Revolutionising female surfing one massive set wave at a time.
She revolutionised female surfing one massive set wave at a time. But teenage looks and man-sized cojones aside, is there more to Brazil’s Maya Gabeira than meets the eye?
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism (…) The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences.” – Letter written by Chris McCandless, (Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer, 1997).
Maya Gabeira is shuffling up the deep white sands of Barra da Tijuca, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She’s taking a break from a tow-in training session that has gone on for a few hours now. She walks up to the jet ski, turns around and stops on the photographer’s request. Wet hair dripping over her face, Maya glances at the camera and smiles. She looks calm and tired; happy and… strong, way strong.
The youngest daughter of Fernando Gabeira, a famous Brazilian politician, Maya doesn’t fit the stereotype of the young Latin American of privileged extract. She doesn’t care about expensive clothes, she doesn’t mind being in the sun all day long, and she hardly ever goes out at night. All Maya cares about is riding waves – stupidly big waves, as a matter of fact.
In April this year, Maya won the prestigious Billabong XXL Global Big Wave award on the Girls Overall Performance category for the third consecutive time. It’s a bit like winning the World Cup for big-wave surfing three times over – the kind of stuff reserved for the more seasoned of the species. Winners are often guys in their thirties. And yet, at twenty-two years of age, she’s done it again.
“Instead of buying shampoo I’d use the money I had to buy wax for my board,” remembers Maya. When she was seventeen she left Rio never to return. Her destination: Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, California, Mexico, Costa Rica, South Africa, Panama, Tahiti. Since taking off, she’s never spent more than four months in the same country, always moving, chasing waves, living a seemingly impossible Endless Summer cliché. “For a long time I had nothing, just a small backpack,” says Maya, who two years ago was still waiting tables to get by.
As I chat to Maya I can’t help but notice that she’s full of light. Maybe it’s her long blonde hair flowing over her Coppertone skin, maybe it’s her fifteen-year-old looks. Who knows… Her father says it comes from her respect for freedom and the lifestyle that comes with it. And he’s got the biography to back it up. Fernando Gabeira was the brain behind the spectacular kidnapping of Charles Elbrick, American ambassador to Brazil during the turbulent sixties. The plan was simple: as a response to the American-backed dictatorship that was arresting and killing all his fellow activists, the young journalist came up with the idea of kidnapping big brother’s man in the country. It worked. The government freed some prisoners in exchange for the ambassador, and Mr. Gabeira, instead of being jailed, was thrown into a nine-year exile. The inside story became his first book, later made into an Oscar-nominated feature film called Four Days in September.
His second book is no less controversial. A Maconha (The Marijuana) is a technical text about the history of cannabis and its great uses in the modern world. No wonder Gabeira is the most ‘pop’ of all politicians in this country. Last year he ran for Rio de Janeiro mayor, losing in the run-off election to his right-wing opponent. Maya was there, by her father, in many of his key speeches, supporting what she calls her role model. Apparently dad is also the idol of many young people around the country, his popularity epitomised by his making the cover of the Brazilian version of Rolling Stone magazine last year.
Political pedigree aside, Maya has no interest in congressional activities, legislative bills and the like. In fact, she admits that she’s never even voted. Instead of changing the laws of the land, she’s changing the face of surfing, proving that a girl can also conquer the sea in a state of fury – a place most men won’t dare to go. That in itself is one hell of a democratic statement, right?
Long before she found surfing, Maya used to be a ballet dancer. She took lessons every day since she was eight. Then one day a boyfriend took her to the beach with a surfboard in tow. The boyfriend lasted only two months, surfing never left.
During my three-hour conversation with Maya, one of the things that surprised me the most was her relationship with… relationships. Sex itself does not have an important role in her life. Maya’s last steady boyfriend was that surfing teacher, back in Rio, when she was fourteen. “I’ve never loved,” she says with no tears in her eyes. I remember when interviewing Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, two of Maya’s role models, that at no point did they mention women or family life. Their priority was surfing. Full stop. But Maya needs to be stronger than the likes of Slater and Hamilton. Not only does she operate in a completely masculine world, she may also have to make some hard choices in the future. Having a promising career and a family is a challenge for most ‘ordinary’ women. A big-wave surfing career surely ain’t gonna make things any easier.
