In late May, while lots of us north of the equator were welcoming summer with pool time and barbecues, Makuakai Rothman had other plans. Instead of sunbathing and throwing some meat on the grill, he was taking the water-bound beating of his life, in one of the biggest waves ever recorded at Cloudbreak, Fiji.
Rothman, who is a WSL Big Wave Tour (BWT) Champion, grew up on Oahu, Hawaii, in a well-known clan of surfers. In addition to his surfing -- competitive and otherwise -- he's a dad of three and a musician, and is working on his second album. In May, when the Fiji swell hit, he was in the middle of working as a stunt man for an upcoming film starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Stars, however, aligned, and Rothman made it to the island in time. On a call from Hawaii, here's how he described the experience.
On Catching the Swell
I didn't even think I was going to be able to go, because I was here in Kauai and I was working on a movie. Stunts are such a wonderful thing, and I love doing them and I didn't really want to rock the boat. But I wrapped early and was like, yeeesss!
I wasn't getting too hyped up about it, because I didn't think I could make it on time, but my brother packed all my stuff, Koa. He packed all my boards and got all my stuff together. I just went right from Hawaiian Airlines to Fiji Airways, and it was on from there.
On the Day of the Swell
We got up that morning, it was a little bit windy, kind of sketchy for paddling. There weren't that many waves that were paddled that were made. [People] were just getting annihilated. I saw a few sets come in that no one was on, and I said, I'm not letting that Mark Healy wave go by again, I'm going to be on it. You know what I mean? That was one of the greatest waves ever, and I knew a wave like that was coming again.
I caught a couple of waves early, and Danilo Couto was trying to tow me back to the boat already. And I was like, ‘What? Let's go back out there, I want a bomb!' And lo and behold, we got back out there and that wave came up, and we were in position.
I just took off -- all I knew was that I wasn't outrunning the barrel. My little brother and [fellow BWT World Champ] Billy Kemper would be rousting me for the rest of my life if I caught a wave that big and I didn't pull in. So I shaved off some speed, and it just started barreling. My board was working perfectly, flying all the way, and I was like, ‘I got this!' And next thing I know, I didn't got this.
On the Wipeout
My board started slowing down, and the rail started catching and I was trying to save it. By the time I was on the white foam ball, there was no saving it. It was the craziest, violent thrashing. You know when King Kong grabs the helicopter and rips it apart in the movie? Kind of like that.
I didn't even touch the bottom. God blessed me. Somehow, it was just a thrashing. I was held under so long, that if I didn't come up before the next wave, I was going to be lights out, for sure. I was thinking under there, you've got to relax, you can't fight this one.
So I broke the surface, took half a breath, and got hammered by the next one. And that was all she wrote, right there. I was trying to relax and get on the jet ski, I was puking up a bunch of water, my nose was bleeding everywhere. But I jumped right back on the ski, grabbed my board, and towed Garrett [McNamara] in.
When I got back to the beach, I was f-d. I was spinning and sideways and couldn't close my eyes to take a shower. I almost fell down. I don't think I was concussed, I didn't hit my head on anything. ...I'm not sure what it is, that wave is just special. It's like Mike Tyson, there's only one. But the Tavarua wave [Cloudbreak] has its own special power. It will pound you and hold you under like you've never been held under in your life.
On Being Held Under
We train, to be in the best shape we can. But my training also comes from growing up at Sunset Beach all the way to now. Everything I've ever learned and every wipeout I've ever taken prepares me for that kind of stuff. There's pool training, and I see all these fancy classes that people can take, but unless you actually have taken a wipeout like that, there is only one thing you have to remember, and that's to not panic, just relax. It's like any sticky situation in life. Whatever it may be, you can't be freaking out and making all kinds of sporadic movements. And if you do hurt yourself, you've really got to relax, because your body will go into shock.
On Big-Wave Strike Missions
Basically it's like being James Bond. It is different -- I'm on the BWT and we have our chosen days, and this is a little more stress-free, I guess. [In contests], if you don't get that one wave, or pass your heat, you're out, and some people judge you like that. And in this, you have to be on the best waves, but your whole mindset is different. We're like a big-wave surfing brotherhood, to make sure everybody goes home [safely]. It's like a team of Navy SEALS. We train for this, and we train each other for this. We're there for each other.
On the Person to Beat on the BWT 2019
I gotta beat myself. That's the only person I'm worried about.