by Corky Carroll
Last week I embarked on a little bit of surf history featuring the women who led the way starting with what is commonly called the “Modern” era of surfing. This period started with the advent of lightweight balsawood and foam surfboards in the mid to late 1950’s. I talked about Gidget, the Calhoun girls, Linda Benson, Joyce Hoffman and Margo Godfrey (later Margo Oberg after she got married). Today I am going to add a couple more girls to the list.
The first is Rell Sunn. To fully describe Rell and her impact on the surfing world would be really hard, but I will do my best to give you the best short version that I can. Rell was wonderful, in every sense of the word. Great surfer and a beautiful Hawaiian girl who truly embraced the true “spirit of aloha.” I first met Rell when I was at Makaha, on Oahu’s west shore, for the big International Surfing Championship in 1963. Her and her sister were both very young and were competing. We were all just kids back then. Through the years we were friends and I would see her at all of the surfing events both in Hawaii and California as she rose through the ranks of Women’s surfing. But her mark on the surfing community came from much more than just her remarkable surfing skills. Rell was like an ambassador for Hawaiian surfing, known as the “Queen of Makaha,” and lovingly as “Auntie Rell” by all the surfing ohana (family) on the “west side.” In 1982, while at a pro surfing event in Huntington Beach, she found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. She was given a year to live at that time. Not going down without a fight Rell lived 16 more years, becoming a counselor for breast cancer at her home as well as piloting a program for breast cancer awareness at the Waianae Cancer Research Center on Oahu. Everybody loved Rell. Songs were written about her such as “Mother of the Sea,” by Darren Benitez, a documentary was done on her titled “Heart of the Sea,” and she was inducted into both the Surfers Hall of Fame and the International Surfing Walk of Fame. Rell was truly a special surfer and special human being, she passed away in 1998 at age 47.
Through almost all of the years that Rell was competing in surfing events around the world her main sidekick was the firey Jerricho Poppler. This is another one that would need a whole book or mini-series to fully give you the scope of her essence. Her competition record is huge and includes United States Champion and World Professional Champion. She was also inducted into the Surfers Hall of Fame and the International Surfing Walk of Fame, both in Huntington Beach. Like Rell, Jericho brought a whole lot more to the party than just her amazing surfing talents. This chick came with a personality, big bright blazing personality. She lit up the beach with it. It carried into her surfing style too. I wanna say she went at it like a modern dance. Well, actually I will say it. Her surfing was a dance, flowing and with a lot of rhythm. Along with competing, and just being a beckon of light and fun, she also co-founded WISA (the Women’s International Surfing Association). Through all these years Jericho is still out there surfing to this day and still better than pretty much anybody else out on any given day. She lives in Long Beach and you can find her at many of the surfing events in Southern California.
To wrap up this little historical wandering I would also like to mention the first girl to win back to back World Professional Surfing Championships, Lynn Boyer. She won in 1978 and again in 1979, along with many other titles and being in the SURFERS HALL OF FAME etc. This would pretty much wrap up what I personally would consider the “pioneering” period. There were many other great women surfers that I should also mention that were a part of it and important in their own right. Linda Merrill, Nancy Nelson, Judy Dibble, Joey Hamasaki and Sharon Webber come to my pea brain at this moment. All these girls opened the doors for today’s female superstars and deserve recognition. It has not been just all guys.