Professional big wave surfer Maya Gabeira almost died at Nazaré—a Portuguese wave known as one of the world’s largest and most dangerous—in 2013. But after multiple spinal surgeries and years of hard work, she returned to the same spot and set two world records.
She rode a 68-foot wave in 2018, which the World Surf League (WSL) and Guinness World Records certified as the largest ridden by a woman.
In 2020, she broke her own record by five and a half feet. Her 73.5-foot Nazaré wave was the largest ridden by anyone in 2020.
The same year, she decided to write a children’s book about her experiences. Gabeira will visit Bookshop Santa Cruz on August 3 at 6pm to read and sign her new book, Maya and the Beast, in a free event co-sponsored by the Santa Cruz Longboard Union and Pacific Wave Surf Shop.
Good Times caught up with Gabeira to talk about big waves, overcoming challenges and putting lessons from the water on paper.
Did you want to be a big wave surfer when you were a kid?
MAYA GABEIRA: No, I actually started surfing a little later. I was 13. I was into dancing before.
There was something about, not big waves, but bigger waves, and the ocean itself, and the fear aspect of it. I was very afraid of the ocean. I didn’t grow up with a very intimate connection with the ocean because nobody surfed. So, I was fascinated by overcoming my fears and by becoming intimate with waves and the ocean.
How did you build the confidence to go after monster waves like Nazaré?
That was a long road. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro. We don’t have really giant waves there, but we have storms, and I was quite attracted to bigger waves. As the waves got bigger, it became more and more serious, and eventually, when I was 17, I went to Hawaii. I was exposed to where big-wave surfing was born, so I got that culture, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and got into big-wave surfing pretty early for the time. I was only 17.
What brought you back to Nazaré after your injury in 2013? Why did you keep going?
I thought it was harder to give up. I had worked to be a professional big-wave surfer at that point for my whole life. And I had finally gotten to a place where I had no doubt that that wave was going to establish a world record for a woman and the future of the sport. And I just couldn’t walk away from it. I saw this opportunity that I just—it would have been harder to walk away at that point in my life than to just keep trying for as many years as I could. To go back to my lifestyle and to do what I loved again, and to be passionate about big wave surfing and to be able to explore this very new wave and location that had just entered my life when I had the accident.
Do you still get nervous?
I get nervous. I get less and less nervous, I must say. I have more experience, and I have less pressure on myself from myself. So that helps, but I still get nervous. I know exactly the risks and the dangers of the place and the challenges. I train a lot. I have a pretty good system with my team—where I feel like I’m, to some extent, safe in what I’m doing, and with the protocols and with everything that can go wrong. But still, it’s a very intense sport. The waves are huge, and you wake up and it’s cold, and you’ve got to put that wetsuit on and go out there and there’s fog, there’s wind, and there’s currents, and there’s tides, and waves and a lot of jet skis. I would be lying if I said it’s just a normal dinner the night before. You’re definitely thinking about a lot of things and putting life into perspective and deciding what your plan is and what your mindset will be for the next day. It’s nerve-wracking, but more and more, I’ve learned how to handle those emotions and to not let them run me down. When I was younger, it was so stressful—big days and big events like that—that I would almost be tired by the time the waves arrived. Now I’m very conscious about saving my energy for when it really matters.
What’s going through your mind while you’re on these record-setting waves?
Well, the beauty of it is really that with all that intensity, you’re very present. Your instincts are very sharp. You’re living in the moment, and you’re absorbing every bit of information because it’s always changing. There are a lot of things going on, and you’re trying to filter that information and make very quick and right decisions about how to ride, or what wave to catch, or how to rescue somebody. For me, the best part of my sport is being present and acting instinctively upon everything that I’ve learned with the years and upon my physical abilities and my ocean reading. It’s not a lot of conscious thinking. It’s a lot of living and adjusting and being quick and sharp in the moment and being very connected with nature at that point.
What inspired you to write a children’s book?
I rented an apartment in Nazaré, and the pandemic hit. I made a wall in my apartment of things I could do, and one of the stickers on my wall was a picture book. So I started working towards it.
The first thing that came up in my head was actually the title. I was walking in the woods at the time. I have two dogs, and we used to just spend days in the woods and hike. So the first thing that came up was the name, and I ran with it. I got myself an amazing literary agent, and I started learning about the process, which I was not familiar with at all. It was a two-year process. Everything was new and exciting and nerve-wracking and different from what I was used to doing. But it was an amazing experience. Obviously at the heart of it is that I wanted to share my story and some of the things that I learned and experienced with children in a relatable language. I have a nephew. He’s six. So I wanted to leave something for him that he could relate to at his age right now. And my dad is a writer, so I thought hopefully some talent was born with me. [Laughs] It definitely wasn’t surfing talent born with me through my family, so I was like, “They should have given me some kind of talent. Let’s see.” And my sister is an educator. She’s a children’s teacher. So there were a lot of links there, looking within my own family. And that was one of the big inspirations.
What did you highlight from your own story?
Finding your passion, and having it be really hard and challenging. Going obstacle after obstacle and overcoming challenges and having limitations, like growing up with asthma. I thought it was going to be certainly something that could interfere with my success in certain areas. And it didn’t—I actually turned that into a strength. And finding the beast, which is this wave. It’s feared and talked about by so many, but understanding that maybe for somebody else, it is a beauty. It is a source of inspiration. It is a passion. Sharing my passion for the ocean, too, was a big inspiration. There are a lot of little messages in there that I wanted to share. But most of all, just my little take on what I went through to establish a few world records in my sport and to be very passionate about something.
You have two more books coming out. Was it a similar process for those?
Yes, I have two more. I just had a hell of a process writing the third one. (Laughs) The second one is written. It’s been edited. But the third one—that was super challenging. I went into a dark hole until I spit out something, but I’m super proud of it. I think it’s going to come out wonderful. The day I spit it out, there were some tears of happiness.
What else is next for you?
I have my documentary coming out this year. I can’t say where yet, but we just got admitted to a big festival. And that’s going to be premiered there. It’s been in the works for 11 years now. It’s kind of the story of my career. And that’s going to be coming right after the book, which is lovely and nerve-wracking. But I’m very excited to see it. I haven’t even seen it. It’s been in the works for 11 years, but I myself haven’t had the courage to see my life yet.
What do you think is next for the world of big wave surfing?
That’s a big one. I think there are two aspects of big wave surfing. There’s the aspect of our performance as athletes, which is always exceeding and surpassing. And as we get bigger and more rideable, approachable big waves I think the sport has changed immensely in the 14 years that I’ve been involved in it. The level is always rising every year. But I think on the professional side of things, there is immense work to be done. And I don’t know if that’s going to be done by the WSL or somebody else is going to jump on board. But it’s definitely a very raw sport, still being shaped as a professional sport. And there’s tons of opportunities. I’m excited to see where it’s going to go.
Maya Gabeira will discuss and sign her new book “Maya and the Beast” on Aug. 3 at 6pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz. The event is free. bookshopsantacruz.com.