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Maya Gabeira: Surf Survivor

Maya Gabeira in the April 2012 Red Bulletin magazine Ture Lillegraven/Red Bulletin Magazine


Maya Gabeira… Ring a bell?

Google might help a bit: ESPY winner, five-time winner of something called the Billabong XXL Big Wave Award for female performance. And YouTube? The Maya Gabeira in those videos is suited up in neoprene body armor, her legs astride a board, her eyes wide with fear, the white cap of a huge wave in Mexico, or Tahiti, or Hawaii rushing down on her. She’s just another black-suited big wave surfer catching waves and getting worked in wipeouts, her ponytail the only giveaway.

The two-piece bikini? Not her work clothes. Purely for show, you see: to get on the cover, to sell sponsorships, to become the brand that appears on massive talk shows in Brazil and works as a surf commentator in the U.S. The skimpy Billabong threads are not the items packed into a backpack sitting on the floor of a small rented room on Oahu on January 3, its owner pacing nervously nearby.

“These guys are just f***ing crazy,” she says, and sits back down on the couch. She picks up the guitar her boyfriend gave her as a Christmas present and absent-mindedly strums a few chords. The guys are probably 20 or 25 of the world’s best big wave surfers. At the moment, all of them are making their way to Maui, a half-hour plane ride away.

The wipeouts at Jaws are extreme: cracked ribs, snapped ankles, long hold-downs.

On January 4, off that island’s north shore, they’ll meet a swell the size of a two-story building that began last week somewhere between Japan and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It’s now hitting its first bit of underwater resistance at a break called Pe’ahi just 300 yards or so off the shore near Maui’s airport. There it throws up waves with wind-whipped 40-to-50-foot faces, moving at more than 30 mph, a legendary set of waves known simply as Jaws.

In 1992, local legends like Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton surfed it for the first time in recorded history, using Jet Skis to tow themselves in because the speed of the wave made it too fast to paddle. The wipeouts at Jaws are extreme: cracked ribs, snapped ankles, long hold-downs. The rocks at the shore are a graveyard of fiberglass and foam.

Now, two decades after Jet Skis offered a quantum leap in the size of waves that could be surfed, paddling into Jaws, one of the sport’s cathedrals, has become the new measure of machismo. And with the biggest swell of a so-far quiet big-wave winter season going to hit early tomorrow morning, Gabeira is set to join them. Except she isn’t. At least not at the moment.

“I don’t think it’s a good scenario for me,” she says. “Most don’t think it’s paddle-able. The lineup [of surfers on the waves] is much wider, bigger. The sets come more often. It’s a whole arena of different reactions: water and wind.”

The phone rings, as it’s done a number of times this afternoon. She answers it and switches to Portuguese. It’s her Brazilian rider friends, the big brothers who first took her under their wing when she began showing up on Oahu’s north shore in 2004, a surfing rookie in her late teens with limited English but a burning desire to prove herself in a big swell. Each does his best to convince her to come.

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The other option is inviting: Surf what are guaranteed to be big waves in Waimea Bay, just down the road on King Kamehameha Highway. It’s her home turf, the place she’s surfed for years. Though she towed into a wave at Jaws estimated at 40 feet on Christmas Day in 2010, she’s never paddled.

So where will she risk her life tomorrow?

“A lot of big wave surfers will never do this,” she says, calling up YouTube videos of the first riders to paddle into Jaws three years ago. “People expect me to, yeah. But then when it’s crazy and I go out there, they don’t think I should be out there.”

There are Keala Kennelly and Jamilah Star and a few other very talented, gutsy female riders who have made their name on big waves and won prizes. But none have chased and ridden waves around the globe with the consistency of the 24-year-old Brazilian. As a result, she’s borne the brunt of the sexist comments and jealous barbs. Big wave surfing is a brotherhood, and the kid sister is tolerated, but often not much more.

The phone rings again. On the other end is Carlos Burle, one of Brazil’s most skilled big wave riders and Gabeira’s mentor from the very beginning. Their partnership has given her the biggest waves of her life, but also resulted in some brutal injuries: The time Burle’s Jet Ski broke her nose in 12 places when a wave tumbled it into her, the wipeout in Tahiti last August where she was kept down for six consecutive waves while Burle tried in vain to find her.

He’s reined her in when she’s gotten too ambitious and pulled her out of the surf when she couldn’t go anymore, urging her to get out there again. Phone calls can come and go, but at the end of the day, it’s Burle’s opinion that matters most. They talk for a few minutes and then she hangs up.

Her attention shifts to the MacBook where the Hawaiian Airlines ticket confirmation page for a flight leaving from Honolulu to nearby Maui in three hours is called up. Her mouse hovers over the accept button, and then she presses down. “Oh shit,” she says.

nullTure Lillegraven/Red Bulletin Magazine

Last August, Gabeira joined the cream of the surfing community—and the traveling circus of photographers, video cameras, and sponsor reps—in Tahiti for what was considered one of the biggest swells to ever hit the famed shorebreak, Teahupo’o.

