By Derek Rielly
Two days ago, Maya Gaberia, the 26-year-old from Brazil with a perfect brown-skinned complexion, was squashed in what you might wanna call 80-foot waves. A busted tibia (lower part of the bone, near the ankle) and drowning was the price tag Maya paid for taking on the world’s creepiest wave.
Nazaré. Portugal. Ain’t it just the name on everyone’s lips? But no one except the European surf gang gave it much thrift until Garrett McNamara and, later, Shane Dorian sugared it with Hawaiian cred. Dorian called it “super dangerous” and told a story of how the wave once snatched a little gal and her grandaddy straight off the beach. “I had one of those feelings that I should be happy with the two waves I caught,” said Dorian.
Maya and her tow-partner, the fabulous Carlos Burle, spent two weeks training for this swell. And when it dutifully arrived, they were ready. But sometimes, being ready, ain’t the same as being bulletproof.
Stab recorded this interview at midnight, Portuguese time, a few hours after Maya’s release from hospital. Maya sounded kinda awesome having rallied considerably from two days earlier when Carlos was performing CPR while giant waves surged up the beach. That laugh! What a strong disposition!
Stab: You sound great! When did you get released from the hospital?
Maya: I got released from hospital this morning. I was there for 24 hours.
Can you describe for me the jam y’got in… Yeah, Carlos towed me into a really nice big left and on the third bump I reckon I broke my ankle. When I fell that wipeout was ok. It was a little bit of a hold-down. The second one was pretty strong and the third one I think I was almost on the shorebreak and that was when the problems started because it was really strong. It hit me on my chest and it blew out my life jacket and it really hurt me. I went down, down, down underwater with no air and seeing black. I was basically going to black-out and somehow I made it up but when I hit the surface everything went white so I didn’t have any vision. But from what I saw on the footage, Carlos came twice to grab me but I had no movement or reaction. Finally he yelled at me to grab the rope and I grabbed the rope and I think that was my last little bit of energy to get me maybe five or 10 feet away from the current that was taking me into the rocks. But because I was being dragged my face was underwater. I was pretty much blacked-out by then and then my hand let go of the rope. From what I saw of the footage I was unconscious. A couple of waves went over me and Carlos found me again and I was closer to the shore so he jumped off the ski and dragged me to the shore and CPR’d me and…uh… thank God he brought me back to life.
What’s your first memory after being revived? Faces. Just people and remembering that I had almost drowned and where I was and a lot of water, water, water. And I was throwing up. I mean, it took a long time in my brain to come back and for me to open my eyes but as soon as I did I kinda knew where I was because it was so salty and it was so wet. I just could tell I had just drowned.
And then what happened? Were you on the sand? I was on the sand. I was starting to come back to life and a huge surge, huge water, washed everyone again. Some guys held onto me, Carlos and another guy. A couple of cars got washed away. It was pretty hectic but they held onto me and then after that they CPR’d me again, I think.
Do you remember being in the ambulance? As soon as I opened my eyes I remember everything. Red Bull, who were on the cliff, called the fire station so the firemen came and grabbed me.
What were you thinking about in hospital? (Maya laughs in the breeziest and most surprising manner) That I was just lucky to be alive and I was lucky I train as much as I do and that I have the best partner in the world and that our efforts at the end of the day weren’t perfect but sometimes we make mistakes. But in the very end, we were able to save my life. And I think that’s what matters.
What mistakes did you make? How will you hit big waves next time after this experience? I’ll definitely use a different life jacket because I don’t want my life jacket to blow out. I don’t want to get 70-foot shorebreak waves on my head with no life jacket. Also, to have a second ski so everything’s not on Carlos’ hands because that’s a big responsibility if you’re dealing with 80-foot waves on a shorebreak. If everything you’ve got is one ski, even though he wants to save me as much as he wants, he can’t lose the ski. So there’s two worries there. If you have a second ski, you can risk a little more when the rescue happens. Other than that, I broke my leg on the wave, I just did my very best to get as close to the shore as I could so I could get rescued by him and hope to get CPR’d on the beach.
What’s it feel like when your leg gets busted by a wave? (Laughs!) Oh, I don’t even realise my leg was broken until later on. (Laughs!) My life was way more important! My lungs were way sorer than that!
Can you describe what it’s like to drown? It’s really tough. But it gets peaceful when you black out. When you’re gone, you’re gone. And I knew before I was gone I knew that the only thing I could do was to try my very hardest to get as close as I could to the shore so Carlos could do his part. And I did my part and he did his part. That’s how we work. I try my best and when he sees me he’ll make sure he doesn’t lose my body.
Jay Z Christ. It’s a high-stakes game, ain’t it… Yeah, but that’s big-wave surfing when it’s 80-feet in the shorebreak, a beach break.
I remember Dorian telling me in another interview how rad the joint is, how creepy… Yeah, yeah. It’s really hectic. We had been training here a couple of weeks so we had the idea that it was going to be really, really gnarly when things got really big. But, honestly, you know, it was our first time ever here at that size. We got out there and we knew we had just a short window and we didn’t want to waste it. I was the first on the rope and I told Carlos, “Hey, just go for broke. Get me one wave and I’ll be happy with one wave”. So that was our goal, you know. One big wave each. And, unfortunately, my wave didn’t go so well but his wave was very successful and I’m still here so I’m happy.
You had another near-death thang at Teahupoo, yeah? Um, to be honest, I must put down that experience a little bit after this one. I don’t think it was that bad…
But only with the benefit of hindsight… Yeah, I think this one was way more serious. People say I was unconscious at Teahupoo, and I wasn’t at all, I told everyone I wasn’t, but a lot of people claim that I was unconscious and it was a lie. But this time… I was unconscious.
Big-wave wrangling is an extraordinary biz… You know, it’s a risk when you’re willing to surf waves like that and you don’t have two people to rescue you, you only have one. I was by myself on 70, 80-foot waves for over 10 minutes. And it’s very very hard to survive with no life jacket.
I was going to ask if this had affected your desire to stomp big waves. But y’sound so breezy it ain’t even a question is it… Nooo! I’m really bummed I have a broken foot and I’m out for two months! But it was a great experience. We had the lineup to ourselves and Garrett, who’s a hero to me, (France’s) Eric Rebiere, (Briton) Andrew Cotton, it was a really good vibe. Everyone was looking out for one another and that’s what big-wave surfing is all about. We were like kids out there. We were so stoked to get out there and see the waves that big and… you know… go out and have the opportunity to do something special.