On Jan. 16, now known as Super Swell Saturday, when the biggest waves of a consistently epic 2020-21 winter season woke up the outside reef breaks on the islands’ north shores, Oahu North Shore native Makuakai Rothman, 36, was exactly where he wanted to be: on Maui, with his fellow big-wave surfers, riding the Himalayan waves of Peahi, also known as Jaws.
Many gargantuan waves were ridden that session by Rothman and other legendary pros, including Ian Walsh, Garrett McNamara, Kai Lenny and Billy Kemper, but one of Rothman’s, on a monster some estimated at 100 feet and the biggest wave ever ridden in Hawaii, rocked the surfing world and major media after a video aired on TMZ .
“Before I left for Maui, my daughter Hikianalia was like, ‘Daddy you better catch the bomb if you gonna go over there, or don’t come home,” Rothman said in a phone interview Jan. 22. “So I was thankful I caught the bomb.”
It’s likely that the barreling monster he dropped deep into and rode clean to the shoulder will top his own personal record, set at age 18, for the 66-foot Peahi wave he finessed to win the XXL Awards in 2002.
“I didn’t actually know how big it was when I was riding it, but I could tell it was a special wave, it felt different,” he said, his voice, five days later still conveying a contagious excitement and stoke. “Those waves, they create their own wind, their own ecosystem, they have things that aren’t on the normal-size wave: bumps as big as cars on their face.”
Asked what it felt like pitching himself over the ledge and down the mountainous face on his 6-foot, Dick Brewer tow-in board after Kemper, towed him in, “It looked like it was going to break in front of me — it was so big it kind of slowed down for a second because it was outside of the (reef) shelf, it was so big,” Rothman said.
“It was so big it had an extra wave in it, doubled up, and it looked really gnarly…and I was thinking don’t be too deep, don’t go too fast, and then I hit a bunch of little cliffs halfway down,” he said, adding, “I’m just glad I made it.”
He kept his feet— and his head — but at this stage in his life, Rothman, 36, said record-making and prize-winning wasn’t the point, that what matters most to him now is giving positive feedback to children and spreading his ancestors’ message of aloha.
“I’m just blessed that a wave can give me a voice in mainstream media to (inspire) children to love themselves, be true to yourself, believe in yourself no matter what anybody says.”
For much of his life he’d felt down and put-down, Rothman said. “I came from a tent on the beach and people telling me you can’t get a surfboard, and surfers are bums.”
He said he’d done things he “probably shouldn’t have,” but now his life was dedicated to raising his “beautiful family,” including his young daughter and two sons, Thor and Kaleo.
In this digital, social media age when kids can be teased, bullied and shunned “and it’s so instantaneous,” Rothman said, it was more important than ever to “don’t be afraid to dream big and live the life you want to live, don’t be afraid to fail that’s the only time that we learn.”
He said sports were a good way to get kids away from screens, especially surfing, “because the ocean kills any electronics—it’s one thing you cannot not pay attention to.”
Rothman’s message to children can be found on his YouTube channel, Makualoha.