I must admit that at the end of my interview I still struggled to define Maya. Her character, you see, is too subtle for the likes of myself to pigeonhole after a mere three-hour chat. She didn’t break up with her relatives to live a wild lonesome adventure, nor did she reject the west in search of the wisdoms of the east. Instead, she got a job, paid her way to surf the world’s best breaks and now attends the surf industry circus, poses for pictures, gets sponsorship money to ride waves with the right logo in the right place. In other words, Maya is no martyr.
But in the world of ordinary people doing ordinary things, Maya is a powerful outsider. And outsiders matter and have an impact on people. They prove that despite what the media tell us, there are far more interesting and exploratory ways to spend your time in this strange place called Earth: surfing monster waves around the globe, getting paid to do what you love the most, and doing all of that without having to be… a man. How amazing if she manages to change the world just a little bit without having to become a martyr first. Now that would be revolutionary.
HUCK: You’ve just won the XXL for the third consecutive time. What crazy stuff did you have to do this time around in order to win?
Maya Gabeira: The waves that counted the most for my victory were in Outer Reef, Oahu [Hawaii]. It was something around 15 to 18 feet, and I was doing tow-in with Carlos Burle [Brazilian big-wave rider]… But in order to win the award again, I first surfed Teahupoo [Tahiti], Alaska, Puerto Escondido [Mexico], Waimea Bay, Jaws and Outer Reef in Oahu… The result of this whole year’s work resulted in this third XXL award.
Describe your perfect day?
Waimea over 25 feet with my 10’4”. I pray for it to get like that but it’s been two years since it hasn’t been that big…
You feel more comfortable paddling in than towing in, is that right?
Yep. I’ve just started doing tow-in and it tears me apart, it’s very stressful. After that session in Teahupoo I got sick, it’s too much for my body… But in a few years I’ll be okay.
Describe that famous wave in Teahupoo, please.
That was the biggest day in years in Tahiti and everyone was there, I mean everyone: all photographers, the pros, the legends, the sponsors, fifteen jet skis, helicopters, a mess… I had fallen on the two waves I’d tried before and hit the reef really hard. So I was hurt, scared and insecure when Burle [Carlos Burle, Maya’s guru and friend] came to me and said, “Come on, we’ll get one now!” I said I was fucking scared and he said, “Everyone’s scared, I’m scared too but we’ll get one now!”
Sorry to interrupt, but how do you guys talk over there if he’s riding the jet ski?
Well, we actually scream but it feels like we’re talking… Anyway, he rode to the outside and this big mess of a wave rose up, and I remember the other guys leaving it to us… ‘Cause you got the best surfers in each jet ski and that wasn’t really our wave, you see? But Burle charged hard on that one and they just got out of the way and screamed, “Go Maya!” [Maya’s eyes start to wet as she tells the story.]
Were you wearing a helmet?
No… So he pulled me in and when I let go the rope I remember seeing this great Tahitian surfer paddling out with his eyes wide open and screaming at me… Then I said to myself, “I got to go forward, I’ve got to speed up!” [Maya has tears in her eyes now.] Then I made it, I surfed the thing… All that sound over me, all that strength until I fell thanks to the big smoke behind me, but it was already in the end and Burle came to rescue me and said, “Fuck, man! That was big! Fuck!”
What’s the worst wipe out you’ve ever had?
I had some nasty ones in Waimea but Teahupoo is the worst. That famous one on YouTube was bad… [laughs] My last one there, I smashed my body on the reef, I also threw up underwater. That night I woke up crying with big swollen feet… I can tell you it wasn’t funny.
I read you went on a course to learn to stay underwater for longer… Useful stuff in your line of work, I suppose?
Yes, but I can’t hold it for too long, only 1 minute and 40 seconds…
That doesn’t sound bad…
But it is. I believe the secret is to be physically prepared and not to panic.
Have you ever panicked?
I’ve wasted energy, yes, but I’ve never thought I was going to die. Never.
Are you afraid of dying?
Not really… I’m afraid of getting hurt badly.
You know, the more you surf these monster waves chances are…
I know, but that’s ‘cause I still wipe out and you can’t wipe out on these kind of waves. The guys don’t fall as much. Well, when it happens I’ll worry and do a lot of physiotherapy, right?
Do you think your parents know how much risk you take out there?
No one knows, really… Only the surfers know. How to explain a closing set in Waimea to a person who doesn’t surf? A photo or a video won’t do it justice.
Does the high you get on a huge wave match the risk you take?
