By Billy Bernard

Blind surfer’s pipe dreams fulfilled

Brazillian surfer Derek Rabelo was born blind but it has not hindered his vision in life

Derek Rabelo

Consider how difficult a feat it is to surf without the gift of sight. The playing field for a surfer is constantly changing as it shifts along the different bottom contours of the ocean. Three-time world champion Tom Curren mused about what it must be like. He says he could possibly imagine a blind person surfing who had surfed before losing his or her sight. "But," he admitted, "to actually be blind from the start—that's what I'm totally baffled by."

In fact, when I first heard about Derek Rabelo, I thought he was probably just jumping up on his surfboard in the white wash near the shore and merely going straight. But upon seeing the YouTube videos, I was flat-out shocked. Derek was not only descending down the face of some good size swells, but actually turning off the bottom of the wave and positioning the board so he could continue to follow the line of the break.

“I hope to motivate others to accomplish their dreams”

Raised in Guarapi, Brazil near the beach, and named after famous Hawaiian surfer Derek Ho, Derek was inspired to try surfing as he listened to his father, uncles and friends talk about catching incredible waves.

Derek Rabelo surfs

"I had a dream to surf," Derek explained to me during his visit to California. "I could hear the ocean and I could feel the sound of the waves."

When he finally shared his desire to try it at age 16, his family encouraged him to go for it, but he faced many detractors as well.

"It was really challenging," he recalls, "because all the time the people said 'You can't do that' but I never heard those guys. I was just trusting God, putting my faith in Him and believed in myself."

After a few months of intense learning and strength-building, news cameras from all over Brazil came to verify the story that a blind boy was indeed surfing.

Derek with friends
Derek Rabelo with friends Koa and Makua Rothman in Hawaii in 2012
(Photo by Bruno Lemos / Liquid Eye)

Then in February 2012, with only two years of surfing experience, Derek challenged arguably the world's most dangerous wave. The infamous Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii is a place where surfers have broken their necks and given their lives in pursuit of an intense adrenaline rush.

Paddling out into the hectic surf with a couple of friends, his first attempt was hugely disappointing. The immense crowd, largely oblivious to Derek's condition, did not allow him to catch a single wave.

Meeting some friends at a local church, he acquired the help of some of the Pipeline locals such as pro surfer Makua Rothman to clear a path for him out in the line-up. The next day, the upper echelon of the surfing world witnessed a blind man, not only make steep drops over the sharp reef, but turn up into the pocket and come close to getting in the barrel. The locals here at Pipeline are not easily impressed, but Derek's performance left everyone astonished.

Makua, who himself has tackled 15-metre-plus surf, was utterly amazed, exclaiming, "I was tripping out because I never told him where the white wash was coming and he duck-dived the waves with perfect timing. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' This guy is my new hero! Unbelievable."

Derek offered up a giant smile before finally giving us the answer as to how he does it: "Faith to me is to believe that the impossible for man is possible with God. The Bible says perfect love casts out all fear, so I try to live by faith and not by sight."

It was this challenging yet child-like faith that grabbed the attention of former pro surfer and filmmaker Bryan Jennings, who is known for his documentary about one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton that led to the feature film Soul Surfer.

Bryan knew Derek's story had to be told so he produced a documentary called Beyond Sight, initially released in March 2014 in the USA. During the filming, Bryan suggested to Derek that they could attempt to surf the 20-metre-high waves of the famous break Jaws in Maui.

"I was kidding, but he got all excited and said, 'Yeah!'" Bryan recalls. "This guy is nuts. He has zero fear."

Beyond Sight
Beyond Sight: The story of Derek Rabelo features Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Tom Curren, Laird Hamilton, Bethany Hamilton, Mike Stewart, Joel Parkinson and Lakey Peterson. DVD available at and selected bookshops.

While his passion for surfing is obvious, Derek got just as enthusiastic when I brought up the subject of God.

As he grew up in a Christian family, Derek says, "I always heard the gospel and I was interested to know more about Jesus, then I started to go to church."

In his teen years, Derek decided to surrender control of his life to the Lord Jesus Christ and he now daily commits himself to His care.

"We need to exercise our faith daily and I always try to do that. Jesus is the only way, the true and the life. He made all things work together for my good and He empowers me to do everything that I do."

Asked what he hopes people will ultimately gain from knowing about his story, he paused before answering: "I hope to motivate others to accomplish their dreams, but what I would really like is for everyone to get to know the Lord Jesus because this is the most important thing in life. He is our salvation."

Watching Derek live out what he believes reminds me that God is immeasurably bigger than our problems and that He truly can do more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Hearing a story like his also demonstrates that what may seem like a tragedy at first can turn out to be a blessing in disguise (Romans 8:28).

In future, Derek says, "I want to continue surfing big waves and I've never been to Indonesia or Tahiti, and I would like to go next year."

Courtesy Sports Spectrum

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