Sunn and surf: They'll always go together

TERRY RODGERS - The San Diego Union Tribune

Terry Rodgers can be reached at (619) 293-1713; by FAX at 293-1896 or by e-mail at

06-Jan-1998 Tuesday

Rell Sunn

Rell Sunn didn't just seize the day, she conquered it.

When it came to squeezing as much out of life as possible, Sunn had the
Vise-Grip grasp of a Sumo wrestler.

Her heart was a kiln that burned fiercely, turning otherwise dull-clay days
into brightly glazed treasures.

Surfing's most charming and beautiful of ambassadors died Jan. 2 at her
home near Hawaii's Makaha Beach. She was 47.

Although she'd been gravely ill since Thanksgiving, Rell forced herself to
hang on through New Year's 1998 as a final gift to her husband, writer and
surfboard shaper Dave Parmenter.

Aside from her status as the First Lady of Surfing, Sunn will be remembered
for her prolonged and courageous battle with cancer.

The disease that finally overtook Sunn was first diagnosed by doctors when
Rell was 32. She turned the death sentence into a blessing, spending the
next 15 years living every day as though it might be her last.

"Her prognosis for the whole time I knew her was that she had six months
left," said Tara Torburn, a member of the Oceanside Longboard Surfing Club
and a longtime friend of Sunn's. In recent years, Torburn served as a key
organizer of the Rell Sunn Menehune Contest for surfers under 15, an event
that's become a 23-year Hawaiian tradition.

"She made every person feel like you were her special friend," Torburn

Sunn was a role model and mentor who encouraged her fellow wahines, young
and otherwise, to experience the joy of dancing on water.

Sunn squeezed the most out of life

She spread her talents over a variety of occupations, working variously as
a lifeguard and swimwear model, and she even composed the daily surf report
for her local radio station. In her final years, she was in demand as a
motivational speaker. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing firm, employed her as
a company ambassador.

She devoured life like a ravenous sea otter, finding amusement at swap
meets, hula dancing, batik, gardening and traveling.

Sunn once explained how she coped with death constantly pounding its
footsteps in close pursuit.

"You realize that you want the rest of your life to be fun," she said. "You
squeeze days from minutes." During her marathon duel with cancer, Sunn
endured an array of anti-cancer treatments from bone-marrow transplants to

She was enrolled in a clinical trial at UCSD Cancer Center in La Jolla
after volunteering in 1994 to participate in a surfing tournament to
benefit the treatment center.

The fund-raiser has since grown into the largest "legends" surfing event of
its kind. Last year, the event raised $100,000 for cancer research.

"She was a wonderful waterwoman with many facets," said Cher Pendarvis of
San Diego, who first met Rell in 1975 when they competed in the first
women's professional surfing tour.

"She knew the names of all the different fish and shells," Pendarvis said.
"She was also an environmentalist who cared very much for our planet and
keeping the ocean clean."

Sunn's surfing was distinctive, a reflection of her personality.

"She wanted to flow with the wave," Pendarvis recalled. "She's known for
her very smooth, graceful surfing style. She timed her turns and maneuvers
with the rhythm of the wave."

Graciously gave from her heart

Her special aura was captured in "Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing," a
documentary video done for KPBS, San Diego's Public Television station.
"The aloha spirit is real simple," Sunn explains in the video. "You give
and you give and you give . . . and you give from here (the heart), until
you have nothing else to give."

In 1996, she was honored with a granite nameplate in the Huntington Beach
Surfing Walk of Fame. The name of her hero, Duke Kahanamoku, is embedded in
the same patch of sidewalk.

Rell lived her life the same way she surfed -- with incredible grace and
style. Wherever the waves are glassy and glistening with nature's energy,
the Sunn will always be shining.

"I feel she'll always be with us," said Pendarvis. "When we go surfing,
we'll still be surfing with Ruella."

Memorial services are scheduled for Jan. 17 at Makaha Beach.

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