I guess it matches the challenges I set myself, ‘cause you see, it’s hard to be there… It’s hard to even believe that you //can// be there. You’ve got to train hard to believe it.
What time do you wake up on a regular working day?
In Hawaii, during the season, which lasts seven months, I wake up at 4:30am every day.
Do you need an alarm clock?
No alarm clock. I just open my eyes, get up and go check the waves on the Internet: when is the best tide, where will the biggest waves be, etc. Then I check my e-mails, I meditate and practice some yoga. Then I hit the water.
What kind of a girl were you at school, the shy type or a bit crazy?
Man, I was more the rebel type. I was very shy when I was a young kid, very attached to my mum… until a certain point when I turned against her. You know, teens… [laughs]
Terrible phase… How old were you when your parents got divorced?
Any need for therapy?
As a matter of fact, yes, I did go when I was little. I still visit her when I come to Brazil… She rocks, my therapist, I love her.
Did it help?
I guess what helped me the most was surfing, that’s what put my life back on track…
It was around this time that you took lessons at Arpoador, right? [Arpoador is a famous beach in Rio where poor and rich kids share the line up.]
Yep, with Thyola and all the guys. He used to give me a hard time for having to kneel before standing up… It took me a month to stand up properly. [laughs] I surfed there the other day and it was a blast, to meet all the guys…
How old were you when you moved in with your father?
I was thirteen, and my father used to spend the week in Brasília so I would be home alone from Tuesdays to Fridays…
No grandma or aunties?
Nope. There was a maid that would come, clean and go…
So you would live alone, at thirteen, in a city like Rio?
Weren’t you afraid? Wasn’t your mother worried?
I wasn’t, but my mum wouldn’t talk to me nor to my dad because of that… It was a tough time.
Weren’t you lonely?
Not really. I feel lonelier nowadays, with all the travelling I do. You see, the path to get here was very lonely, always on the move, no stability, no attachment to anyone… But if I was to stick with someone, whether a best friend or something, then I just wouldn’t be where I’m at, right?
I guess not…
I lived on my own, and everyone that chooses to follow your own journey has to be somehow lonelier, it’s natural… But that’s my life.
Do you have friends the same age as you, Maya?
My best friend is forty, and my two others are twenty-eight. My last roommate was fifty-five… I love old people.
Don’t you ever go out with kids your age to party or something?
No, I don’t like partying. I don’t go out, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink…
Not even a glass of wine on a winter’s night?
Once every four months or so, maybe. I go out for dinner, I like the movies, but what I like, what I really like is… to sleep [laughs]. You see, I believe the night is made for sleeping, so that’s what I do most.
Just checking… What about boyfriends?
I knew that was coming… My longest relationship lasted two months and I was fifteen. Does that answer it?
Yep. Any particular reason for being such a lonely fox?
In the last six years I haven’t spent more than four months in the same country, so that makes things complicated. I don’t know, I guess I’m not open to relationships… or maybe I haven’t found the right person yet.
Have you ever loved?
Do you… miss that?
Have you ever had your heart broken?
Yes, when I was fifteen… Does that count?
It’s not that long ago, Maya…
Well, I remember suffering a lot.
Is sex important in your life?
It’s good, but not important.
Has it ever been?
Have you ever stayed a long time without having sex?
How much is a long time?
For Brazilians, a month is an eternity!
Multiply that by twelve! [laughs]
Helio Gracie, the patriarch from the famous Jiu Jitsu Gracie family, says that to abdicate from having sex gives you extra strength. Do you feel the same?
Don’t know, could be… But in my case I wouldn’t worry, after all, I’m only twenty-one and I hope to have enough energy for all the things I want to do. [laughs]
Indeed. You definitely don’t sound like such a young woman, and growing up faster than normal usually causes some kind of suffering…
In my case I think it has to do with solitude. There is some suffering, sure, but mostly solitude.
Many people surf but only a few try to make a living out of it. When did you realise you could be a pro surfer?
Until last year I didn’t know I could make it. You see, my self-esteem isn’t the best one, man… But when I saw Waimea breaking for the first time I was sure that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I said to myself: “If I can do that I’ll definitely be happy.”
And when did you surf Waimea for the first time?
February 6, 2006, my second season in Hawaii.
You keep track of the dates?
