The Lives We Lost: Thumper McCarthy

The 74-year-old captain had lived in Lahaina since his 20s and was a well-known figure in town.

If Hollywood casting agents needed to find a real-life person to play the role of a salty old sailor in a film, they couldn’t have done better than John “Thumper” McCarthy, a 74-year-old retired captain and fixture at the Lahaina Yacht Club, longtime friends said.

McCarthy had lived in Maui for nearly half a century and was a well-known figure in town. In recent years, he could usually be found at the Yacht Club with an ice tea in hand — or a beer if he was lucky — welcoming friends and sailors from around the world who used the establishment as a landing spot in town.

“To a massive global audience of people, Thumper was the old guy, the salty old sailor that sat at the end of the bar,” said friend and fellow Yacht Club member Michael Lodato.

While he didn’t have much in the way of money, he had a wealth of friends to lean on — and a positive way of viewing the world that had carried him through some rough times in recent years.

“He knew that his happiness was his own decision,” Lodato said. “And this is a man who chose to be happy.”

Thumper McCarthy, at the helm of a sailboat in Hawaii in 1989, was known for his positive attitude about life. (Photo Courtesy: Molly McCarthy) Photo Courtesy: Molly McCarthy)

McCarthy, who died in the Aug. 8 Lahaina fires, grew up in Southern California. His father was wholesale seafood dealer and the family grew up spending most of their time at the beach. Bodyboarding was a favorite pastime for McCarthy and his five siblings, back when kids crafted their own boards from wood, his sister Karen McCarthy Casey said.

He got the nickname Thumper after he broke his arm as a toddler and would “thump” on tables and chairs with his cast to get people’s attention. It was a nickname he adopted so thoroughly, that when he completed his mandatory Selective Services registration after high school, he signed up as “Thumper John,” his sister said. 

McCarthy played high school football but struggled a bit academically. Shortly after graduation, he joined an outrigger canoe club and started competing in races. First up and down the coast of California, and then in Hawaii. On one of his trips to Hawaii in the late 1960s, the club he was competing with got disqualified, Casey said. Without any prize money, McCarthy didn’t have the money for a return flight home.

“A good number of the team stayed in Maui,” she said, adding that she always admired her brother for staying and creating a life for himself that suited his wild and energetic personality.

“He owned who he was,” his sister said. “And he owned his life.”

McCarthy became a skilled sailor in Hawaii. He studied hard and earned his captain’s license. For a long time he used to deliver boats from San Diego to Hawaii, Lodato said. He also worked for many years out of Lahaina as a charter boat captain. He never married or had children, though he had a longtime partner who died of cancer a number of years ago.

McCarthy was an early member of the Lahaina Yacht Club. When he was still working, he was known for encouraging junior sailors and fishermen, said friend Jeff Kaiser.

He spent most of his days in retirement at the club. When the club started closing on Mondays, he would sit outside of the front door smoking cigarettes and drinking a beer in his little electric cart talking to tourists passing by, Lodato said.

Maui Fires, The Lives We Lost Memorial banner
Civil Beat’s memorial project aims to tell a meaningful story about every single person who perished in the Aug. 8 Lahaina blaze. Click on the image to read more. 

For the many tourists and sailors who purchased associate memberships to the club, spending time with McCarthy was a quintessential part of their trip.

“This is what we love about Lahaina,” Lodato says was the prevailing attitude of many temporary members. “We come to the Yacht Club, and we buy Thumper a beer and he tells us some old stories about Lahaina.”

McCarthy’s favorite song was “The Last Resort” by the Eagles, a ballad about missionaries making their way across the United States, destroying everything they touch. There was a period of at least a year, Lodato recalls, where McCarthy would make sure it was the last song played before the Yacht Club bar closed for the night.

“You can leave it all behind. Sail to Lahaina,” he would sing along with anyone left in the bar, in a rousing chorus calling for this isolated strip of Maui to be the place where people make a last stand against centuries of destruction. “Cause there is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.”

In 2022, McCarthy had a bad fall and ended up in the hospital for two months. While he was there, he lost his apartment and ran through what little savings he had. The hospital discharged him with little notice, dropping him off in his wheelchair at a bus stop in downtown, Lodato said.

Friends raised money online and helped McCarthy get back on his feet, finding him a room to rent, getting him cataract surgery and helping him get stabilized.

Despite his troubles, Lodato said McCarthy never complained about his situation and seemed to always have a sense of gratitude.

“Everything just rolled off his back,” said Lodato, who played a major role in orchestrating McCarthy’s recovery.

Whenever the two men saw each other, they had a phrase they would exchange: “What it is. What it was. What it always will be.”

It was a phrase that Lodato thought of a few weeks after the fire, sitting at a bar in Napili with several friends whose homes had also been destroyed in the blaze.

“We all lost everything and we’re just laughing up a storm. And I feel like Thumper would have been with us on this,” Lodato said.

Someone at the other end of the bar chastised the group for laughing so loudly, reminding them that there were people in the bar who were hurting after the fires. Then someone else in the bar piped up, pointing out that sometimes the people who lost everything are the happiest.

That statement, Lodato said, perfectly captured McCarthy and his attitude about life.

“Whatever happens, whatever it was, whatever it is, what it always will be, you own your own happiness,” Lodato said. “And that’s what he chose to do every day.”








About the Author

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.