Maya Gabeira is an interesting woman. She’s small and pretty, with deep brown eyes and chestnut hair. She speaks English with a Brazilian accent and giggles a lot. She also surfs some of the biggest waves on the planet, and on October 28, 2013, one of those waves nearly killed her.
By now, of course, the surfing world has watched Maya’s near-death experience ad nauseum. But what is really interesting is the relationship between two people that knowingly risk their lives in pursuit of something so fleeting and dangerous. And, even more interesting is the fact that they’re willing to risk their own lives for one another. Rescues are inevitable in situations big wave surfers put themselves in, and the rescue can be almost as dangerous as the wave itself.
Since moving to Hawaii from Brazil (after a brief stint in Australia) at the age of seventeen, Gabeira has swiftly and firmly inserted herself into big wave lineups around the world. “I got into big waves when I was 18,” she recollects. “I started traveling with Carlos, following him and using his experience to figure out where it was going to be good.”
Burle took Gabeira under his wing when she was just getting into big wave surfing. “That was seven years ago,” he said. “She was only 19. I didn’t know her that well, but I’d surfed with her a few times in Hawaii, and I could tell from her reactions on waves that she knew what she was doing.” From those few times, Burle made an assessment. “She had good confidence, and she looked like she was having fun. That’s when I thought, ‘I think I can work with this girl.’” He spoke with his sponsor, Red Bull, to get their take on it. “You know,” he told them, “she doesn’t have the same skills as a lot of the guys. We’re not going to be the best tow team in the world, but I really want to put time into this because she loves to do it.”
Since then, Gabeira has amassed five Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards and an ESPY that named her the best female action-sports athlete. She also lays claim to the biggest wave ever ridden by a woman: forty-five feet at Dungeons in South Africa.
Under Burle’s tutelage, Gabeira rose through the ranks in the big wave circuit, as a young, beautiful, brazen hellwoman, taking bigger and bigger risks – and, for the most part, reaping the rewards. Of course, in waves like these, the consequences of the smallest mistake can be fatal. And in a sport that’s dominated by men in a veritable testosterone pit, each mistake that she has made has been heavily scrutinized.
Others in the line up told her she shouldn’t be there. They told her she wasn’t talented enough. The surfing world exclaimed, with each spectacular wipeout, that they told her so. But Gabeira and Burle pushed on, trusting each other with their lives, ignoring the whispered criticisms in the big wave line up. Burle, especially, felt the heat. Some of the community felt that it was his responsibility to ensure her safety. “I feel the vibe and everything,” he said. “In the end, I’m not going to tell anyone they can’t do anything. My whole life, people told me I couldn’t do things. I hate it when people come to me and say, ‘you can’t do that.’”
Although she’s a regular face in big wave lineups, her abilities are often doubted in big wave circles. Laird Hamilton, perhaps the most prolific big wave surfer of all time, had a few choice things to say about her after her horrific wipe out on an interview on CNN. “Maya doesn’t have the skill to be in these conditions,” he said. “She should not be in this kind of surf.” Rumor has it that Kelly Slater actually wrote her a lengthy email encouraging her to reconsider the danger she is causing to herself and others in heavy lineups. Their views are shared by many in the big wave community, but mostly out of concern for her own well-being. It seems that she’s viewed as somewhat of a little sister, and taken care of as such. “I had priority to surf before all the boys,” she said. “The forecast said the winds were going to come up later on. They all wanted to make sure I got a wave before it got too bumpy.” Laughing, she continued: “…Which didn’t work too well, because I got the bumpiest one.”
Although she recognizes the inherent danger of what she does, Gabeira is also fully aware of what it takes to survive. “I did put a lot on the line when I decided to surf that morning, but I was committed,” she said. “I only did it because I knew I had the ability to survive it.”
Trust is an integral part of the tow partner relationship. In some of the worst conditions the ocean can muster, the belief that, when things inevitably go wrong, your partner will be there for you is paramount. “She’s much younger than me,” said Burle of Gabeira. “When she started to surf with me, she was like a little boy, not a woman. Our relationship is changing every day. It’s getting better,” he went on. “She’s got so much more maturity to understand the gravity of the situation. I know her so well, and we respect each other so much.”
As the swell rose on Portugal’s East Coast, a host of the best big wave surfers in the world filtered into Nazaré. A massive storm, known as St. Jude’s Storm, was battering the ocean not far off the coastline. Wind gusts were recorded as high as 121 MPH in Denmark. All told, over a dozen people were killed in Eastern Europe from various storm-related causes. The waves St. Jude’s Storm was creating were on a different scale. Sets upward of 100-feet rolled through, detonating on the rocky coastline in spectacular explosions of whitewater, hundreds of feet into the air.
