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Mr Makua Rothman: Big Waves And Bold Prints

The Hawaiian surfer Mr Makua Rothman can handle 70ft giants, but how is he with this season’s aloha style?

Being a world champion has meant my world has expanded,” says Hawaiian big-wave surfer Mr Makua Rothman. “I’ve done fashion shoots with Victoria’s Secret models. I’ve played gigs in front of thousands of fans. I’ve ridden waves 70ft high. I’ve done it all and been lucky enough to have had a great life. The best thing, though, is I have never once been dishonest about who I am or what I believe in.”

Mr Rothman is indeed the genuine article. The 33-year-old was born and raised on the North Shore of Oahu, the eldest of four children, and son of the legendary surfer and notorious hard man Mr Eddie Rothman. Mr Rothman Jr started surfing before he could walk and, by the age of just 10, he was a regular at the world-famous local big-wave spots of Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach.

In his early teens, he progressed to surfing the giant waves on the outer reefs that pepper the coast where he lives. These were the same waves that he’d watched from his bedroom window rear up and cap on the horizon all his short life. In 2002, he rode a wave at Pe’ahi, also known as Jaws, that was measured at 66ft. At the time, it was considered to be one of the biggest waves ever ridden. Mr Rothman had yet to turn 18. Living up to his full name, Makuakai, which translates as “father of the ocean”, has never been a problem.

“I was one of the first kids to pursue big waves as a career,” says Mr Rothman. “Guys like Laird Hamilton had laid down the path, but I was one of the first of the next generation to say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to surf in the small-wave contests. That’s not what I’m about.’” At 5ft 10in and with a muscular frame, his size didn’t lend itself to surfing small waves, either.

“I sucked at the fancy manoeuvres and the tricks,” he says. “I was too fat. However, I would come in from a surf and watch my friends compete. I’d say, ‘Well, I’ve just ridden a wave 50ft high and you guys are in the shorebreak.’ Surfing big waves was my passion and what I was good at. I decided then to be the very best big-wave surfer I could be.”

Mr Rothman first started competing on the Big Wave Tour in 2014. It now comprises four events held in Hawaii, California, Mexico and Portugal, with the competitors judged on paddling into and surfing the biggest waves possible. Mr Rothman was crowned the 2015 world champion. Since then, he has been a perennial contender and has been runner-up twice. When MR PORTER talked to him, he had just returned from a competition at the famous Portuguese big-wave spot of Nazaré.

“You get a green light from the organisers saying the event will run in three days’ time,” says Mr Rothman. “That call means you know you are going to surf and compete in the biggest waves on the planet.” All the competitors need to make hasty arrangements to get themselves and their equipment – surfboards that are more than 10ft long – to the location and then be ready to paddle into the giant waves.

“Elite athletes in other sports have a detailed schedule of competition. They also have trainers, chefs and physiotherapists to make sure every performance detail is monitored and measured. We don’t have that. You scramble to get there the night before, wake up and then it’s like, boom! Get out there, boys, and ride waves as high as 10-storey buildings. It’s not the Olympics, that’s for sure.” Mr Rothman made the trip to Portugal, despite having cracked a few ribs in an event in Hawaii earlier in the year.

“I knew I was hurt, but it was going to hurt if I lay on the couch at home,” he says. “I had an outside chance for a world title, so I had to go. I ended up getting knocked out early and coughing up blood, but there wasn’t much choice. I’m 100 per cent committed to winning another world championship.”

When he’s not surfing, Mr Rothman packs a huge amount into his life. First and foremost are his wife, Nalani, and their three young children, Thor, Hikianalia and Kaleoali’i. Then there are his modelling and sponsorship contracts, not to mention his burgeoning music career. His grandmother introduced him to the ukulele when he was a kid and it’s been his constant companion ever since. Five years ago, he started to take his music more seriously. He moved on from providing the music at Rothman family barbecues and post-surf beach parties to recording his own Hawaiian-infused material.

His first full-length album, Sound Wave, debuted at number one on the Billboard World Album chart on iTunes and peaked as the number one Billboard Reggae Album in December 2013. Since then, he has toured all over the world, headlining shows and opening for artists such as Matisyahu, Sublime With Rome, Common Kings and The Wailers.

“I’d love to wear the Gucci jacket that I wore for this shoot at one of my big concerts,” he says. “It had a loud print and I liked the attitude with the blacks and deep reds mixed with the floral prints. Sometimes you need threads that have punch, and that had plenty.”

Mr Rothman’s day-to-day uniform at home tends to be a pair of sandals matched with board shorts and a T-shirt, or gym kit when he’s training. However, he revelled in the chance to try something fresh with the panoply of patterned pieces he wore for MR PORTER. “This shoot was so much fun,” he says. “Like the green checked pants or the leaf and swirls on the shirt. I mean, I would probably never choose those prints. Then I saw the shots and I was like, man, this could be me. This works. With these patterns, I could easily style it up and still be completely doing my thing. I also dug the red cardigan with the white palm motif [worn with a T-shirt by one of his sponsors, RVCA]. That was a strong look that really suits Hawaii.”

As Mr Rothman’s thoughts meander to his homeland, it is easy to register the pride and contentment in his voice. Hawaii is at the core of who he is and whether he is surfing waves or conducting business meetings in New York, it is the spirit of aloha that he tries to put front and centre. Aloha, while used as both a greeting and farewell in Hawaii, is also much more than that. It encompasses love, compassion, sympathy and kindness. It is a way of living and giving.   

“When I go into different environments outside of surfing and Hawaii, I don’t talk,” says Mr Rothman. “I listen. You need to understand what is going on around you, and you don’t get that by shooting your mouth off. If the attention is on me or if I have to talk to a bunch of people, well, that’s a blessing. It is a chance to share a message of aloha and my values.

“I see my job as being a Hawaiian ambassador and to show the Hawaiian spirit to every person I come across. I want people to look at these pictures and go, ‘That’s the Hawaiian boy. That’s the aloha guy. Look how happy he is.’ If I can bring that Hawaiian warmth everywhere I go, well, my job is done.”


Mr Makua Rothman’s Five Favourite Waves

Pe’ahi, Maui: “Hands down the best big wave on the planet.”

Waimea Bay, Oahu: “Oahu’s premier big wave and steeped in our surfing history.”

Pipeline, Oahu: “The best, and heaviest, tube in surfing. The ultimate testing ground.”

Sunset Beach, Oahu: “My local break and where I’ve had the most competitive success.”

Mavericks, California: “Cold, mean and clean.”