Brazilian-born Maya Gabeira moved to the North Shore of Hawaii aged just 17, and she’s been riding giant waves ever since. Now almost 24, she’s won a whopping four Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards but says she won’t be satisfied until she’s surfing the biggest waves on the biggest days. We asked her to talk us through her life
Interview by Sam Haddad, photos by Frederico Pompermayer
How did you get into surfing?
When I was 14, through a boyfriend I had at the time. He was a surfer and was really passionate about the sport. A lot of our friends used to surf too, so I used to go to the beach a lot and cruise and I just got interested. I learnt at a surf school on my local beach in Rio. It was super hard at first. And I wasn’t a really good swimmer, which made it a bit complicated.
Before that we heard you were a bit of a wild child?
It was just growing up in Rio. It’s a big city so you kind of grow up at an early age. I was going out and having fun and not really attached to any sports at the time, but then surfing just gave me this great healthy lifestyle of being on the beach, waking up early for the waves, off shore winds… It made my life much better.
What do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t started surfing?
I have no idea, it’s hard to visualise. I’m so fortunate that I found something that I was really passionate about, it’s so important. I was always keen to find a passion and something that would guide me through life and make me do things with dedication and enthusiasm.
Your tow-in partner Carlos Burle had been quite a mentor for you?
Yes totally. We first met at Red Bull HQ in Brazil. He was already sponsored by them and I was at my first meeting. They told him to keep an eye on me and then we met again in Hawaii and surfed Sunset when it was really big together. He saw me taking pretty big waves on my head and break my board and he said that after that moment he was keen to work with me.
I think there is maybe just a little but I think that’s normal, as it’s such a masculine sport. And it is aggressive and maybe not that easy for girls to do. But I did also get a lot of support and I think a lot of the support was because I was doing it even though I was a woman. I’ve always concentrated on people that were being positive and supportive rather than negative.
What first drew you over to Hawaii when you were 17?
I saw the Eddie Aikau [Big Wave Invitational] and I had the feeling that I wanted to do it. It really inspired me to improve so I could surf waves that big.
Why big waves rather than competing on the ASP tour?
It felt much stronger to me, to see a big day of surfing and to be a part of that is much more powerful then the Tour. There was never really a choice, it was so instant and raw. I never thought twice about it.
Did you think you could make a living from it?
Not really. My first thoughts were like, “Can I do it? Can I surf those waves? Can I handle those wipeouts?" And then after I won my first XXL Big Wave Award in 2007 I got sponsored by Billabong and Red Bull and then I did think I could actually have a place in the industry, where I couldn’t really see any other girls doing it professionally. I still waitressed for my first three years in Hawaii though.
When you gave that up did you feel more pressure as a surfer?
Doing both brought pressure and it was a lot easier on my body when I gave up the work. Plus I had a lot more time to just surf, which was a dream because I used to stay at the restaurant and get really frustrated. My restaurant was at Rocky Point so I used to see all the pro surfers coming in with their boards wet. All I wanted to do was surf all day long.
Did you ever pull any sickies?
Every time Waimea Bay broke I was sick for sure! But they knew that already and I was really good at working double or covering for others when it wasn’t big.
Is Waimea your favourite spot?
I think I’d say Hawaii generally, as I’m so comfortable there and there are so many places where you can get big waves.
How risky is big wave surfing and how much can you calculate that risk?
Once you’ve done it for years you know how the spots will behave in each swell and each wind direction and how the wave will change. I mean you’re dealing with nature so of course it’s risky and things can go wrong sometimes but I think the biggest challenge is that it’s actually scary. The mental part is one of the big parts of the sport, to be in control and to act and react in a very calm state of mind when you’re under pressure like that. It’s very wild and raw.
How can you train yourself mentally?
The more you’re exposed to the ocean and the more you’re out there when it’s big and gnarly and scary the more comfortable you’re going to be. It’s all about accumulating experience and time in the ocean.
What sacrifices have you had to make for your sport?
The biggest one was leaving Brazil and coming to Hawaii, not being able to live with my family from such a young age.
Do you still miss Brazil?
In the beginning it was easier as everything was new and exciting but now it’s been six years and my life is pretty stable, and I’ve achieved a lot of the things I dreamed about, so now I do miss it more. But I also have more freedom and money so I go there whenever I can. For me professionally it’s really important to be here on the North Shore the whole winter and then in summer to either surf big waves or improve for the next season. But I’m very proud of my country. There’s a new female president, and I can’t wait for the World Cup, so many good things are happening now.
Your Dad has worked in politics, does that interest you?
I like it and when I was in Brazil I was always around and involved in his campaigns and I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I could do it myself. I love to jump on his life and do his thing for a little while and then come back to the ocean and my life.
You’ve surfed Mavericks in California, how was that?
I struggle with the weather over there, how cold it is and the wave being backside too. It’s one of my challenges. To get wiped out when it’s so cold makes the water feel so dense and you’re slower and you don’t breathe as well, especially for me as I have asthma.
It’s crazy that you surf big waves with massive hold downs and you have asthma!
Yeah but that’s one of my limitations. I can go for a couple of hold downs but it will really damage my whole day. I can’t have multiple wipeouts as it really messes up with my lungs. I always take an inhaler on my jet ski.
Who are your heroes?
Laird Hamilton will always be the king of our sport. I really look up to him a lot and of course Kelly Slater. I mean what other sportsman in the world has achieved as much as that guy, he’s a freak! Peaking at his age is unbelievable, instead of getting older and slower he gets older and better.
For sure but I have to find a little bit of a balance as I go too hard and I break myself too often! I had a wipeout at Jaws a couple of weeks ago and hurt my back but then the waves never really got small so I kept pushing and pushing and doing physio and it wouldn’t get better but it wasn’t getting worse either. And then I went tow-in surfing with Carlos and it was super stormy and big and we got way too excited like two groms frothing and stayed out six hours. After that I literally couldn’t walk, I crawled home.
What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?
I think it’s still being called as the 45 foot one at Dungeons in South Africa, so yeah something around that. At Jaws last year I had some pretty big ones too, around the 45/50 ft range.
Is there a size limit as to when you’d go out?
No I don’t have that limit anymore. For me the challenge on those big days is to get one of the big sets, one of the waves of the day, as when I’ve surfed those 45 foot waves there have been bigger waves that day that I haven’t taken.
What advice do you have for girls wanting to do big wave surfing?
I think what’s interesting about big waves is that you never really push it, it’s either inside you or it’s not. And if it’s your passion and you want it that bad then you just take your time and learn. Lots of these places have pretty safe channels and you can always work your way into the line up. The more time you spend in conditions that are big and challenging days the more you’ll improve.
Do you do any other training?
I do yoga and I ride my bike a lot. We have a few different hills in Oahu that are really steep and you can get a gnarly exercise if you go for hours. It works your lungs and legs a lot and gives you power. I also lift weights to prevent injuries and I eat right. I mean I go wrong once in a while but I’m pretty healthy.
And do you party?
I try and keep it low key when the season is pumping and the maps are very active but when I do see that I have time I’ll go out once in a while and have fun with my friends. It’s nice to balance but when there are big waves it’s surfing time.
Maya is sponsored by Billabong and Red Bull