wards as she underwent radiation, bone marrow replacements and chemotherapy that made her scream in pain. Many times she fought the disease into remission, but it recurred, spreading through her body and, finally, her brain.“You realize the life you lived, free-spirited, doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the pain in your back, your lungs, your skin,” Sunn said. “But when you get in the water, you own your life again. It’s wonderful.

”Sunn truly believed that the ocean that fed her soul sustained her life and was convinced of the healing power of kapukai, the ancient ritual of going into the water to cleanse and purify oneself .“Rell loved life so much and she persevered through everything. To me, she was grace under pressure.’ When the wave takes you under and turns you overhand over, you either drown or you swim to the surface, take a breath and go backhand do it again. Rell kept going back for more. Her love for life, for people, and her intimacy with the ocean kept her alive,” shares Kauhiou.

In the ‘60s, the Makaha International descended on Sunn’s tiny hometown and the teen observed bold, bronzed men with foreign accents trading tales of their globe-trotting surf adventures. “I swore then that women could tell these same wonderful stories, and I would live that life that they lived,” Sunn recalled.

In the early ‘70s, Sunn was instrumental in founding the Women’s Professional Surfing Association and the first professional tour for women. Fondly dubbed the“Queen of Makaha,” Sunn preside over her favorite beach as Hawaii’s first female lifeguard. Vibrant and charismatic, she also won the hearts of many around the world as an ambassador of aloha by encouraging thousands of children to surf and helping other women stricken with cancer.

Sunn twice finished third in international year-end rankings of the tour she helped establish, and received the Waterman Achievement Award. In 1996, she became one of the first five women inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame, her granite stone sharing the same patch of sidewalk with that of Duke Kahanamoku, Native Hawaiian Olympian gold medallist, the father of modern surfing and Sunn’s childhood hero.

“Rell embodied everything that is great about surfing, but she grew larger than that,” says former surfing champion Fred Hemmings. “She represented the values we hold so dear in Hawai`i. Rell was a giver, not a taker.”In 1975 she founded the annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest at Makaha, which over the years has given countless local kids a venue to have fun and to excel. She even took a group one year to compete in Biarritz, France. Kauhiou remembers the Easter egg hunts Rell organized for the children of Makaha. “Every year we’d bring eggs down to the beach and hide them everywhere. All the kids in Makaha would come out to find them. Rell would give away her old trophies and other surf gear as prizes. And she always managed to get everyone involved in helping out.”

Sunn’s daughter also recalls the annual event. “We would hide the eggs in the tide pools. As the children got older, they would have to dive for them. It was so much fun, everyone looked forward to Easter,” says Sunn-Carreira. “I appreciated her ability to teach simple lessons using our own backyard, the ocean.

”Sunn was a role model and a teacher for the children of Makaha. “She just wanted to instill in them an appreciation for the water. She taught them lessons,showed them the tide pools, made them pick up trash on the beach,” says Kauhiou. Sunn extended her aloha to not only the children, but everyone she met.

In her final years, Sunn volunteered as a Navigator for the Wai`anae Cancer Research outreach program, sharing her experience to help other Native Hawaiian women cope with the insidious disease.“The aloha spirit is real simple,” Sunn often explained. “You give and you give and you give… and you give from here (the heart), until you have nothing else to give.

”All that aloha came back to her in the end. When she lost her hair and was forced to wear a swim cap, local surfers also donned caps in camaraderie. When she became too weak to paddle, they’d push her off to catch a wave. Numerous benefit concerts were organized by those whose lives she touched to help pay her medical bills.

When Sunn died on January 2, 1998, at age 47, thousands of mourners packed Makaha Beach to bid a final farewell. A convoy of surfers accompanied her family’s canoe as they gently released a glass ball holding her ashes, freeing her to roam the world again through its currents and waves.

Co-directed by California film makers Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker, with guidance provided by Academy Award-nominated Executive Producer Janet Cole and award-winning editor Vivien Hillgrove, the film conveys a keen, deeply-moving portrait of a woman who blazed an unconventional path and breached the predominantly male domain of professional surfing, opening the way for other women.

The film opens with a rush of churning waters and Sunn’s voice recounting how her grandmother prophetically named her at birth. Taught by her beachboy father, she excelled in swimming, surfing, canoe-paddling, diving and spear-fishing. Lustrous black and white “flashback” scenes show Sunn paddling and surfing as a little girl (portrayed by M -akaha resi-dent Desiree DeSoto). “It was essential to recreate a sense of Rell’s world,” says producer/director Lagarde. “To draw viewers into her ocean environment.

”Lagarde’s prior films include “Swell,”which portrays four generations of women surfers, and “Zeuf,” about a woman surfer’s struggle with breast cancer. It was Zeuf who first told Lagarde that Sunn was her role model, after which the filmmaker kept bumping into people “who’d tell me their Rell stories.”Originally conceived as a history of women’s surfing, the documentary “Heart of the Sea” eventually focused on the surfing champion. Lagarde and Denker spent 10 days with Sunn in M -akaha in October 1997.Though so weak she could hardly breathe, she showed them her favorite tide pools, surf and diving spots, and introduced them to her inner circle of friends. After she died two months later, her friends “opened M -akaha to us,” says Lagarde.

“Rell orchestrated this film,” Lagarde says. “She really wanted it to focus on her life, not her end. ”Archival television footage follows Sunn’s public exploits as a pro surfer and local celebrity, while Sunn and those closest to her refract her personal journey through the intimate lens of private moments shared. Pacific Islanders In Communications supported the project early on with a production grant. But few other funders outside the Islands knew who Rell Sunn was or grasped the value of her story. Lagarde shakes her head: “They kept asking, ‘Is it a surf movie or a cancer movie?”

”Ultimately, the filmmakers obtained sufficient funding to edit the film from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Independent Television Service, the latter linked to KHET’s participation.“Heart of the Sea” will be broadcast May 6 on the PBS series Independent Lens at 10:00 p.m.The filmmakers held their breaths whent hey shipped a fine cut to Sunn’s family.“They’re your most critical audience,” Lagarde says. “When they called to say they liked it, we went, ‘OK, we got it, whew!”

Fittingly, “Heart of the Sea” ends with the lyrical underwater image of a lonehonu haloed by sun rays as it hovers at the cusp of the two worlds that Sunn inhabited. The viewer is left sensing that Sunn’s spirit has simply rejoined her ancestors.

“Heart of the Sea” pays tribute to a life joyfully and gracefully lived for all its trials, and offers a lesson to us all. “Live for now, value the present and let there be no regrets,” says daughter Sunn-Carreira.

“Rell is the great reminder to do what you love,” Lagarde says. “She touched so many people’s lives just being herself. She was an amazing surfer, but it’s her incredible spirit and her smile that people always remember.”