For the better part of two decades, Makua Rothman has been a force at Jaws. The hellman's only measuring stick for success is what he's done before, like, becoming the big world champ or winning XXL awards. But when the biggest swell in years made a bee-line for Hawaii last week, Makua towed into one of the tallest waves of the day, earning him international attention as the “first man to surf a 100ft wave,” according to TMZ, anyway.
Was it 100ft though? No. Not by the looks of things anyway. But it's an absolute hulking beast and the biggest wave of Makua's life. Here, Marcus Sanders checked in with Rothman to chat about the wave, this swell and how it compares to others in the past.
You and Nathan Florence went to Jaws, while your brothers Koa and John John stayed on Oahu. You all clearly scored. Why’d you decide to leave Oahu to meet this swell on Maui?
I stayed home the last couple swells, but nothing in the world compares to Jaws. I don’t care what Waimea did. I don’t care what the Outer Reefs did. Jaws just blows minds. I mean, look, I got one wave and it’s worldwide overnight. (see TMZ...) Regardless of how big the wave actually is feet-wise or technically speaking, when people see a wave like that, they can appreciate it. It’s like a diamond in the rough, or a unicorn.
You don’t always see those ones that have that wow-factor, like, “Holy shit!” Maverick’s is big, but not that big, and Nazare does what it does. But Jaws is 60-to-80 feet and barrelling from the peak to the beach. I think it’s the most special place in the world.
How did Saturday compare to other historic XXL swells — like in 2002 where you bagged that record-setting 66-footer?
No way, that was 20-years-ago, huh? I don’t know what it is with the ocean. I mean, everything’s changing. I don’t know if it’s the polar ice caps shrinking so the storms are able to go higher, or there’s not as much pressure of coldness up top to drive the storms down to Hawaii more, but this is the first swell I’ve seen in a long time that actually stood up and broke outside.
Remembering back to when I was a kid seeing Laird and those guys doing this, I don’t know, it seems like the waves used to get a lot bigger a lot more often when I was younger. But this swell was one that actually came through. I was watching the maps and seeing certain colours that haven’t hit the islands in a long time.
Is everyone surfing a different part of the lineup now? Or is it basically the same stretch of reef just being surfed more critically?
The basic deepness of the lineup is relatively the same, but we can come from deeper now because we have the ski. When it’s bigger it breaks further out, but I still use the same lineups, the same trees and valleys and points that stick out. The trees have grown a little bit in the last 20 years, but the reef stays the same.
Do you feel like you’re a better big wave surfer now than you were 20-years-ago?
Twenty-years-ago, I was just a kid. I was like, “Take me anywhere!” [laughs] Just to be surfing under Derek and Laird and those guys, I couldn’t get any higher than that. It was such a treat just to be out there with them, and whatever waves they put me on, I went. I didn’t really know about lineups and all that stuff back then. So, I’m more calculated nowadays, and obviously I have a family to come home to. But I definitely know where to put myself.
How do you feel about your performance on Saturday?
I wish I could’ve gotten deeper on a couple of waves — they just didn’t look like they were going to stand up that big and barrel. Only a few waves did that day. That big one I got looked like it was gonna barrel in front of me, but didn’t. I think it was just big enough where it was outside the reef a little more, so it didn’t really hit the shelf and wrap and do all that. Like the end section part just kinda barrelled, slowly, all the way through, almost like Second Reef Pipe, and you didn’t have a section in front of you to backdoor.
Sometimes you want to hit the bump and go over it; and sometimes you want to absorb it and slow down a little… it’s technical
The ones that barrelled were the smaller waves that hit the reef in advance and open at one section on the inside. But the bombs were so big that, once you got whipped in, it was hard to move in them without skipping out. Like, if you look at my wave, there’s a huge wall on it, but it was a little bit too big for that inside reef section, so it just kind of stayed one wave all the way across.
When it’s that choppy, do you have to pick your lines early? I mean, at some point, you can’t really adjust, can you?
You pick your lines early, but then you adjust to the bumps. So, if there’s a massive bump here and it’s a little low, you’ve got to hit it and jump over to the next lump; or you’ve got to try and avoid it; or sometimes you want to hit the bump and go over it; and sometimes you want to absorb it and slow down a little… it’s technical.
And when it’s that massive and unruly, those waves will create their own winds, as well. At one point, we were out there and there were seriously two, three-foot waves going across the middle of the wave! We went over some sets, and the wind was blowing full waves at us, breaking and everything! [laughs] It was pretty crazy.
Do you feel like yours was the biggest wave of the day?
From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like the biggest one. I haven’t seen any other footage, but it’s just massive. You can tell it breaks different than all the other ones, and there’s a reason it’s that far out. Everything else is closer in.
But to me, it’s just another wave. Back in the day I might’ve been like, “Ho, look at me! I rode this 66-foot wave!” Nowadays, I catch a wave like that and I get media attention for it, and it just gives me a chance to spread my aloha. It gives me a chance to further the sport of my ancestors, take from where they left off and show the world what Hawaii is about. It’s not about the awards or the numbers or all these other things. Once upon a time it was. I used to be all about winning the XXL , catching the biggest wave ever. Now it’s about going out there and having fun with my friends.
But you’ve still clearly got some award-winning rides left in you.
Oh, put me and Billy together on a tow team anywhere, and we’ll give anyone a run for their money, straight up. [laughs] But Saturday was just a day to remember with good friends. And for me, it was more about Steve Roberson that day.
Maybe I’ll go make the next hit song that touches the world instead, or maybe I’ll just tow Steve into the biggest wave in the world
He didn’t get any waves in the beginning, he was kind of shell-shocked. He wasn’t even going to go out and I said, “Let’s go, grab your board, you’re gonna thank Uncle when we’re done.” I know he wanted it, but he just wasn’t confident. I was like, “Boy, these are gonna be the waves of your life. You might not get this chance again for awhile!”
And you know, I haven’t seen a 12-year-old surf waves like that before. Everybody was stoked to see him out there. And who would I be now, after doing all these things, to not try and pass it along to the next generation?
What’s up with that TMZ stuff?
Oh, man. I mean, how does any news get pushed around? Somebody turns it in, and guys start throwing numbers out there. I mean, we never know how big it’s going to be until they measure it, and hopefully nobody ever does measure it and that will be the wave that makes it [laughs].
Honestly though, I’m just doing what I was meant to do. The numbers and stuff aren’t important to me. What’s important is making it home to my family and doing it another day.
Do you feel like that was the biggest wave you’ve ever caught?
Definitely. I do. When it stood up that whole wave was bigger than my 66-footer. By how much, who can say? I do want to get barrelled on one like that, though, or a bigger one, and maybe I will. Maybe I won’t.
Maybe I’ll go make the next hit song that touches the world instead, or maybe I’ll just tow Steve into the biggest wave in the world… You never know. All I know is that I’m blessed to have had this beautiful run in life. I feel like the ocean chose me, and I’ll be doing this for as long as I have the will and the power to do it.
Cover shot by Fred Pompermayer