The Wave Whisperer

For Makuakai Rothman, a pro surfer and singer-songwriter from Oahu’s North Shore, the ocean is both his playground and his inspiration.

What really makes Hawaii the destination of a lifetime is its spirit: the warmth of the people, and their reverence for the land and its history. In The Hawaii Issue, out now, we’ve profiled four locals who embody that spirit in their respective fields—food, surfing, agriculture, and the arts—and asked each of them to tell us what they love about the island they call home.

His name translates to “father of the sea,” and he says growing up on Oahu’s famed North Shore was like “winning the lottery.” But the 34-year-old professional surfer had a difficult childhood. “My dad was in jail, and my mom was around but not really there,” he says. For years, he lived in a tent on the beach. “I had nowhere else to go besides into the ocean. It washed all the sad stuff away.”

Though he doesn’t remember it, Rothman first rode a surfboard at age 2 and entered his first contest at 4. As a kid, he was teased about his weight and for having a larger frame. “Everyone surfed the little waves well and I didn’t,” he says. “But nobody surfed the big waves, and I thought, Maybe I can do that better than them.” 

In 2002, an 18-year-old Rothman secured a wild-card spot for a competition held at Maui’s mammoth surf break, Pe‘ahi, also known as Jaws. He surprised everyone by surfing the tallest wave recorded anywhere that year and won the World Surf League’s Billabong XXL Big Wave Award. “I was the boy who rode the 66-foot wave,” he says. “That’s what put me on the map.” 

Rothman joined the WSL’s Big Wave Tour and, in 2014, became tour champion. He’s racked up more wins since and estimates he’s surfed eight-story waves in unrecorded free surf. Even with all he has accomplished professionally, one of his most meaningful achievements was being named an “Ambassador of Aloha” by the Honolulu City Council. 

“I love being able to share this wonderful place that I come from,” he says. “Aloha, to me, means many things. Aloha is a greeting and a farewell, and can also mean ‘I love you.’ It’s an all-around perfect word.”

Words carry special meaning for Rothman as he grows his career as a singer-songwriter. “[My grandmother] was a musician at the Kodak Hula Show and my grandpa played at all of the bars, so it’s in my blood,” he says.

His aptly titled first album, “Sound Wave,” dropped in 2013. “I figured I’d put my music out there, and hopefully it travels around the world and everybody gets to hear it.”

Rothman recently finished a USO tour, visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he hopes to release his second album later this summer. Make no mistake, though: Rothman hasn’t retired from surfing. He still dreams of winning. 

“The Pipeline Masters would be a good win, but we’ll see if the ocean allows that.” 

Oahu Insider

Follow in Makuakai Rothman’s footsteps to get a feel for the North Shore and the island known as “The Heart of Hawaii.”

The Sunrise Shack Start the day with a stop at this colorful roadside eatery, co-owned by Rothman’s brother, Koa. The menu features cold-pressed juices, papaya bowls, and veggie wraps, but Rothman’s order is always the same: “I get a muffin for my daughter and a bullet coffee for myself.” The special java blend has coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and Madagascar vanilla.

Pua‘ena Point Beach Park
With smaller waves—think 3 to 5 feet—this lesser-known surf spot is perfect for beginners. It’s also a great place to glimpse sea turtles or explore rocky tide pools.

Surfer, The Bar This bar at Turtle Bay Resort is Rothman’s go-to for live music. The lineup includes open mics and theme nights like “Uke Rock,” which is part karaoke, part sing-along, and part music trivia.

Sunset Suratt Surf Academy Rothman has his own surf school, but if he’s not around, he recommends taking lessons with Bryan Suratt and his staff. “[Bryan] coached me from the early days of my career up until the World Cup.”

Billabong Pipeline Masters Every December, this local competition brings the World Surf League’s top 45 surfers to Oahu. According to Rothman, “It’s one of the most historic competitions still running today, and it crowns the best surfer at one of the most famous waves in the world.”


Tommie Ethington is an editor of this magazine. Email her at tommie.ethington@paceco.com.

Photography by Jenny Sathngam

Originally Published June 2019