Makua Rothman | Surfing with a Big Wave World Champion on Hawaii’s North Shore
"I thought it was going to shake my arms off. It literally felt like God had grabbed me”
Featured Image Credit: WSL / Sloane.
I wake with a jolt. It’s 4am and the jet lag has hit hard. Through the shutters of my hotel room window, the sun fastidiously teases at the light it will soon cast over the Pacific before me. I try to sleep again, but to no avail. I’m awake. I pour some coffee and sit on the balcony to watch the sun rise.
From my position on the west coast of Oahu, Hawaii, there’s nothing before me but the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean, and in just a few hours, I’ll be in its balmy waters catching my first North Shore waves. But I won’t be alone. Today, I’m surfing with Big Wave legend, Makuakai ‘Makua’ Rothman. My excitement though, however great, is tinged with more than a hint of apprehension. As the man who famously rode a 66’ wave at just 18 years old, I’m praying he’ll take it easy on me…
“The people of Hawaii, my ancestors, created this sport. It was the sport of kings, and it’s been passed down through the generations”
Born in Honolulu and raised on the North Shore, Makua is about as Hawaiian as it gets. In fact, he’s even descended from royalty, and is the 12th great grandson of King Kamehameha. “The people of Hawaii, my ancestors, created this sport,” he tells me when we meet at Haleiwa Beach for some gentle North Shore surfing. “It was the sport of kings, and it’s been passed down through the generations, and from my father to me.”
However, life for young Makua was nothing short of torturous. Born with chronic asthma, his lungs often failed him. “I remember being in the hospital as a kid and overhearing the doctor say, ‘We don’t know what’s keeping your son alive, Mr. Rothman,’” he recalls, “But my father knew that being in the water, making me hold my breath and being active with cardiovascular work would keep me alive.” In the ocean on a board at the age of 2, he competed in his first contest as just 4, “and the rest is history,” he chuckles.
And though it appears that early life was the ideal combination of paternal love and surfing, the reality is very different indeed. Makua’s father, Eddie Rothman, was once the leader of Da Hui, one of the most feared surf gangs in the world. “Rumours and whispers about his penchant for violence haunt the North Shore. Brave surfers speak of him in hushed tones, afraid they might turn around and see him standing there and then see the darkness of a knockout,” wrote Chas Smith about Eddie in the July 2013 issue of Playboy.
I ask Makua about his own experience growing up with such a notorious father. “One of my first recollections is having nine policemen rip the front door off the hinges while I was sleeping, putting a gun to my head, beating up my mum and arresting my father,” he recollects with noticeable anguish, “My father was once known as The $60 Million Man, and he had the highest bail set in Hawaii. So, I come from a family that’s a little, I would say, infamous.”
“Eddie Rothman, was once the leader of Da Hui, one of the most feared surf gangs in the world”
And the notoriousness of his father left a young Makua to fend for himself much of the time. He slept on the beach in a tent, he used the surrounding trees as a bathroom, cooked on a small camping stove and washed with a hose. “It was just hard,” he says, “But everybody has a story and I don’t want to complain about it, but I had a tough time and it taught me how to survive against all odds.”
Makua introduces me to lifelong friend and local surfing hero ‘Uncle’ Bryan Suratt, who was voted by Surfing Magazine as ‘Surfing Coach of the 90s’ and calls Andy & Bruce Irons, Derek Ho and Joel Tudor as some of his mentees.
With a longboard on loan from Bryan, Makua and I make our way down to the water’s edge; to the very beach he spent much of his youth on. While his childhood was tough, it was the sheer amount of time he spent on the beach and in the water that cemented his life as a surfer. “I just loved surfing. It became my life,” he says, “For me, it was all about the ocean. I was surfing, diving, freediving, fishing. Anything to do with the ocean, I did it.”
And while Makua’s life came to hold the ocean and surfing above all else, under his own admission he was a “really fat kid” without a hope of becoming a high-performance surfer. “But with the big waves, because I was so much bigger, I could handle them. So, the other kids used to all say how they could do 360s or aerial manoeuvres, and I would be catching 15-foot waves which they couldn’t do. It was my way to compete.”
