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The Young Man and the Sea

Makua Rothman is busy surfing his way around the world on a wave and a melody.

At the penthouse at The Modern Honolulu, surfer Makua Rothman stays sharp in Tori Richard paired with CH Carolina Herrera and Georg Jensen. Out of the water, Rothman has been photographed by Bruce Weber and has graced the cover of fashion magazine Man of the World.

Makua Rothman stands out as one of the Hawai‘i top watermen of his generation. After all, his full first name in Hawaiian, Makuakai, means “guardian of the sea”—a fitting moniker for one of surfing’s most influential athletes. He was born and raised by the ocean—on Sunset Beach on the North Shore of O‘ahu. On that famous coast, Eddie Rothman, his father and founder of the legendary Da Hui, taught him how to surf. It was also where Makua would later go on to win the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing title in 2007. “Sunset Beach was our playground,” he says. “When I was a kid, we used to live in a tent right down by the water. And now we live in a big house right where the tent used to be!”

While only 28, Makua already has amazing tales to tell. Among them, his world record-breaking ride on a 66-foot wave at famous surf spot Pe‘ahi (aka Jaws) on Maui, which won him the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave award and a purse of $66,000. To convey the adrenaline-pumping experience, the surf pro finds a truly creative metaphor. “It was like I was flying down Kalākaua Avenue, and all the buildings were starting to fall, and I was just trying to make it to the Honolulu Zoo!” he explains in the studio at Mountain Apple Company, the islands’ leading record label. It was in this same space that Makua recorded his much anticipated debut disc, Sound Wave, marking his venture into a whole new territory.

It’s no surprise that much of Makua’s music comes straight out of his journeys as a wave rider. “I write a lot of my music on airplanes, where I’m inspired by life experiences,” he says. “Surfing has taken me to some pretty interesting zones. Australia, Indonesia and Tahiti are among my favorite places.” Then, there are even more far-flung destinations, like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. “There were no cars—only airplanes and boats!”

Rothman’s globe-trekking international presence provided the ideal launch point for his music career. On Sound Wave, Hawai‘i’s traditions and aloha spirit come to life in songs like “Beautiful Life” and “Fight the Sun.” There’s also his take on the traditional melody “‘Ūlili Ē,” perhaps most famously recorded by his mentor, the late legendary Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, affectionately known as Bruddah Iz. “I’ve always loved to play the ‘ukulele and sing,” he says. “I don’t think I chose surfing or music; I think I was chosen by surfing and music.”

Whether it’s reggae vibes or romantic tunes—or “lovey-dovey stuff” as he humorously calls it—there’s a natural simplicity to Makua’s sound that seems to come as effortlessly to him as surfing does. “A big influence for me was Bruddah Iz,” says Makua. “He taught me not so much chords, but how to be a proud Hawaiian. You can never forget your roots, where your blood came from.” As Makua now rides both sea- and airwaves around the world, one thing is certain: Hawai‘i’s ocean will always remain his home.