Meet the (Blind) Surfer: Derek Rabelo



Last month pro surfer, Derek Rabelo and his team visited the UK to premier the unique and awe-inspiring surf-film Beyond Sight. It tells of how Derek took up surfing at the age of 17 and, within one and a half years, managed to surf one of the world’s most powerful and exhilarating waves, the legendary Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. The key factor in all this: Derek is 100% blind. 

It's that last detail that causes everyone's head to shake with incredulity and demand to know more. As if learning to surf blind weren’t enough, Beyond Sight is a testament to just what can be achieved when life is lived by faith, not by sight.

As you might imagine we were pretty excited to meet Derek in Swansea for the final leg of his journey. Earlier that day, he and friends Bruno and Claudia Lemos had visited Cardiff Castle. Keen to continue the Welsh cultural experience, we took them out for a curry. Between chutney trays and popadoms, I spoke with Derek to learn about his surfing journey so far and what riding a wave means to him. Bruno, co-director of Beyond Sight, was on hand to help with translation.

Derek with Koa and Makua Rothman on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Photo: Lemos images / Liquid Eye

Steve White: It’s great to see you Derek, welcome to Wales. How has your tour of Europe been for you?

Derek Rabelo: Yeah I’ve really loved being here in Europe, I’ve never been here before and it’s been a pleasure to visit. It’s been great to have the chance to meet different people, different faces and see other ways of life. I surfed Hossegor in south west France with my friend Jeremy Flores and I surfed at Zarautz in Spain. A highlight was surfing Nazare with Gallo.

Bruno adds that Derek rode waves in Zarautz with famous Basque surfer, “Gallo” (real name Aitor Francsesca) who is blind in one eye. Derek recalls the great memories.

DR: Yeah Gallo coached me, it was fantastic to meet him, share some time with him and to get some waves. We even surfed the same wave together.

SW: Fantastic! You have met so many of the world’s top surfers now. Who’s the most inspirational you’ve met?

DR: Everyone’s been a big inspiration and really special. But I really like Kelly (Slater) and I’ll be cheering for him this year.

SW: Even though he’s surfing against a Brazilian?!

DR: Yes!

SW: Could you describe your experience of riding a wave?

DR: I have a friend who stays with me in the sea. They say when the wave is coming and if it’s going to break right or left. Once I know it’s coming, I paddle hard and just feel the wave moving behind me. Then I just get to my feet and feel the wave, hearing it all around me.

SW: How do you get on with duck-diving?

(Duck-diving is the action surfers use to get themselves and their boards safely under oncoming lines of white water as they make their way to the bigger waves. In Beyond Sight, we see Derek duck-diving as easily as any other surfer).

DR: I just hear the wave coming towards me. It took some practice but now I can time my dive to get through at the right moment.

SW: It’s amazing to think of all you’ve achieved. Where do you get your strength from?

DR: I feel God guiding me, helping me overcome all the challenges that come my way. My faith has helped me take on all these waves and I believe God has put all the right people in the right places at the important times to help me.

SW: Are you ever scared when you surf?

DR: Sometimes yes, but I always trust in God. My faith is strong so I don’t have to worry about being scared too much.

SW: How did it feel to surf Pipeline?

DR: It was amazing, different to other waves, it had so much power!

Derek gets towed into bigger surf. Photo: Bruno Lemos / Liquid Eye

SW: What kind of training did you do to prepare yourself?

DR: I surf as much as I can to get myself in shape. Other than that I do lots of cross-training such as bike work. Mainly lots of aerobic work to help me get stronger.

SW: You’ve already conquered so much in surfing; what do you have planned for the future?

DR: Jaws! (Found in Hawaii, Jaws is one of the biggest waves in the world).

SW: Do you think you can do it?

DR: Yeah definitely! It will be the biggest feeling of my life, for sure!

Bruno puts the brakes on…

Bruno: Yeah we’ll be looking for the right day. We’ve done some tow-in sessions (where the surfer is towed into a wave by a boat, because the wave is too big to paddle into safely) in Haleiwa [in Hawaii].

We want to go out at Jaws on a smaller day with the right crew. If we can tow-in on a left [breaking wave] maybe that would be better, it’s more forgiving than the right.

DR: Whatever - left or right.

SW: Where does your future lie in surfing?

DR: I just want to keep surfing, keep trying to visit all the great waves around the world. I want to keep sharing my story and pass on my faith in God as much as I can.

SW: What would your message be to anyone who wants to get into surfing?

DR: Just go for it. Everyone has their own goal in life, people need to believe that nothing is impossible. Trust in God and trust in yourself to discover what your talent is. Everyone has a gift, you just have to put what you feel into practice.

Photo: Bruno Lemos / Liquid Eye

The surfing world is driven by glamorous places like Hawaii, California, Australia and Indonesia where the water’s warm, the skies are blue and the waves are plentiful. Surf-stars don’t visit the UK very often, if at all, so it was fantastic to meet Derek. He’s a very driven person but also very down to earth and humble.

After the film he took time out to answer the audience’s questions and to take a few selfies. Everyone was left smiling and inspired, but none more so than Katie, a young blind girl who is learning to surf with local surf charity, Surfability.

Derek’s life has been defined by overcoming challenges which most wouldn’t consider taking on. I’m under no doubts that he will eventually surf Jaws, but not before he’s touched many more people with his spirit and the joy he has for riding waves. 

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