Life//Film / TV
by Stephen White
Derek Rabelo is a blind surfer. Now, anyone who has tried surfing before will know just how frustrating, tiring and painstaking it is to get to your feet on a moving surfboard for the first time. So to learn to surf without being able to see would be pretty much unthinkable, right? Not for this guy.
But there’s more. Within a year and a half of learning to surf, the 21-year-old Brazilian fulfilled his ultimate dream by catching a wave at the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii, something most surfers with perfect sight will never muster up the courage to try, let alone actually achieve.
According to 11-time World Champion surfer, Kelly Slater, “Pipeline is basically the ultimate wave in a lot of ways - just a short, intense, dangerous wave”. Big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton considers Pipe (as it’s better known) “one of the most dangerous waves in the world. The awesome speed and power of the wave means [it] has become the testing ground for surfers from all over the world who want to prove themselves.”
The awe-inspiring tale has been captured in film Beyond Sight which Derek and friends Bruno and Claudia Lemos recently brought to south Wales. With its muddy seas and windswept skies, Swansea made for an unglamorous last leg of the Brazilian surfer’s European tour. Thankfully the venue was packed out with surf-mad locals waiting to give him a warm Welsh welcome.
His story begins on a moving note as his mother confesses she came close to having an abortion when she discovered she had fallen pregnant. Herhusband Ernesto, prayed that his son would one day become a professional surfer, even naming him after legendary Hawaiian surfer, Derek Ho. But when Derek was born blind on 25th May 1992, it seemed those prayers had gone unanswered.
Derek grew up within earshot of the breaking waves in the beautiful Brazilian coastal town of Guarapari. Then, aged seventeen he decided to learn to ride the waves that had been in his mind throughout childhood. It was the first step of a three year journey of faith and determination that would culminate in Derek having a shot at realising his ambition of surfing on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
Derek surfs the standing wave on the river Eisbach, Munich. Photo: Bruno Lemos / Liquid Eye
Brazilian film producer, Bruno Lemos, discovered Derek’s story and turned it into a short film that rapidly gained attention on YouTube. Bryan Jennings, founder of Christian film company Walking on Water, discovered the film and the rest, as they say, is history. But at the time it wasn’t quite so straightforward, given the emotional rollercoaster we see on-screen as Derek goes about doing what he believes he was put on earth to do.
“Wow, this guy can’t see but he can surf?” was the reaction of Hawaiian pro, Makua Rothman. To explain how this could be possible, Derek points to his faith in God who made amazing things happen at just the right times. One of the film’s many twists is so incongruous, so far out of the blue, it’ll make you spit your beer out.
Visually, the film is a treat; plenty of waves get ripped up - the clarity of the sound and colour make you realise how much the cinema enhances the surfing and story alike. Now, the Americans believe in fairytales, which partly explains why they’re so infuriatingly positive all the time. My concern was that, coming out of California, what is essentially already a fairytale would be so saccharine in its production on the silver screen that all meaning might be sweetened out of existence.
However, filmed as a warts-and-all documentary, Beyond Sight lets Derek’s character come through; he’s stubborn, he’s determined, he gets grouchy when he’s hungry and he’s not about to let a few wipeouts stop him from carving lines down the sidewalk on his skateboard.
Directors Jennings and Lemos take an honest approach to Derek’s disability. Kelly Slater laughs at his own bewilderment when he asks how it’s even possible for a blind person to surf. We get great shots of Derek trimming the waves, as well as some of an unsuspecting Derek getting bounced into the air by exploding white water, which if less sympathetic, are necessary to portray the realities he’s dealing with. On land Derek shows he’s more than willing to use his lack of sight to get everyone hooting with laughter.
11-time world champion Kelly Slater and Derek prepare to surf. Photo: Bruno Lemos / Liquid Eye
We also get a wealth of interviews with all those involved in Derek’s story, while Bryan Jennings’ narration keeps us current on how these many voices impact on the youngster’s development as a surfer and a person. Beneath this we see how others are affected by Derek’s progress, and it’s not always for the better. By definition, every leap of faith involves fear and doubt and it’s dramatic to see how these create new concerns which threaten to undermine all the good work being done.
But Beyond Sight is an overwhelmingly heart-warming tale; from Derek being given a chance in life, through realising that he was the only child at school who couldn’t see, to daring to follow his dreams, the overriding theme is one of far-reaching faith. Equally as powerful as the surfing is how Derek, whether he likes it or not, becomes a symbol of hope and a source of strength for people facing difficulties in their own lives.
His influence also puts our favourite surfers in a different light. When the pros don the blindfolds and try to catch a few small waves, they’re reduced to fumbling learners while Derek cruises along in the background. We are used to seeing the intense focus of Slater as he prepares for a heat, and the steely determination of Laird Hamilton talking about his latest big wave. But these guys aren’t the centre of attention and this allows their personalities to grow beyond what we are used to seeing through the media lens. Crazy things happen: Eddie Rothman, head of one of Hawaii’s most notorious surf-gangs, turns into a jolly benevolent. His son dishes out the free surfboards. The Derek effect is real.
Throughout the film the question-mark grows over just what Derek’s visualisation of surfing is. “I just hear the wave, feel it coming and I don’t get afraid”, is his response. It is moving to witness someone who has no loss of stoke for not having something most would consider a fundamental part of surfing.
I would challenge you to try it the next time you’re in the sea, waiting for a wave. Close your eyes for just a few seconds and dare to imagine. That shadow has defined Derek’s life, and despite it he has succeeded. Sensitive insight comes from an Aussie (miracles really do happen), as pro surfer, Joel Parkinson, quotes the famous slogan of Derek’s sponsor, Billabong: “Only a surfer knows the feeling”.
Ultimately, Beyond Sight shows a person scaling their own personal Everest in a way that challenges all viewers, Christian and non-Christian, surfers and non-surfers, to believe they can do the same.