by Naomi Sodetani
Aohe ia e loaa aku,
he ulua kapapa no ka moana.
He cannot be caught,
for he is an ulua fish of the deep ocean.
(Said in admiration of a hero or warrior who will not give up without a struggle.)
photo: Linny Morse Cunningham
Growing up in Makaha, Rell Kapolioka‘ehukai (Heart of the Sea) Sunn slept with her surfboards, not dolls. "Before I could read," she once recalled, "I could read the ocean, the tides and the wind. I thought I knew everything I ever needed to know just from being on the beach—everything." That knowledge nurtured the Native Hawaiian waterwoman throughout her life. It gave her a competitive edge during her pioneering pro surfing career, then offered healing refuge in a fifteen-year battle against breast cancer that finally claimed her at the age of forty-seven.
Now, a new documentary on Sunn, called Heart of the Sea, is set to be unveiled at the Hawaii International Film Festival in November, followed by its broadcast debut on public television sometime next year. Co-directed by California filmmakers Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker with executive-production guidance provided by Academy Award nominee Janet Cole (Regret to Inform), the film—much of which was shot just a few months before Rell’s death in 1998—conveys a deeply moving portrait of a woman who blazed an unconventional path and breached the predominantly male domain of professional surfing.
The luminous Hawaiian-Chinese beauty was famed for her fluid finesse and graceful maneuvers on the longboard she favored. World-class surfer Keoni Watson, one of Sunn’s proteges, puts it best: "There’s nothing more beautiful than an empty wave—except Rell Sunn on it." But more than just a champion surfer, Rell was a champion of the Hawaiian community that was her home. Fondly dubbed the "Queen of Makaha," she presided over her favorite beach as Hawaii’s first female lifeguard. Vibrant and charismatic, she won the hearts of many around the world as an ambassador of aloha who encouraged thousands of children to surf and later helped other women stricken with cancer. She was also a master fisherwoman who could free-dive eighty feet down with sharks hovering about and haul up mega-catches of octopus, lobster, uhu, kumu and ulua using just a three-pronged spear.
photo: Warren Bolster
Heart of the Sea opens with a rush of churning waters and Rell’s voice recounting how her grandmother prophetically bestowed her Hawaiian name at birth. Masterfully edited by Vivien Hillgrove (Henry and June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the documentary intersperses digital video with ocean sequences shot in 16mm film by distinguished surf cinematographer Don King. Lustrous black-and-white "flashback" scenes evoke Rell as a little girl (portrayed by Makaha resident Desiree DeSoto) paddling and surfing. "It was essential to recreate a sense of Rell’s world," says producer/director Lagarde, "to draw viewers into her ocean environment."
Rell cherished the ocean as a benevolent realm where her aumakua, or ancestor gods, lived on as sea creatures. "All our forefathers, all our uncles and anyone who had passed away were in the ocean, so there was nothing to fear," she explains in the film. "They were there for us if we needed them, so I never thought I’d drown or be injured, because I believed in this."
Duke Kahanamoku, the great Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and father of modern surfing, was Sunn’s childhood hero. Then, in the ’60s, the Makaha International surf meet descended on her 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. And she did.
In the early ’70s, she was instrumental in founding the Women’s Professional Surfing Association. She twice finished third in international year-end rankings of the pro women’s tour she helped establish and received the coveted Waterman Achievement Award. Two years before she died, Rell became one of the first five women inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame, her granite stone sharing a patch of Huntington Beach sidewalk with Duke Kahanamoku’s.
Working on Heart of the Sea "was such an emotional journey," says director-cinematographer Denker. "I’ve worked on big Hollywood and independent narrative feature films and had great experiences," she says. "But this one I still feel so deeply." As for Lagarde, her prior films include Swell, which portrays four generations of women surfers, and Zeuf, about another woman surfer’s struggle with breast cancer. It was Robin "Zeuf" Janiszeufski 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."
Heart of the Sea was originally conceived as a history of women’s surfing, then was scaled back to a short film focusing on "a day in the life" of the surfing champion. When Lagarde and Denker landed in Makaha in October 1997, however, the project evolved again. Though she was so sick she could hardly breathe, Rell spent ten days with the filmmakers, showing them her favorite tidepools, surfing breaks and diving spots, and introducing them to her inner circle of friends. Wherever they went, people avidly tooted their horns to greet her—a sign of the global affection Rell inspired.