The wave has been an important marker of Gabeira’s progress in her high-risk career choice. Though she’s suffered brutal wipeouts (all YouTube-able), her performances on the tricky, deep barrel of the wave at “Chopes,” as they call it, have also alerted the wider world to her guts.

With Burle towing her in, she surfed a smaller wave that time but kicked out late and too far inside the dangerous, dry reef, where no surfer should ever get caught. With the channel overwhelmed with boats, Jet Skis, and other surfers, Burle couldn’t get to her. Her body only half-submerged in the water, she watched as a gigantic wave pounded down on her. It was followed by five more. When they finally pulled her out, she was dazed and had a cut on her ear. A short while later, her blood pressure was running high, as was her temperature, and her stomach was bloated from swallowing seawater.

To Gabeira, the symptoms were typical of her biggest wipeouts. To the people gathered there, she was on death’s door. None other than the exalted Kelly Slater criticized her for being in over her head and endangering the lives of others. The rebuke, public and directed at her by surfing’s biggest star, broke her heart. “It still does,” says Gabeira.

The trauma of that wipeout had her crying every night for a week before she went to sleep. But the Tahiti experience also brought the nagging criticisms about her surfing style and inexperience to the fore. In eight years of flying around the world to surf big waves, Gaberia said she’d gotten to the point where “people still talk about me, but they do it behind my back rather than in front of me.”

Now, the criticisms were out in public for everyone to see and hear. And Gabeira, female big wave surfing’s poster child, was thrown for a loop.

She knows she’ll have to keep taking risks in order to grasp that sliver of limelight.

“Nobody cares about all the other guys who got screwed out there,” she says, in a tone more incredulous than angry. “Many did, but they didn’t say anything. But it’s because I’m the fragile girl who gets stuck in the waves six times… I understand his point of view that I was unprepared. But I have my own point of view, too. Maybe I was lucky [to survive], but what about all the other times I’ve survived? Was I lucky then, too?” She lets out a hollow laugh. “They say I get lucky when I catch a big wave, too. So now I guess I’m double lucky.”


The sets are coming in steadily along the beach lining King Kamehameha Highway as Gabeira makes the hour-long drive to Honolulu Airport. The big swell is starting to make its presence felt with 10-to-15-foot walls that crash down heavily. Gabeira slows down her truck as she passes Waimea Bay.

“My stomach always goes weird knowing I’m leaving, and it’s going to be big tomorrow,” she says, trying hard to keep her eyes on the road. “It’s always been one of my favorite places... But, you know… it became a job. And I got to take that next step.”

Through the open window in the back of the cab, Gabeira’s 10-foot, 4-inch pink surfboard, messily bound in bubble wrap and masking tape and stuffed into a big board bag, pokes through from the truck bed.

Behind her seat, she’s got a backpack holding the new revelation in the surfing community: the Billabong V1 wetsuit. With a CO2 canister tucked into a flotation bladder woven into the back, the wetsuit inflates at the pull of a ripcord, allowing the wearer to escape from the washing machine of waves and float to the surface. A Da Kine product called the Matrix impact vest that wouldn’t look out of place strapped onto a soldier in Kabul is back there as well.

The reality of what she’s planned for tomorrow lurks in the background. The past year has been her toughest, with the loss of friend and big wave veteran Sion Milosky, who drowned at California’s Maverick’s break. She also had enough hard wipeouts, culminating in Tahiti, to give her the sense that maybe, at 24, it’s already time to begin thinking about another day job. “I’ve had a few reality checks in the last year. I’ve lost heroes, like Sion, and you see that people who are surfing at their very best drown as well. And you know it can happen to you.”

nullTure Lillegraven/Red Bulletin Magazine

And if it happens at Jaws, it happens in the most public of places, where every set of waves will have scores of cameras trained on it. Jaws is a proving ground, and a good shot or some good footage can earn a surfer a long look from sponsors, never mind the respect from the brotherhood. For Gabeira, it’s something she’s never gotten used to. “I think I’m always more nervous about the people there than the surfing,” she says. “And I think it holds me back.”

She’s happiest when it’s just her and Burle. Yet she likes the attention as well, and the cover shoots. She knows she’ll have to keep taking risks in order to grasp that sliver of limelight reserved for people in her line of work. “It’s a circus,” she says. “But it’s in the circus you have to prove yourself.”

“Why do I do this?” she asks as she coasts through light traffic close to the airport. She laughs and shakes her head, the answer not even clear to her.

Soon after, she wheels her board bag through the long-term parking lot, into an elevator and over to check-in. Hawaiian Airlines employees don’t give the jury-rigged, masking-taped board a second glance. It’s not the first they’ve seen today.


It’s dark and windy when Gabeira wakes in a hotel room that smells of cigarette smoke at 4:30 a.m. An hour and one soy latte later she’s in the water-logged parking lot of nearby Kahului Harbor, where photographers and videographers wait for boat rides to the show. She screws in straps for her smaller tow-in board and jumps on it a few times in the bed of the truck. If she doesn’t manage a paddle-in on the big one, at least she’ll be ready to tackle the giants on a tow-in.

