A young woman and the sea,
By Rell Sunn
On January 2, 1998 surfing legend
Rell Sunn died after long battle with breast cancer. She
was a pioneer in women's surfing, starting her surfing
career when she was only 4 years old living in Hawaii.
Rell was a founder of the first women's professional surfing
tour and an international ambassador for the sport.
The following is a short story
Reaction time is faster when you see bigger fish. At
the instant I saw the 45-pound ulua munching on a tiny
snowflake eel my Hawaiian sling hand-spear was already
cranked and flying. The three prongs lodged in the back
of his blunt head, and he spun once, eyeing me with reproach.
But instead of screeching for the channel, he turned and
went back to work on the eel.
I was faster and luckier with my back-up spear, as it
found its mark between his eyes. The ulua bolted for the
deep blue of the drop-off, the two spears poking like
antennae from his brow and humming through the water with
his furious rush.
It had been an easy, almost effortless dive day. The
usually temperamental waters off of Oahu's Kaena Point
were placid, seemingly beaten into laziness by the summer
heat. The ocean there is full of fish, outrageous holes,
and Hawaiian myth and lore. I had paddled out on my longboard,
which was both my partner and diving platform, with two
Hawaiian sling spears, a mask, snorkel, fins and a dive
bag...all weighing no more than 15 pounds, board included.
Within an hour the 9-foot, 6-inch longboard was awash
under the weight of 65 pounds of octopus, giant uhus (parrotfish),
a couple of seven-pound kumus (highly prized goatfish...red,
I was already headed in and skipping over a mental shopping
list for ingredients needed for steaming the kumu and
stuffing and baking the uhu when I spotted my dream fish.
The ulua had put some distance between us despite the
two spears stuck into him. I was already three-quarters
of a mile out and swimming with burning lungs and muscles
against the current. My board had drifted down current;
it was a gamble to let it go and swim after the fish,
but I couldn't afford to lose sight of my quarry for even
a second. I was committed to the gamble of sticking with
The wobbling of the spear soon wore the ulua down enough
so that I could use the best of my energy to surge ahead
of him and herd him back toward the shallows. As my calves
began to cramp I was relieved to see the fish doing flips
and violent spirals... he was dying.
Uluas are beautiful fish. They're smart, good hunters
and are incredibly strong. I've seen them turn vicious
when injured. As this ulua fluttered to a ledge 35 feet
below, I realized that he didn't know that particular
crevice as well (it was a dead end) as I did. It was the
stroke of luck I needed to take a chance on retrieving
my board. Three minutes later I was back with my board,
hovering over the crevice, and relaxing my breathing to
get a good gulp of air for the descent.
The ulua was scraping the spears against the ceiling
of the ledge when I reached the opening. I sunk the fingers
of one hand into his eye socket and gripped the spear
shaft protruding from his head with the other, and began
to guide him out and up toward the surface.
He fought hardest two feet from the surface. My legs
were starting to cramp and I was on the verge of blacking
out. I shot out into the air, blasting the snorkel free
of water, and for the first time felt the true heft of
the fish, which felt like a leaden umbrella held overhead.
As I wrestled the ulua up onto the deck of my board,
I heard what sounded like wind blowing through reel lines,
or dogs barking. I pulled my mask off and followed the
noise to a spot on the shoreline where four fishermen
were jumping, yelling and pointing at me.
I grinned and raised the 45-pound trophy in a victory
Then, I turned my head seaward just in time to see a
14-foot tiger shark sliding under the surface barely 50
feet away, knifing toward my board, my 65 pounds of octopus
and fish, my ulua and my legs, not necessarily in that
A million heartbreaking thoughts and possibilities flashed
into my mind, yet I had but two solutions to them all:
pulling myself into the less-exposed knee-paddling position,
and scuttling the ulua off the side.
I took a few pulls toward shore and said, "I'll be back...next
time catch your own dinner!" I didn't have the heart to
do the "panic-paddle" in, and so from a safe distance
I watched my dream fish begin to sink. He wasn't even
a foot under when the tiger grabbed him and tore into
the midsection. My lungs, my arms and the fishermen were
screaming as I paddled away from the snapping, churning
From shore the fishermen and I watched the shark finish
up what could have been a mini-luau for my neighbors and
me. We traded fish recipes, shark stories and other spooky
stuff about Kaena. They helped clean (and eat!) the fish.
Other than that 14-foot tiger shark, my day couldn't have
been nicer; sharing a day's catch and making new friends.
My new friends helped me lift my VW bug and turn it
toward Makaha (it had no reverse gear). I headed off to
my hula class, late again.
I drove along the dirt road back to Mahaka, the sparkling
afternoon sea smoldering against the rock-bound shore.
In less than 30 minutes I would be back in my more land-locked
world, full of Hawaiian music, dancing, and "talking story"
with the girls.
But out there, under the deceptively placid surface,
was a world blind to gender. Though I was taught by men,
I was formed by and subjected to the rigid laws of a seemingly
lawless realm that treated me and every grazing ulua or
marauding shark with the same utter equanimity.
Though I was running late, I stopped along the way and
picked some hinahina for my hula sisters' leis. The succulent
flowers grow along the arid Kaena coast road, living on
the thick sea spray. Not exactly ulua steaks, but Pua
and Sweets and the girls would be stoked.
Honolulu Star Bulletin
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