The Rell Sunn Legacy Grows

Rell Sunn (right) and daughter Jan shared a love of the ocean  Photo from Jan Sunn-Carreira

Rell Sunn (right) and daughter Jan shared a love of the ocean. Photo from Jan Sunn-Carreira

Jan Sunn-Carreira was only 7 years old when her already-famous mom had a dream of hosting an event for young surfers, where every competitor went home a winner.

The “Queen of Makaha,” Rell Sunn, wanted to make a difference in the lives of Hawaii’s keiki and worked tirelessly to find sponsors who were willing to donate prizes and gifts for the young surfers. It was the start of the Menehune Surf Contest.

That was 38 years ago. “I was with her when she started all of this for the keiki, and it was very important to her and she made it fun,” says Sunn-Carreira.

“Now that I am a mom, I see the huge importance of environment, sportsmanship, kokua in your community, respect, generosity and simply being kind to others. I teach my children these life lessons Mom taught me in hopes my children grow up and have a rewarding experience and can pass it on to others. To know it’s the ‘quality’ not quantity of life.”

Rell Sunn was a pioneer of women’s professional surfing, Hawaii’s first female lifeguard, an accomplished diver and a veteran of the Molokai channel.

She also was a cancer survivor.

Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983 and was given one year to live. Over the next 14 years, her cancer went into remission three times, and she underwent a mastectomy and a bone marrow transplant.

Yet she never stopped thinking about the keiki.

“When Mom got really sick, she had my husband and I promise we’d continue this event for the children,” says Sunn-Carreira. “She said ‘they’ are our future, and they need to be guided and stoked on something fun and healthy!”

Rell died on Jan. 2, 1998, at the age of 47. It was a sad day for family and friends, but a peaceful one for a woman who fought hard to make people happy.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Hawaii’s keiki will have the opportunity to experience the true joy that Auntie Rell visualized nearly four decades ago. The 38th annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest and fourth annual Rell Sunn Aloha Jam on Nov. 23 promise to be even bigger and better than ever.

“There have been so many menehune contests all over the world, and to think it all began with a Hawaiian girl living in a small, simple town who had wonderful dreams about life and what it had to offer,” says Sunn-Carreira. “In the end, all she wanted to do was share that experience and give just that little bit of life!”

The Aloha Jam at Waimea Valley will feature some of Hawaii’s top musicians and benefit the Rell Sunn Foundation. Sunn-Carerria is blown away by the support of the community and the generosity of local vendors, entertainers and small businesses.

“I am and will forever be humbled and grateful for all the family and friends who reach out to me and help me with their undying love and support for what they believed in my mom,” she says. “I feel my mom’s story needs to be shared with others.”

Sunn-Carreira wants her mother’s legacy to live on and has started plans for the Rell Sunn Bronze Memorial to be placed in Hawaii.

“It’s great when people come up to me and tell me stories about my mom, how she guided them through tough situations or simply how they cherish and love her,” says Sunn-Carreira.

“An even greater joy is when her mo’opuna see and hear this, so it’s not just coming from me about their grandmother. She truly touched many lives, until this day even! I am grateful for the people who just love her and believed in her and what she did for others.”

For more information on the Rell Sunn Aloha Jam and Menehune Surf Contest, or to make contributions to the Rell Sun Memorial Bronze Statue, visit