At the back end of 2013 Maya Gabeira went viral in the worst kind of way. She died. Well almost. She was at Nazare, the iconic big wave spot in Portugal, which was enjoying an epic winter swell, when she towed-in to a monster wave, but got taken out on the ride down.
It would have been the largest wave ever ridden by a woman, in the region of 70-80ft. And by an attractive then 26-year-old Brazilian woman at that. Unsurprisingly, the news of her accident went wild on social media.
She said shortly after: “It was double the size of anything I’ve ever ridden in my life. Very very bumpy; very fast. I’ve never gone that fast on a surfboard before. I broke my ankle on probably the third or fourth bump and from there I just went face first and got pounded by the wave. And the whole thing started…”
Her jet-ski partner and long-time friend Carlos Burle saw her make it to the surface and knew he had to get to her fast before the super-gnarly shore break pummelled her even more.
Gabeira continues: “So after the black I made it back to the surface which I was very surprised about. I had a second chance, I was on the surface and I was breathing but everything was white…I had no vision, a little bit of my senses but I knew I was in serious trouble and had to count on my instincts and Carlos.”
Burle did manage to reach her on his jet-ski but by the time he and Gabeira made it to the shore she was unconscious. He performed CPR on her on the beach, which you can see clips of in the video below, and saved her life.
To survive a near-drowning experience is mental and perhaps gives us some idea of what it might feel like to drown. We asked Maya Gabeira for her reflections on the whole experience now.
Do you remember the wave and what happened?
I remember some of it. I was definitely deprived of oxygen after a lot of hold-downs… I remember also being in pain but also in peace, but I was optimistic as well…
When you woke up with your good friend and tow-in partner Carlos Burle there, how did you feel?
Grateful to be alive.
Do you know what caused you to lose consciousness?
The lack of oxygen after lot of hold-downs. And it was 70, 80, 90 feet waves… So, that’s a lot of power.
And how did you feel the next few days?
Super-moved by the support, a bit high on a lot of emotions.
How do you view what happened now, does it give you nightmares or has it made you glad to be alive?
I feel good. It was an important experience. I learnt a lot, I am grateful… and I enjoy the ups and downs. As long as we can see the good side of things, there is always a good side to everything.
Laird Hamilton said some pretty mean stuff after the event including that “you didn’t have the skills to be out in those conditions”. Has he apologised and if not would you like him to?
He has not apologised. I never expected him to.
Carlos Burle was a total hero that day, has it made you guys even closer as friends?
We have always been very close. Our relationship goes back now like nine years. We have been through a lot. And I am very lucky to have him in my life. Great friend, amazing athlete and mentor.
Have friends and family asked you to stop surfing such gnarly waves!?
No and yes… Hahaha… Sometimes people joke about it. But not really. They know this is what I love to do and it’s my job.
There have undoubtedly been some career upsides for Gabeira from her near-drowning experience, as she told Derek Reilly in an interview for Red Bull:
“Professionally it’s changed a lot… for the better. I got lucky in that sense. It gave me a lot of opportunities and visibility and I was able to capitalise on that. An experience like that always makes you richer emotionally, too. I was fortunate to have lived through that whole thing.”
She has recently become an elite ambassador for Lululemon, who released the clip below to mark the signing. That deal, combined with her other notably non-surf industry sponsors, including Red Bull, Renault, Brazilian phone company Nextel and German cosmetics company Fa, has made her the highest paid big wave surfer in the world, according to Stab Magazine.