Riding a monster wave is an exhilarating experience. It takes skill, it takes determination, but it can also take a whole lot of heart.
can feel the water rising beneath his board as he hears the ocean roaring louder and louder all around him. The tiniest mistake, the briefest moment of inattention could be deadly. And no one can say afterward that he should have seen it coming: 28-year-old Derek Rabelo is blind…
Banzai Pipeline: The name alone is enough to quicken the pulse of any surfing fan. Nicknamed “Pipe,” this reef break off the coast of Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii is legendary, known for the huge waves that break in shallow water above a sharp reef. At least 10 surfers (and a photographer) have been killed there, and hundreds of people have been seriously injured over the years. Surfing Pipe requires extreme sensitivity to ocean conditions and a lot of courage—and Derek Rabelo has both. But there’s one very significant thing that makes him stand out from all other surfers: Derek has been blind since birth. But while he has never seen a wave in his entire life, he has surfed them by the thousands…
“PEOPLE SAID IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE—THAT WAS MOTIVATION ENOUGH FOR ME.”
Even before Derek was born 28 years ago in Guarapari, Brazil, his father dreamed his son would one day become a pro surfer. He’d even named Derek after Derek Ho, the Hawaiian surfer who won the world surfing championship in 1993. However Dad had to shelve this dream when he found out that congenital glaucoma had blinded the baby. Derek was 17 before he heard about his father’s dream, and he decided to make it a reality. “My dad encouraged and helped me,” says Derek. “He sent me to a surfing course, and then I practiced a lot with my friends.” He soaked up the knowledge the way a sponge soaks up water. People tried to discourage him, saying it was far too dangerous—or even impossible—for a blind person to surf. But he pressed on: “If you have a dream, you must believe in yourself. I was like a baby who learned how to walk, and I thought, ‘I want to keep on doing this forever.’” The teenager listened closely to the sounds of the ocean and quickly learned the noise a wave makes just before it breaks and how the water feels when it’s time to stand up on the board. “I listen to the ocean and feel it. Every single part of a wave makes different noises. That’s how I decide which side of the wave I should surf toward.”
“DEREK IS AN INSPIRATION AND HIS STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD.”
As time went on Derek kept attempting bigger and bigger waves, until finally he made it to surfing the Banzai Pipeline alongside superstars like Rob Machado, Kelly Slater, and his namesake Derek Ho. He has taught autistic children how to surf and has spoken at motivational seminars where he explains how to achieve goals even when they seem unattainable. “Derek is an inspiration for a lot of people, and his story needs to be told,” says American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton. Among Derek’s many accomplishments: riding the monster waves of Nazaré in Portugal and Teahupoo in Tahiti. Through surfing he has been able to pursue objectives that others would consider only wild dreams. He inspired the documentary Beyond Sight about his quest to surf the Banzai Pipeline, and while promoting the film he met his future wife, Madeline. She has given him a son as well as a special birthday gift: a guide dog named Serenity. Now his daily schedule is full of family, surfing, Serenity, and nonprofit work for the Royal Society for the Blind in Australia, which provides services for the vision-impaired. He feels blessed and intends to keep on achieving. “I wanted to show everyone what a blind man can do,” he says. “Surfing has taken me to heights beyond my wildest dreams.”