On Montauk Magazine, Spring Edition, 2019

By Dave Davis 

Rell Sunn: The Heart and Soul of a Community

The East End Foundation’s annual “Rell Sunn” fundraiser defines Montauk.

Those lovely posters that pop up every summer represent something even more beautiful. As Montauk continues to navigate the winds of change, there’s one thing that has remained steadfast throughout our enviable seaside community; an unwavering, devoted group of like-minded souls who are resolute when it comes to aiding and assisting their own. 

Sadly, it’s easy today to imagine catastrophic events such as fire or debilitating illness leaving a local family unable to meet the financial needs associated with their particular circumstance. Montauk is fortunate, however, to have the East End Foundation (EEF), which has been dropping in for over 20 years now to help out those in need.

One very special event that the EEF holds annually, drawing hundreds of participants and spectators, is the Rell Sunn Memorial Surf Benefit and Raffle. This year’s outing is scheduled for Saturday July 13th at Ditch Plains Beach. The day kicks off promptly at 8 A.M. with the “Blessing of the Water,” a rather moving ceremony performed at the ocean’s edge. In addition to multiple heats of surfing competition throughout the day, a corresponding art auction and raffle is held on the beach, starting at 12 noon.

For those unfamiliar with the origins of the event’s namesake, “Rell Sunn” was that name of a world champion and pioneer in the sport of women’s surfing. Hailing from the Oahu beach town of Mākaha (a universally-recognized hotspot for big-wave surfers in the 1950s), Sunn immediately took to the water at the age of four. She’d soon live up to her given middle name of “Kapolioka’ehukai,” Hawaiian for “Heart of the Sea.” From the mid-1960s to the early 80s, she had not only become one of surfing’s top competitors but found herself empowering legions of women from around the globe, both in and out of the water.

At the vibrant age of 32, Sunn was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and given only a year to live, according to her doctors. “The Queen of Mākaha,” as she was internationally known, would not only survive, but thrive in her capacity to inspire others for the next 15 years. She would eventually succumb in 1998. It was Rell’s perseverance, unparalleled commitment to community, and groundbreaking ambassadorship of surfing for which the original founders of the yearly event, Roger Feit and Dorothy Peel, would choose to honor her legacy on the East End.

Feit, a former Grand Master surfing champion, and Alice Houseknecht, former owner of East Deck, now dedicate much of their time and energy towards philanthropic causes as EEF’s co-directors.  When asked to expound upon the selection process for the distribution of funds raised, Roger graciously shared a touching story about the first local recipients, whose 4-year-old was suffering from a life-threatening form of cancer. The family was struggling to stay afloat and in jeopardy of losing their home, due to the onslaught of medical bills. The EEF intervened, channeling all proceeds from that year’s event to the family in need. Subsequently, they were able to maintain the mortgage payments necessary to save the house, but more importantly, meet the needs of their child; who today, Feit happily reports, is a healthy young man in his 20s.

“While our role is minimal compared to the adversities these families face, community love and caring can be an extraordinary gift when support is needed,” states the Foundation’s website. An extraordinary gift, indeed. Mahalo!