HEART OF THE SEA is a portrait of Rell “Kapolioka’ehukai” Sunn, who died in January 1998 of breast cancer at the age of 47. Known worldwide as a pioneer of women’s professional surfing, at home in Hawaii Rell achieved the stature of an icon—not only for her physical power, grace and luminous beauty, but for her leadership in a community that loved her as much as she loved it.
Rell Sunn grew up on the beach in Oahu near Makaha point. Her grandmother gave her the middle name Kapolioka’ehukai, which means “heart of the sea.” Instructed by surfing great Buffalo Keaulana, Rell began surfing, diving and spearfishing at the age of four.
Rell was Hawaii’s number one female amateur surfer for five years. After a trip to California with Duke Kahanamoku in 1966 to attend a world championship, she began traveling around the world to compete professionally. In 1975, she co-founded the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA), the first women’s pro circuit, with Mary Setterholm, Jericho Poppler and MaryLou (McGinnis) Drummy. In 1979 she formed Women’s Pro Surfing (WPS) with pro women Jericho Poppler, Lynne Boyer, Margo Oberg, Cherie Gross, Linda Davoli, Debbie Beacham, Becky Benson and Brenda Scott. In 1982 Sunn was ranked number one in the world on longboard.
Rell lived her entire life in Makaha, a beach town troubled by crime, drug abuse, high teen pregnancy and school dropout rates. But to Rell, it was a place full of family and friends and her beloved ocean—“paradise on earth.”
Throughout her life, Rell led by doing. A professional surfer who carved the way for women in a sport dominated by men, Rell also led her community as an organizer and activist for at-risk youth and for the preservation of the natural beauty and cultural traditions of her native Hawaii.
Rell brought the joy she had found in surfing to the children of Makaha, founding the annual Menehune surfing contests for kids to promote self-esteem and sportsmanship in children. Families came out to cheer for children competing in bodyboarding, shortboarding and longboarding contests over a three-day period. In 1995 Sunn arranged sponsorship and chaperoned 24 Menehune surfers to the Biarritz Surf Festival in France. The contest continues today through the guidance of her daughter Jan.