WithitWomen Inspiration: Rell Sunn


photo via Jeff Divine


Researching the legend of Rell Sunn and how her actions made her a memorable figure, I have developed a more profound sense of selflessness, courage, and compassion for others throughout my days. Rell Sunn has helped bridge the gap between surfing and life. An example is how stalling or staying in trim on a wave positions me for a better ride and how that correlates to slowing down in life to appreciate what I am so lucky to have.

Kylie Tatarsky, December 2020


Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn is "the undisputed queen of Hawaiian surfing." Known as the First Lady of Surfing by many, Rell Sunn had a poetic style: a combination of grace, poise, and flow. Surfers to this day try to mimic her elegance, but few can accomplish her individual soul surfing style. It's not just her surfing that makes her one of the most well-known and admired water-women who helped influence the surf world. Sunn's love and passion for the ocean itself, through a variety of forms, has helped to spread the "aloha" that has been passed down through generations of surfing and land-based communities alike.


Photo credit: Rell Sunn Tribute Website


Sunn not only surfed, but she also bodysurfed, spearfished, was an avid open water swimmer, diver, and enjoyed open-water canoeing.


She simply was the quintessential water woman.


There are many recorded stories told by those lucky enough to have known Sunn, which has helped memorialize her. One surf legend of Makaha, Brian Keaulana, recalled that Rell would be the one the guys would request to retrieve speared fish from the sea's deep trenches, where they couldn't dive to themselves. Talk about showing the guys up! This type of action by Sunn directly portrayed the kind of help she was to others and the kind of person she was in life.


At the age of 32, Sunn was diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer. Doctors told her she had months, at most a year, to live. In response to this news, she turned around and lived her life to the fullest. Rell spent the remainder of her time in and around the sea. She continued educating people and children and leaving a positive impact on the life of anyone she came across. Sunn was Hawaii's first female lifeguard. By competing in the top women's surfing competitions, she helped bring to life the Women's Professional Surfing Association. Rell Sunn was officially given that title in 1982 when she was named the world's best female longboarder.


Photo credit: Rell Sunn Tribute Website


In 2002, Withitgirl wrote a piece on Sunn, which announced the showing of Heart of The Sea at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The documentary highlights Rell Sunn's memorable influence on the Islands and beyond. The original Withitgirl article also talked about Sunn's label for herself in the Islands, without even trying, when ABC named her one of the most influential women of Hawaii. See an excerpt of the New Day Films documentary here.


Photo credit: Rell Sunn Tribute Website


Sunn ended up living for another 14 years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in January of 1998, and her ashes were spread into the ocean off the coast of Makaha. Over 3,000 people attended the memorial, paying respects to the woman who gave everything to her community and the ocean. Sunn played a significant role in distinguishing women's surfing in our world while inspiring others along the way. Regardless of her many triumphs and titles, Sunn remained humble throughout her short but well-intentional life. Rell Sunn will reside in our memories as one of the most influential people in the history of surf culture, forever.


Photo credit: Surfer Magazine

Other Links and Resources about Rell Sunn


Rell Sunn Tribute Website

Why Hawaiian Legend Rell Sunn Was the Human Embodiment of Aloha by Justin Housman (Surfer, 2020)

About Rell Sunn (UCSD)

WithitGirl Archive: Heart of the Sea Documentary


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