“It was huge. Oh my God, it was huge,” said Gabeira in a small voice. “I got out there, and I was super anxious and scared.” Burle and Gabeira, along with a few other brave souls, made their way out into the heaving seas on Jetskis just after sunrise. “I got out there, and it was giant – pumping and offshore,” Maya continued. “After the first wave was ridden, everyone was screaming – so excited; just losing it.”
Gabeira jumped off the back of the ski and took hold of the towrope while Burle drove. After looking down the face of two waves in excess of 60-feet, Maya started to back down. “After the second one, Carlos said, ‘I think that was a good one,’ but I wanted a smaller one,” Maya explained. “Carlos said to me, very honestly, ‘You’re either going to get a bomb today or I’m not going to drive you.’”
Burle’s rationalization that day made sense: After waves reach a certain size, the level of danger can’t get much higher. “He didn’t want to put me into this risky situation for anything other than a bomb,” said Gabeira. “It was really just one of those days where you wanted it or you didn’t.”
As the next set darkened the horizon, and the pair turned and pulled into position. Burle, looking over his shoulder, gauged the wave that he was pulling Gabeira into. Maya held onto the rope, looking over the edge of a yawning, watery chasm, her fingers wrapped tightly around the handle of the rope. “Carlos started screaming,” Maya said. “‘GO, GO, GO!’ That’s when I realized the wave was mine.”
She let go of the rope, and things started to go wrong very quickly. The wave’s size, by all estimates, far exceeded any other wave a woman had ever ridden.
As she descended the wave face, the wind whipped her wave into something almost unrideable. “My wave was a nightmare,” she remembered. “I went over the first bump, then the second, and the wave kept building behind me.” As she charged down the face, things got exponentially worse. “Every air drop I did got bigger and bigger, and on the third drop, I twisted my leg on the foot straps. I didn’t feel that I’d broken my leg until way later.”
Halfway down a wave estimated 60 feet tall, Maya’s leg shattered. When she fell, the weight of the ocean landed on her, driving her deep underwater in a crushing mountain of whitewater.
Burle looked on in horror from the Jetski as his partner disappeared. The force of the wave had ripped off her life jacket.“If I panicked, I wasn’t going to make it,” said Maya. “I was pretty conscious that I had to make a real effort to get out of there. When I came back up, the first thing I saw was Carlos. I realized I was in a bad position, but I knew he had seen me. I knew that at some point I could let go, because I trusted him. I knew that he would do anything to rescue me.”
Burle managed to position the Jetski close enough to get the towrope within her reach, but not the sled on the back. In what has become a much-discussed rescue, Gabeira grabbed a tentative hold and hung on as Burle attempted to drag her away from the next wave. The wave caught up to them, engulfing Maya in ten feet of foam and knocking the rope free of her hands. “She grabbed the rope, and I pulled her a bit – but not too fast,” remembered Burle. “That was her last energy, though. She couldn’t hold on.” Gabeira was left, once again, to fend for herself in an almost impossible situation. “There was a time where I was completely on auto-pilot, but I knew that something bigger than me and greater than me was going to decide whether I was going to make it or not,” Maya said. “Sometimes, you know, with all the training in the world, you’re not going to come up. I put my life in the hands of something bigger at that point. I had to get lucky.”
When the wave had passed, Gabeira floated to the surface, face down and unconscious.
“My big mistake was thinking that she was doing okay,” said Burle. “I realized she was in bad shape when I got up to her and she didn’t even move.” Burle didn’t think twice. Leaping off the Jetski, he wrapped his arm around her and began swimming towards shore. The shorebreak at Nazaré is almost impassible. The full brunt of the massive waves dumps onto a steep incline, throwing tons of water onto dry sand. “I had to deal with the surge that would suck us back into the water and that enormous shore pound,” remembered Burle. “But every single moment, I was thinking, ‘She’s not breathing. I have to get her out of the water.’”
“Everything that happened that day was literally a reflection of all the years we’ve spent together,” said Gabeira, thinking back on their time. “All the big waves, all of our training; going through so much. That day was a summary or our work as a team.”
After surfing the biggest wave of her life, breaking her leg and almost drowning, she wasn’t at all regretful. She lay in her hospital bed with her leg in a cast with friends and family at her side, reflecting on the experience. “We’re learning so much all the time,” she said. “We have ways of minimizing the risks. There are so many improvements that I can make now. I want to learn from that experience, because I don’t want to miss a day like that.”
Of course, she and Carlos have since discussed the wave that nearly killed her at length. From her hospital bed, she said something to him that he’ll never forget.
“Carlos,” she said, “I’m glad that we went for that wave. I would do it again. And if I died, I would have been happy.”