"Rell orchestrated this film," Lagarde says. "She really wanted this to focus on her life, not her end," so the filmmakers committed themselves to producing an hour-long, in-depth story. Rell died shortly after the visit, but her friends "opened Makaha to us," says Lagarde, smoothing local tensions over the fact that "these two white chicks from California were making this film on Rell, and we don’t even surf!"
In the film, archival television footage follows Rell’s public exploits as a pro surfer and local celebrity, while those closest to her reflect on her personal journey through the intimate lens of private moments. Close friend Kathy Terada, for example, remembers "the marks of her dive mask always on her face," and "how she slept with Vaseline on her hands and feet, because they were so cracked from all those hours in the water."
As a single mother, Rell struggled to balance her dreams with the burdens of being a sole provider. While surfing competitively, she also worked as a county lifeguard and rotated stints as a KCCN disc jockey and surf reporter to pay the bills. Jann Sunn-Carreira loved watching her mom on the waves. "She was just one with the board and the water," she says. "Even when she fell off, it was still beautiful."
Then, in 1982, Rell was toweling off during a surf meet at Huntington Beach when she felt a lump in her breast. "She was at the top of her shape," Sunn-Carreira says. "She was at the top of her life." At thirty-two, the top-ranked woman on the longboard circuit came up hard against the prospect of wiping out for good. "Sometimes things happen in our lives, you just might hit a wall," Rell states simply in the film. "Mine was cancer." Her eyes and smile radiate good humor as she reflects on her life and impending death without a hint of self-pity.
Heart of the Sea traces her wrenching, fifteen-year ordeal through the hospital wards, painful radiation, bone marrow replacements and chemotherapy that made her scream and weep for days. Many times, she fought the disease into remission, but it would recur, spreading through her body and, finally, her brain. "You realize the life you lived, free-spirited, doesn’t belong to you," she says. "It belongs to the pain in your back, your lungs, your skin. But when you get in the water, you own your life again; it’s wonderful."
Makaha surf check.
photo: Linny Morse Cunningham
Rell truly believed that the ocean that fed her soul also sustained her physical life; she was convinced of the healing power of kapu kai, the ancient ritual of salt water bathing to purify oneself. Local filmmakers Nalani Mattox and Julie Ann King, who served as associate producers for the project, urged Lagarde and Denker to delve deeper into the Native Hawaiian cultural beliefs, values and community that Rell embodied. During the three years it took to raise funds for the film, they had the opportunity to do that. "If we made the film the year after Rell died," Lagarde says, "it would have been pretty shallow. Taking the time to canoe, dive, see the turtles and hike the Makaha mountains really opened our eyes to her environment."
The filmmakers held their breaths when they shipped a final 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!’" Denker says she hopes the film "will extend Rell’s legend beyond Hawai‘i, for she is truly an American hero with a Hawaiian face."
More than just a touching memoir, Heart of the Sea tackles some disturbing aspects of Sunn’s struggles. When she first began competing, for example, dismal winner’s purses illustrated the disrespect accorded women surfers in a male-dominated sport. And later, when she was forced to undergo a mastectomy, a swimwear sponsor summarily dropped her.
Cancer propelled Rell’s efforts as a community advocate. In her final years, she volunteered for the Waianae Cancer Research outreach program, sharing her experience to help other local women cope with the insidious disease. Her vibrant smile warmed all who entered her loving radius, particularly kids. Starting in 1975, she put on the annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest at Makaha, which has given countless "at-risk" local kids a venue to have fun and to excel—even taking a group one year to compete in Biarritz, France. "I guess I became Queen of Makaha after 10,000 people call you ‘Auntie Rell,’" she joked.
"Rell embodied everything that is great about surfing, but she grew larger than that," says former surfing champion Fred Hemmings, today a state senator. "She represented the values we hold so dear in Hawai‘i. Rell was a giver, not a taker."
All that aloha came back to her in the end. When she lost her hair and had to wear a swim cap, local surfers also donned caps in camaraderie. When she became too weak to paddle, they’d lend a push to help her catch a wave. Numerous benefit concerts were organized by those whose lives she touched to help pay her medical bills.
When Rell died on January 2, 1998, thousands of mourners packed Makaha Beach to bid her a final farewell. A convoy of longboarders accompanied her family’s canoe as they released a glass ball holding her ashes gently into the surf, freeing her to roam the sea she loved.
Fittingly, Heart of the Sea ends with the lyrical underwater image of a lone honu (sea turtle) haloed by sun rays as it hovers at the cusp of the two worlds that Rell inhabited; liquid and air. The viewer is left sensing that her spirit has simply joined her ancestors to revel in the waves. "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."