If you surf Jaws on a big day, you will talk about it for the rest of your life.

The 40-minute ride out through dark, shifting waves on the back of a Jet Ski is rough and windy, and Gabeira arrives at Jaws soaked through. The sky is a muddle of gun-metal gray at 7 a.m. On the red-clay cliffs, surfboards of different colors glint in the early sun like bottle tops. The crowd has been gathering since the morning but is barely visible amid the thick foliage. Boats and Jet Skis and surfers who have paddled in from those cliffs, through breaking waves and rough currents, bob up and down in the channel.

In the trough of one of these monsters, land, just 300 yards away, disappears. It only swoops back into view when you hit the crest. The wave curls into three peaks, the 15-knot early morning wind whipping water off the top of it like a Rockabilly’s quiff. The faces are between 20 and 30 feet. Later in the morning, estimates will have them at up to 50.

But nobody obsesses over numbers.

If you surf Jaws on a big day, you will talk about it for the rest of your life. It will have meant you survived the difficult conditions and cruel arithmetic of the wave. Of the 30 out in the water today, only a handful will shoot down its face without wiping out. And only two or three will actually “make” the wave and not end up sucked down by the water as it rumbles toward the rocks.

Gabeira paddles around cautiously with the rest of the riders. As the first attempt the wave, successful rides—and there are few of them—are greeted with big whoops and cheers; wipeouts with the kind of moan you get when the home team misses the game-winning shot. Locals and those who know the wave’s intricacies rule the day.

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Dave Wassel, a North Shore lifeguard in Hawaii and a good-natured, sarcastic presence in the lineup, is one of them. In 2004, he suffered one of the worst wipeouts of his life at Jaws, getting sucked down after bailing on a wave for “the most treacherous, tumbling, terrifying minute” of his life, as he puts it.

“There’s a lot of luck involved in being in the right position to catch the wave,” he says. “Then you have the wind coming up the face, blowing upwards, so it’s like I’m on a kite. A 10-foot, 5-inch kite.”

This time, however, he manages to control his board and shoots straight down the face of a monster that most consider one of the rides of the day. Caught at the very end and plunged down by the roaring whitewater, he pulls the ripcord on his V1 wetsuit and shoots up, paddling to the safety of a nearby boat. He pulls his muscular frame onboard, the back of his wetsuit puffed out like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He declines the offer of water or Red Bull. “Does anyone have a beer?” he says, and basks in the congratulations from paddling surfers.

He casts a glance over the lineup at Gabeira, who’s gotten closer to one of the takeoff areas on the peaks but still looks hesitant.

“She got smoked in Tahiti,” Wassel says, by way of analysis. “That’s got to mess with your head.”

There’s no doubting what Gabeira has done for women in the sport, though, he continues, a can of Coors in his hand. The Brazilian, he says, is pushing the level of women’s surfing to new heights, building on what pioneers like Kennelly had started.

“It’s a male-dominated sport,” he says, “and she’s at the forefront of making guys shut up.”

nullTure Lillegraven/Red Bulletin Magazine

As the morning fades into early afternoon, Gabeira’s chances at catching a wave dim. There’s nothing worse than being out there and not paddling into anything. “It makes you scared, it makes you tired, frustrated… it makes you see wipeouts,” she’ll say later. “It sucks your energy, mentally, too.”

Burle’s had a tough time as well, but not for lack of trying. He’s been pushed under three times after falling off of his board on the wave face. But the Brazilian, who at 44 is in better shape than most of the 20-somethings testing the waters today, is insatiable. After his board breaks, he catches a ride back out to where Gabeira is. The two find each other across Jet Skis and photographers and boats, like the pivotal scene of a rom-com, slow-mo’ed for effect. “Let’s go! Maya! Let’s go!” he shouts. “C’mon! Just us!”

They’re the words Gabeira has been waiting for. As the last of the paddlers abandon the wave, she straps on the 6-foot, 1-inch board she’s brought along and grabs the tow-rope on the back of Burle’s Jet Ski.

It seems as if the entire lineup is watching her. Most wouldn’t dare tow Gabeira into a wave. The responsibility of ensuring she lives to see another day is enough to deter even the most confident big wave surfers. “It’s not the same as with guys, who can take poundings,” says Edison de Paula, a Brazilian rider who is one of Gabeira’s good friends. “Women are different.” If the measuring stick is the equality women have achieved in most other areas of life, then de Paula’s words, and Slater’s tweets, suggest a double standard.

But Gabeira herself recoils at being compared to the guys. “Serena Williams isn’t going to win one set against Roger Federer,” she says. “She’s awesome, but he’s bigger and more powerful. So, it’s like, stop trying to compare. I don’t feel I want to prove myself anymore. If I do it, I do it for me.”

And so Gabeira pops up on the board, clutches the tow-rope, and gets pulled into Jaws. It’s a smaller wave than the ones she caught here in previous years, but it’s a relief nonetheless. She executes a bottom turn or two, looking smooth and confident.

Doing it for nobody else at all, really. Just for her.



Check out the April 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 13) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.


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