I remember all the dates for the big waves I rode… On that day in February it was huge, 20-25 feet, and I got in and surfed one wave. I remember thinking, “Today is about surviving, just don’t die, Maya, don’t die…” [laughs]
I bet your mother liked that…
I guess… The following day the fear of dying was replaced by the desire to get more and more waves, and now, if I go out on a big day I just won’t come in until I drop behind the peak in one of the set waves… Otherwise you’ll see me in a shitty mood.
Is that what gives you a bad mood nowadays?
Yes, having a lousy performance…
And what puts you in a good mood?
Surfing a massive set wave.
Do you think you became addicted to set waves?
Sure did. Don’t know what my life would be now without it.
It’ll be tough for a guy to match this kind of thrill…
Told ya’… [laughs]
What do you think about your father’s books?
Never read them.
What about the film, did you watch it?
Yes, and I loved it! I cried like hell…
What do you think about that particular chapter in your father’s life?
That’s a hard one… Well, those were different times and he says he didn’t see any other way to act. But today even he says that you can’t use violence, that it was wrong… Anyway, it did work out somehow, right?
How is it to have a father as a congressman?
I’m his fan. I really believe in his work, even though politics is a very bad scene to be in, right?
Who did you vote for on the last election?
I’ve never voted, man. Always travelling…
You are a free surfer, travelling around searching for big waves… Never considered doing the World Tour?
No, it’s not my thing… My thing is big-wave surfing, that’s where I’m happy.
Do you have any idols?
My father is one, Kelly [Slater] is another, Laird Hamilton…
…men only, like the sport you’re in, right?
Well, I love the boys, love to be around them, to travel with them. And during the night where they do stupid stuff I’m never around, I’m in bed, so maybe that’s why I love them.
Did you ever get yourself in any real trouble while travelling on your own?
Yep, many times… I had my head sliced open in Sumatra once when I hit my board really hard, that was in the middle of a big storm so we couldn’t leave the island. They had to give me morphine and six stitches, and I started to convulse… Scary shit, man. But to be honest I think the most complicated situations I put myself in were to do with a lack of money. Sometimes my credit card just got denied, so I would be alone in Bali with no money whatsoever… But you know what? I don’t worry about those episodes too much, they were normal for the lifestyle I’d chosen.
Do you consider yourself a strong person?
I believe I’m strong not ‘cause I surf huge waves but because since I was a kid I’ve been putting myself into critical situations. I was pretty dumb, actually, but somehow I always managed to get out in one piece.
Do you think you know your limits?
Sometimes when I’m tow-in surfing I think, “Okay, got three good ones and didn’t get hurt, time to stop”. ‘Cause sometimes we fly from Hawaii to California chasing a big swell, so you haven’t slept and suddenly you are thrown in a 30-foot wave, the water’s freezing… That’s dangerous, man…
And do you know when to stop?
Not really… The guys are always, “One more, just one more!” It’s hard to know when to stop.
How many serious injuries have you had over the years?
I’ve broken my nose about ten times. Some ugly cuts and bruises too, but nothing that would take me out of the water for more than ten days!
Do you have life insurance, Maya?
No. Only health insurance.
Have you ever had to throw in the towel and say, “Fuck, now I’ll have to call dad”?
Never. It wouldn’t be fair to do all these things and then call him to get me out… He says that when I don’t call him for too long that means I’m in trouble.
How long after you had your head cut open in Sumatra did you make the call?
I didn’t call for over a month. I was very sick for ten days, some kind of reaction to morphine…
Are you allergic to morphine?
I don’t know…
Well, you should… [Maya laughs, the interviewer doesn’t.]
Do you regret somehow being so tough on yourself? I mean, most girls your age in Rio are on the beach getting a tan or hooking up with boys…
I never think I’m tough enough on myself! [laughs] I suck, I know, but I feel I need to do more and more…
Are you stubborn?
If someday your daughter travels away and gets hurt, how would you feel if she didn’t call you?
That would be awful… but I don’t know if I’ll have kids.
Wanna talk about it?
Not much to talk, but for now my parents won’t have grandchildren from me… [laughs]
I want to find someone but I’ll always live my own life, and it’s a peculiar life, so he’ll have to deal with that. Don’t know, hopefully I’ll find someone who can stand me… [laughs]
Do you follow any religion?
Buddhism, ‘cause I practice a lot of yoga.
Do you pray?
Do you believe in God?
Yes and no. God is everywhere, I’m God, you’re God, this chair’s God.
Is God also there when you’re underwater, rolling around like you’re in a washing machine and being sliced open by the reef?
Especially there… [laughs]