Maya Gabeira has come a long way since she first picked up the board as a curious 14-year-old in Brazil. After all, this is the surfer who, in January 2018, conquered a mammoth 68-foot wave at Nazaré, in Portugal, setting a new world record in the process. Today, it remains by far the biggest wave ridden by a woman. It’s also about 60ft bigger than most surfers will ever ride in their lives.
Before then, Maya had already cemented her position as one of the big names in international surfing, taking on the world’s primo big breaks – including Dungeons (Cape Town), Mavericks (California) and Jaws (Hawaii). Within her first 10 years of surfing, she’d bagged five Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards (the prize for big-wave surfers), as well as the title of ESPY Best Female Action Sports Athlete in 2012. But it wasn’t always an easy ride.
A near-death experience in 2013 – also at Nazaré – saw surfing legend Laird Hamilton say she didn’t have the skill to be in the water that day. Before that, she struggled for years with being away from her father, who couldn’t visit her in her adopted home of the United States. Why? Because, uniquely among the parents of the world’s best surfers, Fernando Gabeira was a political revolutionary – a member of MR8, the group behind the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick, American ambassador to Brazil in the 1960s.
Fernando was barred from the US, but Maya made it her base and dedicated herself first to surfing, then the rarefied and highly dangerous pursuit of mastering big waves. If now she berates her 14-year-old self (“I was very serious then – I’d tell her to lighten up”), the hard work has been worth it. She’s happy with where things are.
You’d be wrong, however, to mistake that fulfilment for inertia. Now 32, Maya is a professional athlete at her peak, but there’s no risk of her resting on her laurels. She’s still learning, evolving, improving her performance – the achievements going hand-in-hand with the mistakes. In that sense, for Maya, the record-breaking morning in Nazaré was just like any other day. Out in the ocean, doing what she does best, drowning out the noise.
You live in Nazaré. What’s a day there like?
It’s a really pretty town and I’ve adapted to life here very well. I don’t surf every day but if there are waves, I do. If I’m not surfing, I’m foiling, or kite-surfing, or training. Most of my days include some ocean activity.
You’ve always been drawn to big waves and you’ve surfed most of them. Is there a favourite?
Wow, I don’t know. I went through phases. There were times where you would ask me and I’d say it was Waimea [Hawaii], then there were times I’d say it was Teahupoo [Tahiti] and then times I thought it was Jaws. I always fluctuated.
But obviously I’ll now tell you that it’s Nazaré, because that’s where I’m mostly surfing and where I feel that I perform the best. I think it’s a lot about confidence and where you’re spending a lot of your time. With that, you get rewarded with great rides, and [improve] on that particular wave. So, because right now I’m fully dedicated to Nazaré, this is the best wave in the world.
Do you think that Nazaré could be the place where a 100-foot wave will be ridden one day?
Yeah, I think so.
Have you got your sights on that?
No, not really. I mean, I have my sights on being here and surfing the big days and surfing the medium days and performing every year a little better. You know, there’s a lot still to learn.
Congratulations on the world record wave. The adrenaline of surfing that must be incredible. But what does it feel like afterwards?
Quite relaxing! [Laughs] Because that rush is gone. You’re kind of coming down from a real high and it’s actually a really good feeling afterwards. It was a nerve-wracking morning, we all knew [the wave] was going to be giant. And it was very challenging conditions – very, very cold. So there were a lot of different aspects to it.
But once the job was done and that wave was ridden – I’d been looking forward to that wave all winter – I was very satisfied. I was in a very good place where I felt relaxed, and I felt like I had accomplished something I was looking forward to for a long time. I remember having lunch right after that session at the harbour like we usually do, and being very happy with what we had done that morning.
Some musicians talk about how they feel low after the climax of a big stadium gig. Did you not feel like that?
Well, the low comes – but it’s after a while. It doesn’t hit you straight away, in that moment. The low comes when it starts sinking in, and then the waves are not there any more. You’re kind of like, ‘What am I going to do? I worked so hard for that moment.’ Remember too we’re not getting waves like [musicians] get gigs – it’s a little different. This is lifelong work for me. It takes a while to sink in what happened.
There have been high-profile deaths in big-wave surfing. You yourself had a near-drowning experience at Nazaré. How do you deal with the risk?
It’s very challenging. It’s everyday work and it’s challenging – you’ve got to work it out in your mind, really be at peace when you take those risks. You’ve got to know when you’re not willing to take those risks, accept there are times that you feel more up to the task and times when it doesn’t feel right. You’ve got to have good instincts and listen to them.
Things like that help. And training is the basis of your confidence. Being prepared is the number one thing that will give you the ability to take such risks with a sense of confidence – the feeling that it makes sense to be there.
But what about when you nearly drowned? Did that make you think, ‘Hang on a minute, should I really be doing this?’
Yeah, of course. I still question myself a lot. Is the risk worth it, how long do I want to do this for? What’s okay, and what’s not? Those are big questions for me. I think they’ll always be around as long as I’m surfing big waves.
