Perpetuating the Rothman Legacy
It had been raining, off and on, all day yesterday. Hard rain, soaking rain. And windy. The North Shore’s famed breaks torn apart. Made unsurfable by squall. But today the sun is shining and the surf is groomed and perfect and big. Pipeline’s sets come in like clockwork. They stand up and dance on the Third Reef before settling down before exploding, barreling, spitting on the inside. Solid 10-foot. Few are brave enough to take the Backdoor. Fewer still go Off the Wall. But the pack at Pipeline is dense. The kind of dense that intimidates.
Makuakai Rothman sits in the middle of it all. Right in the center of the pack. He paddles for the bombs, head down, arms digging for glory. He drops in, that elevator drop that Pipe is famous for, and grabs his rail. He holds tight as a lip thicker than Angelina Jolie’s pitches over his head and covers him entirely. He becomes lost in the barrel. Hiding from the sun. And then spit out. Spit right into the lenses of swimming cameramen. Only the most notable catch waves at Pipeline on days like this. And Makuakai Rothman catches as many as he wants. When he tires, after yet another barrel, he rides to shore, wanders up the sand to the Oakley house and laughs with friends on the deck. The sun is shining. Pipeline is perfect. There is much to be happy about.
He is a constant feature on the North Shore. He was born in Honolulu but has lived his entire life here on this stretch of coast. Grew up in this blue water riding these pounding waves. One of his first memories is riding a boogie board with his father, Eddie. Makuakai says, “Yeah, my dad would explain it all. He would do a turn and tell me, ‘We’re doing a turn now.’ Or he’d do a cutback and say, ‘This is a cutback.’” But most importantly he would explain the barrel. “He’d get in the tube at V-Land, or wherever, and say, ‘Look around, we’re in the tube now. We’re getting barreled.’” Makuakai was 4 years old.
He started surfing by himself at 5. At Sunset Point and Haleiwa. Eddie had just returned from a stint in jail fighting a trumped-up distribution charge, which had been hung on him with the corrupt hope that he would be banished, to prison, for 20-odd years. Makuakai says, “It all happened so quick when my dad got out of jail. He got me straight in the water and I think my first surf contest was when I was 5 at Haleiwa, as a menehune.”
From the grom contests and smaller waves he worked his way up, eventually conquering Pipeline. But Pipeline is never truly conquered. He says, “Pipeline…” and pauses before continuing. “I didn’t really get comfortable at Pipeline until about four years ago. Backdoor was easier…” He pauses again and looks out toward the water.
This is his home. It is his mother’s home and her family’s home stretching back into the mists of history. “My family has been here forever,” he says. “I’m 10th or 11th generation from Kamehameha.”
It is his father’s home too, though in a very different way. Eddie Rothman was born on the mainland, his father moving him to California when he was a baby and then, at 14, after some trouble, Eddie flew by himself to Hawaii and stayed. He lived first in Waikiki and then moved up to the North Shore where he met future legends Tiger Espere, Dougy Yamashita and Clyde, the father of Kala Alexander. He was accepted into this new family after years of proving himself. Long, hard years. And it became his home. There was something about Hawaii that clicked with Eddie. He grew, traveled the world and surfed, but he always came home. He always came back to the North Shore. And through the years, Eddie grew into a legend too. Maybe the biggest legend of all.
He is one of the founders of Da Hui, beginning the club during an essential moment of North Shore turmoil. Sitting under the same warm sun, watching the same firing Pipe, Eddie says, “The club started because of the influx of people. The local people were getting pushed out of the North Shore left and right. It seemed like the new guys…there was just no respect. When we started we would surf each spot, starting at V-Land, and just make sure that nobody caught a wave except the local people. We cleaned it all up pretty quickly.”
The North Shore had become a disaster, with every traveler wanting every wave. Da Hui, and Eddie Rothman, changed the equation and he remains very much a part of the fabric of the North Shore. People speak in hushed tones of his stories. He is revered and he is feared. “I don’t like to be feared,” he says. “I don’t want kids to be scared of me, but this place needed it. People just take advantage.”
Eddie worked hard for the local people to have a share of the North Shore. Famously. He worked hard for his sons and it is now theirs. The youngest, Lono, is 15. Like Makuakai, he has lived here his whole life and was taught to surf by Eddie. He loves it, saying, “It is the best feeling, sliding down the face of a wave. Nothing else is the same. I don’t always surf with Makua or my dad but when I do it’s good because they tell everyone, ‘Lono is going!’ and I get more waves.” He is becoming a well-rounded waterman, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, spearfishing. Enjoying every aspect of his home. The middle child, Koa, is charging bigger and bigger waves. He is getting barreled on epic days at Pipe and has earned himself a full spread in this very magazine [Threat, page 60].
And the eldest, Makuakai. Heavy lies the crown. Makuakai knows that he springs from a legendary tree on both his mother and father’s sides. His mother was born here, born into royalty. His father adopted this land, was adopted by this land, and has fought tooth and nail for it. And Makuakai takes that knowledge seriously. “More than carrying on the Rothman this and Rothman that,” he says, “I want to carry on aloha, carry on Hawaii, carry on the culture and language. I want to take Hawaiian culture to the next level. I want all the kids to say, ‘I want to learn my Olelo Hawaii, my Hawaiian language.’ Like, you go to China and ask someone to speak Chinese, they speak Chinese. You come over here and ask anyone of these people [he gestures to the Pipe lineup] and they will not be able to tell you anything besides ‘aloha’ and ‘mahalo.’ I’m in the process of my olelo right now.” His eyes become fiery as he continues. He feels the burn of his heritage. “Past invaders banned our language, they banned our culture…to kill a culture you kill the language and they almost did that. If people don’t know their language they cannot find their way back to their roots. It’s unbelievable.” He bangs his hand on the table as he speaks. Fiery. “I want to be like a Duke Kahanamoku of the North Shore. My whole goal is to be a legend that brings aloha to the world. That brings the breath of Hawaii.”
He knows that the North Shore is a precious land that will need continual protection but he also knows that no human can ever be as powerful as the surf. A massive Pipe wave pitches and explodes and spits. He watches it before saying, “You know, I stepped out of line the other day and Pipe just shook me straight up. See this ocean right here,” he gestures with his hand, “she’s the boss and she will sort everything out in the end. Land is one thing. The ocean…there’s just so much energy and so much power…you think you’re the man and she’ll show you. She knows what’s up.”
And with that he is back out for a second session. The sun has slid low in the sky. A gorgeous red has replaced blue. Makuakai will get barreled. No mainlander or Australian or Brazilian or European will burn him. Eddie will watch from shore and smile. He came here and was adopted by the land. He found his home, his culture. He fought for it. And his sons carry his legend. Makuakai carries his legend comprehensively. It lives inside of him. He will do his damnedest to take it to a bigger stage. And for those who doubt his reach, remember: It is unwise to bet against the Rothmans. —Chas Smith