My goal was minimal: Don’t drown. Sure, it was a low bar to set, but during the drive from the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina on the west coast of the island to meet my surf instructor on the northern part, I envisioned best-case scenarios that included slipping on the board and cracking my head. I didn’t even care if I managed to stand up on the board.
While I’m an adequate swimmer, I had never climbed on a surfboard and wasn’t sure that my first time should be in the same waters that draw professional surfers worldwide to participate in competitions as fierce as the waves.
For added pressure, my instructor was Makua Rothman, the World Surf League’s 2015 Big Wave world champion. He entered his first surf contest when he was three years old, at 18 caught a 66-foot wave to win the Billabong XXL World Challenge and at 23 scooped up the O’Neill World Cup and the World Tow-In title.
His connection to the water and land goes further than his many accomplishments. The 32-year-old was born for this: his full first name is Makuakai, which means “guardian of the sea,” and he’s the 12th great-grandson of King Kamehameha, the ruler who first united all of the Hawaiian Islands into a single kingdom.
It was inevitable that I would embarrass myself in front of one of the sport’s best athletes. Why wasn’t I paired with a kiddie instructor?
Meeting a World Champion
When pulling up to the North Shore’s Pua’ena Point, a red tent with bold yellow letters told me I had arrived at the Makua Rothman Surfing School.
As I surveyed the waves, a man approached with soft, kind brown eyes and rust-colored hair hiding under a black RVCA cap turned backwards. Rothman greeted me with a hug.
He told me about his new school venture, a luxury surf experience that he launched in August 2016 with inaugural student Shannon Beador, of Real Housewives of Orange County fame. On top of giving one-on-one instruction, Rothman combines every surfing session with a personal tour of his favorite Oahu stomping grounds. (He plans to add health wellness retreats with meditation, surfing, hiking and stand-up paddling to his roster.)
“I want to perpetuate my culture and keep it going — keep the spirit of aloha alive through surfing,” said Rothman, who’s taught newbie surfers ranging from two to 87.
Under the tent, he supplied everything I needed for the day — protective surf shirts, heavy-duty sunblock, towels, a healthy lunch, all-natural juices, water and towels. After suiting up, it was time for the lesson.
Hitting the Surf
I anticipated spending a lot of time on the sand learning how to stand up on a board, but Rothman took only minutes to demonstrate how to bend your knees and position your arms for the proper surf stance. He assured me that not only would he get me on the board, but I’d be surfing during the whole session.
He had a team of surfers at the ready in the water to alleviate some of the arduous parts of the sport for first-timers. One of his lithe, bronze assistants showed more strength in his toe than I have in my entire body. He hooked that toe onto my board and effortlessly dragged me farther out in the water as I futilely tried to paddle along.
Next, I waited belly down on the board next to Rothman for the right wave. As I relaxed on the board over the undulating waves and chatted, I almost forgot why I was there. Then Rothman suddenly yelled, “Go!”
I scrambled and started paddling, and as I felt the wave lift me up, I clumsily hoisted myself onto the board. Almost slipping, I somehow regained my balance and then firmly planted my feet in the position with my arms outstretched, as Rothman showed me. I rode the gentle wave, and it was exhilarating.
It all happened so fast, I didn’t get a chance to overthink my movements. And after the wave unfurled, I ungracefully crumbled into the water. But I was astounded that I surfed on my first try. In just minutes, it was over. I was done as far as I was concerned.
Then Rothman sidled up beside me on his surfboard and said, “Great job! Next time, you’ll ride the wave all the way to the shore.”
Next time? I was dumbstruck. Didn’t he realize that was just a fluke?
Yet, he was right. With the aid of Strong Toe, I rode wave after wave, getting better each time. Of course, it wasn’t smooth surfing. I ended up getting surf burn on my knees from scraping them on the board and I took some spills into the water.
On my last turn, I was able to ride alongside two other surfers and maneuver the board’s direction a bit. Rothman congratulated me and told me I was a natural, but it likely had more to do with support staff helping me conserve energy and a world champion sending me in on the right waves.
After drying off, he gifted me with a Makua Rothman School of Surfing T-shirt — which I wear like a medal — and a signed poster of himself riding a 50-foot crest that seems plucked from Pearl S. Buck’s The Big Wave. Though the best souvenir came from a photographer perched on a surfboard who captured the whole thrilling adventure.
Makua’s Oahu Tour
Our first post-surf stop was one of Rothman’s favorite places, Tsue’s Farm in Haleiwa. It didn’t appear to be a farm at all, but rather a nondescript spot with an order window and a couple of alfresco tables.
The real find is behind Tsue’s, where you’ll discover a lush, tranquil refuge with a waterfall, tropical flowers and Adirondack chairs lining the Anahulu River. Most importantly, there’s a tiny bamboo hut slinging shave ice in flavors like root beer, guava and mango. I opted for lychee and coconut and took it to one of the shaded picnic tables.
As I enjoyed the refreshing treat along the water, the occasional kayaker or stand-up paddle boarder floated by (rentals are available onsite). Rothman talked about his surf school and his enthusiasm was contagious.
“Just because you aren’t from Hawaii doesn’t mean you can’t have aloha in your heart,” he said. “I want people to be a part of our ohana.”
He makes an effort to introduce you to his ohana, or family. Rothman brought me to Sunset Beach, where he grew up and learned to surf. We also went to Waimea Bay to see an oversized rock his father helped install as a memorial. A bronze plaque on the rock tells the tale of Eddie Aikau, a heroic surfing legend who disappeared at sea in 1978 when he swam to get help for the crew of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s double hull canoe.
When Rothman was younger, his father tasked him with regularly cleaning the area around the memorial (the city now tends it).
Rothman typically brings newly anointed surfers on a turtle tour, but because we were lucky enough to paddle on our board alongside some of the large creatures at the tail end of our session, he brought us to Pu’u o Mahuka Heiu, one of the most sacred sites in Oahu. He said his goal in bringing students to spots like this is to share mana’o, or knowledge of the place. It’s certainly off the beaten track — we took a hidden, winding dirt road here that Rothman said is only known to locals.
The tucked-away temple was the site of human sacrifices more than 250 years ago. All that remains is rubble from its stone floor and walls, but it affords an incredible view of the verdant Waimea Valley and the channel connecting Oahu and Kauai. The state historic site served as a lookout point where Hawaiians once patrolled for invaders.
Finally, Rothman brought us to Ted’s Bakery, a favorite among locals. Ted’s dishes out popular plate lunches but the real reason to visit is the pies. We followed Rothman’s lead and ordered a slice of the chocolate haupia (coconut) and brought it back to his father’s home, so that he could introduce us. Thick, silky layers of rich chocolate and coconut cream were crowned with piped-in whipped cream. As we stood on the elder Rothman’s balcony savoring the pie, Makua broke the silence: “This is how we top off every aloha experience.”