Terrifying thrills, sexist barbs, and the realization that your next day at the office might also be your last. Twenty-four hours in the life of Maya Gabeira, big-wave surfing’s poster girl.
Go ahead, flip through the next few pages and take a look. You’re going to anyway, so why not get it over with. Honeyed skin and hair with sun streaks; white teeth in that kid-sister smile. There she is posing with a surfboard on Oahu, looking fey, then all playful.
Now flip to the cover. 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 armour, her legs astride a board, her eyes wide with fear, the white cap of a monster 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 US. 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 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.
On January 4, off that island’s north shore, they’ll meet a swell the size of a two-storey 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 50ft faces, moving at more than 50kph, 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 glass-fibre 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 line-up [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 has 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.
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 40ft on Christmas Day in 2010, she’s never paddled.
So where will she risk her life tomorrow?
Read the full story in April's issue of The Red Bulletin.