What about Laird Hamilton? When things went wrong, he said that you weren’t good enough to be out there. How did that make you feel?
I was very upset at the time. It’s not an easy thing to hear from a leader in your sport – someone you admire. It’s not easy to hear it said on national TV. It’s upsetting. But some things you’ve just got to take, try to understand why, and accept. [Then] hopefully take the good out of it.
If you saw Laird, would you say, ‘You were wrong’?
I haven’t seen him since. I wouldn’t say anything about it. [laughs]
What is life after surfing?
I want to sail. That’s what I plan on doing when I take a break from Nazaré. Ocean crossings, but also just adventuring and finding waves and being in places where it’s tropical and beautiful.
Your father was well known in Brazil for his political activities. Is he still barred from the US? How did that affect you as a kid living there?
He is, yes. It did affect me for 11 years when I lived in the States. It was a bummer for me to not be able to have my dad come over and get a little bit of a feeling of my life – what I was doing in my career, where I was living. It kept us a little bit distant – not distant, because I would travel and see him – but in the sense of him understanding who I was becoming as an athlete, and as a person. So I see the difference now that I’m in Portugal. It’s much, much better.
How do you feel about Jair Bolsonaro?
It’s the moment we’re living through. I personally didn’t vote for him, and I personally don’t share most – if not all – of his opinions. But he was elected and we’ve got to respect that. Hopefully he doesn’t do too much harm until somebody else gets elected.
Yours parents divorced when you were 11. How did it affect you?
I didn’t take my parents’ divorce well and had some rebel years afterwards. I was 11 years old. Surfing came a little later but yeah, I was kind of driven to it. But we’re all very close today. I’m close to father, my mother – and my sister. She and I started surfing together but she soon quit. She’s a psychologist. They’re all in Brazil and we Skype all the time.
You’re internationally famous. If you want a platform, you have one. Would you ever follow your father’s footsteps and go into politics?
My father taught me a lot about freedom, but no. No, no, no. I find politics very interesting but not as a job for me. It’s a very tough lifestyle. I wouldn’t survive!
Are there any political issues that are particularly close to your heart?
Quite a few. Most importantly, the environment, plastic use, overfishing, and all the problems that we were having in Amazonia. Climate change. Those are things that I believe are very, very important to be addressed.
Also, trying to live a more sustainable life, which is quite challenging. We all need to really look into it and try to do our very best to go in that direction.
Have you ever experienced outright sexism in the surfing industry?
Yeah, I think it’s normal. Most of us must have at some point. But you just [have to] keep going – breaking those barriers and reassuring [everyone] that women should be able, and deserving, to navigate any industry they may like. But things are getting better, in society as a whole. People are more aware. I mean, we’re talking about it [now], right?
When it comes to your career, do you feel you have anything left to prove?
No, not to prove. I didn’t catch that wave to prove anything to anybody but myself. I didn’t even know if it was possible. But I was just still working towards that goal, without even having in my mind that [it] was the final goal.
I was just working, still enjoying the process of improving and getting better and being dedicated. So [the wave] was really just the cherry on top of the pie, because I didn’t start that season saying, ‘Yes, this is the season I’m going to break a world record.’ Not at all. I was just very motivated and very focused on improving.
Are there any situations where you feel insecure?
I have doubts and fears. I deal with fear – with my sport, with the future. It’s a very unstable career. You never really know how long it’s going to last. You know, ‘Am I going to have a sponsor next year? How is it going to look? Am I going to catch that very relevant wave, and are people going to recognise it? Is it going to be a mark in the sport?’
You never know when your time is going to come again. So that kind of thing brings you insecurity and anxiety. You’ve just got to work it out.
Your lifestyle, and the choices you’ve made, mean you’ve been by yourself quite a lot. Do you consider yourself a loner?
A little bit… [Laughs] I like being with people, [just] not a lot of people! But I like interacting with people. I like to learn from other people and to share my experiences. Of course the ocean, the place I love the most, is a place that is more fun when you have one or two people around. But [only] that many, just one or two. It’s how I feel about life – you want a few really good people around you. Just not too many.
In an ideal world, what’s the perfect sequence of events for the next year?
To surf a lot, have a lot of fun and to have a really good season – to improve my performance and surf big waves safely. Then hopefully sail all summer.
With that in mind, what, in your opinion, is utopia?
It’s not too far from Nazaré in wintertime! [Laughs] It’s a calm town. People go fishing, and there’s fresh food, and there are good waves. There’s no traffic. One thing about here is that people don’t bike so much, because there’s a lot of hills. So my ideal world would be Amsterdam – everyone bikes. But then Amsterdam is too crowded for me!
So yeah, [utopia] is a place where everyone is more sustainable, where people ride their bikes more than drive their cars, where they go out fishing, where they have a really close relationship with the ocean or – if you’re in the mountains – with the outdoors. I think we should all be more outdoors than we are these days.