Interview Feature by Alicia King
In Issue 001 of Sea Together the bountifully creative Cher Pendarvis contemplates the holy nature of Mother Ocean, the divinity of a surfing life, and “the cherished friends we are blessed with.” In this interview Cher remembers one of her most cherished friends, the revered ‘Queen of Makaha’ — Rell Kapolioka’ehukai Sunn.
How did you meet Rell?
Rella and I met in 1975 while waxing up before our heats in a (WISA) women’s contest in Oceanside, California. She had just come over from Oahu. Rella did not know many people here, and she needed a place to stay. Rella stayed with me for much of the summer of 1975 and we had a wonderful time together.
We practiced for the very first women’s professional surfing contest together. This was the first Hang Ten Women’s Pro at Malibu. We enjoyed surfing in San Diego county where I live and also enjoyed making many surfing trips to Malibu in my 1971 Jeepster Commando. Later, she called and wrote to me, inviting me to come to Oahu and Makaha.
She said: “You shared your Aloha with me and I would like to share my Aloha with you at Makaha. Rella kept reaching out to me with encouragement, for which I am grateful. I was a freelance artist at the time, and needed to save money for the two month trip, and also to pay my rent and other bills while I was away.
I loved Oahu as I’d lived on the South Shore above Waikiki with my Mom when I was a young girl. My first visit to the West Side and Makaha was with Rella. I’ll never forget her lovely smile when she picked me up at the airport in her VW Bug, with fragrant plumerias for me. We drove to her home near Makaha, and dropped my suitcase, and headed for a surf at Makaha. On the beach, she introduced me to Uncle Buff and his family and other Makaha Ohana. That afternoon, the waves were offshore and 4-6 feet, so fun! I’m very grateful for the time.
On that trip, we enjoyed an amazing time at Makaha and also on the North Shore. We surfed, dove, fished, cooked our favorite foods, and made crafts together. You say Rell embodied the Aloha spirit— what does that mean? Aloha — To share from the heart, breath of life — Alo-ha. Rella always lived and shared from her heart. I miss her so!
How would you describe Rell in the ocean— as a surfer and diver?
Rella was very natural, at home in the water, as a diver and surfer.
Can you think of any surfs/occasions that illustrate her style, grace and skill?
On the West side, Rella and I dove for fish and for the love of the water. She could free dive deep, I estimate possibly fifty-plus feet? My limit was about thirty feet, as the deeper pressure hurt my ears. Many years of surfing and swimming in the cold California waters had already affected my ears when I was in my twenties, so the pressure hurt my ears if I went deep. Rella was a masterful free diver.
When surfing, Rella was graceful and comfortable. She also had a sharp sense of humor. We shared a lot of laughter and smiles in the water. She had excellent wave and line up knowledge at the West Side spots, for instance Makaha, Maile and Yokahama and many of the North Shore spots like Sunset and Laniakea. We enjoyed surfing all of these spots together.
One day when Sunset was big, with some West peak sets, Rella encouraged me to wear a leash (I do not usually wear leashes.) During one paddle out, a big set came through the West peak and we were not going to make it over this set. Rella told me how to bail my board and dive deep, pulling my board down with me.
We got dragged for a ways, but the impact was easier to absorb than taking the full impact. Thank you, Rella!
I can’t help but wonder this as Rell must’ve had a lot of grit to not only charge the waves she did, but pioneer women’s lifeguarding and the women’s pro tour. I can imagine times where she must’ve been tough and stood up for herself?
Yes, Rella was kind, gracious and humble. She was real, through and through. Rella did have a sharp wit, and say that she could be a “teta” (a bad ass Hawaiian female)! Yes, Rella had deep grit to survive, and to care for her young daughter Jan. Rella was a single mom. She definitely stood her ground when she needed to! You mentioned Rella lifeguarding. Rella was the first Hawaiian female ocean lifeguard hired. Rella’s waterwoman skills were respectfully known on the island. She needed more work, and she had approached the county about being hired as a lifeguard. Actually, she was testing for her first lifeguard job during one of my stays with her. We drove to Oahu for her swim test at the Natatorium.
She was thrilled to do well and to also ace her written test. In contests we surfed, Rella was gracious and fair. She used her thoughtful wave knowledge and graceful surfing skill to do well. She did not cross paddle or hassle the other competitors as some other women did. I always loved and respected her fair sportswomanship, as I aim for the same fairness in the water.
We are stoked when we see our friends catch a nice wave, even though we are in a pro competition. In fact, we talked about this, “letting our wave knowledge and surfing shine!”