“One of my first recollections is having nine policemen rip the front door off the hinges while I was sleeping, putting a gun to my head, beating up my mum and arresting my father”
Indeed, he was surfing big waves at Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Waimea by the age of 10, and he cites both Laird Hamilton and Darrick Doerner as his mentors. “Laird and Darrick took me under their wings and created this world of big wave surfing in my backyard,” he says as we paddle out, “To have someone like Laird Hamilton as your mentor, even to this day, is a blessing. He saw that fire in a little kid’s eyes and said, ‘I just saw it in you that you wanted it more than all the others’.”
Makua is quick to add that at the time he was emerging, Big Wave surfing in its modern guise wasn’t in existence at all. In fact, when he started out, it was just himself and his close friend Jay Moriarty, who passed away in a Maldives freediving accident, who were pursuing big waves at the time. And when did it all change? “I really broke onto the scene when I caught that 66’ wave at such a young age,” he says.
“Nobody my age could do that. I went up against all the big dogs and caught the biggest wave ever ridden at that time. That wave was the turning point for my career and really cemented me as a professional big wave surfer.” The 66’ wave, which Makua rode at Maui’s Jaws break, was widely considered to be the largest wave ever ridden and secured him the win for the 2003 Billabong XXL Award. So, it was only a matter of time before he got swept up by sponsors and turned pro.
Makua paddles off hard and pops up. He trims the small 4-foot wave with an ease and grace that is the perfect symbiosis of man and board, as if locked in an endless dance. I’m in awe. Though the very gentle swell today may be far from exciting for Makua, it’s just right for me, and I’m grateful that he chose this spot over the 35’ swells striking further along the North Shore. We enjoy a gentle hour of surf before heading back in for lunch.
I’m impressed by both Makua’s humility and raging passion for the sport that has given him so much. He was the wildcard winner of the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing in 2007 when he took out Mick Fanning, and was crowned the first WSL Big Wave World Champion in the 2014-15 season. “It’s been a pretty fun career, man, it’s taken me lots of places.”
I ask Jodi Wilmott, General Manager of the World Surf League North America, about what Makua brings to the sport, and how’s he’s impacted its evolution. “He brings experience, authenticity and a no BS approach,” she tells me, “He does it because he loves it and it’s in his blood. He also brings Hawaiian culture and a bloodline that truly lives and loves the ocean.”
“It hit me so hard that I thought it was going to shake my arms off. It literally felt like God had grabbed me”
At 34, his thirst for big wave surfing is as strong as ever, and he tells me that his next goal is to be the first person to surf a 100’ wave. “Right now, I think Nazarè in Portugal might be the spot, and when it does break, I’ll be ready,” he tells me, “I just want to do something different and always reinvent myself in a way that nobody else has ever seen.”
Can he do it?
“He can do it,” comments Jodi, “He has the right mentors, the right peers, the right environment, and the right disposition. I don’t doubt him for a moment.”
The perpetual chase for bigger and bigger waves comes at a cost though. At Cloudbreak off Tavarua, Fiji, last year, Makua wiped out on an easily-fatal wave. “I had caught the biggest wave ever ridden at Cloudbreak but didn’t make it. It hit me so hard that I thought it was going to shake my arms off,” he recalls, “It literally felt like God had grabbed me and shook me. Nothing else, no man, no nothing, can shake you like that. It’s a force and a power that no one will ever overcome or overpower.”
“When I’m older, maybe 50, I’ll start to slow down. Until then I’m going to hit it hard. Makua ain’t going anywhere soon, that’s for sure”
With three children under 10, and the stakes so very high, I ask Makua whether he considers stopping anytime soon. “Stop what? I’ve been performing better than I ever have and I feel strong, so right now is not the time. But maybe when I’m older, maybe 50, I’ll start to slow down. Until then I’m going to hit it hard. Makua ain’t going anywhere soon, that’s for sure.”
As we part ways, I ask Makua what motivates him to continue surfing at such a high level. “I surf for Hawaii; I surf to inspire the next generation of Hawaiian children who think they might not have a chance. If you want it, you can do it. It’s about making good choices, that’s what life comes down to. I chose to be a surfer, I chose to put my whole life – mind, body and spirit – into it, and this is what it’s become.”
With such a resolve and determination, I daresay Makuakai Rothman will go down in the sporting annals as one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time.
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