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Meet Derek Rabelo, the World’s Only Blind Professional Surfer

Derek Rabelo is not the only surfer to conquer Hawaii’s famous Pipeline big wave break, but whereas others use their sight to do it, this young professional surfer must rely only on his other senses. That’s because he is completely blind.

When Derek was born, over 24 years ago, his father Ernesto had already decided to name him after Derek Ho, the first Hawaiian surfing world champion. A surfing enthusiast himself, Ernesto dreamed that his son would go on to honour his namesake and inherit the talent of his uncle, a professional surfer. Unfortunately, Derek was born completely blind from congenital glaucoma, but this didn’t stop his family from believing that he could do anything he wanted, even if that meant becoming a surfer.

Photo: Not by Sight/Facebook

At age 2, Derek received a bodyboard and the beaches of Guarapari, Brazil, became his backyard. He was always comfortable in the water, and surfing was in his blood, but he didn’t actually attempt to ride a wave until he turned 17, when his father bought him a surfboard. His father taught him the basics and encouraged him to keep practising, but after successfully standing up on the  Derek knew he needed to become better if he was going to fulfil Ernesto’s dream and become a professional surfer. So he joined the Praia do Morro surf school, where he studied under coach Fabio Maru.

“Firstly, my dad encouraged and helped me,” Derek told Bored Panda. “We went to the ocean together in the mornings. However, he sent me to a surf course to learn and practise more. I have also practised a lot with my friends. They always consider me just as themselves.”

Photo: Not by Sight/Facebook

But standing up on a surfboard and tackling a small waves is one thing, while mustering the courage to take on Hawaii’s board-breaking Pipeline is another. But that’s exactly what Derek Rabelo set out to do just months after learning how to surf. Everyone told him it was too dangerous, but he felt he could do it. And he did, earning the admiration of legendary professional surfers like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning. Now 24, Rabelo has been surfing the legendary Pipeline every winter since.

Footage of Derek Rabelo tackling Pipeline in 2012 went viral among extreme sports enthusiasts, inspiring filmmaker Bryan Jennings to shoot a documentary on him, called Beyond Sight. Even though he doesn’t compete in surfing competitions, Rabelo fulfilled his father’s dream of becoming a professional surfer, getting a sponsorship from Billabong and getting paid to travel the world, riding the best waves and inspiring others with his story.

Photo: Not by Sight/Facebook

So how does Derek Rabelo do it? How does he surf dangerous wave breaks like Pipeline, when other surfers with perfect vision don’t even dare attempt it? Well, he is sometimes towed into waves or directed by other surfers to position himself in the right spot, but from that point on, his other senses take over. Touching the waves helps him feel their dynamics, listening to the whitewater also lets him know what to expect, and the drag of an arching wave tells him when to duck dive. The rest, he says, comes naturally.

“I listen to the ocean and feel it,” Derek said. “And every single part of a wave makes different noises. So, I can decide which side of the wave I should surf towards. If you have a dream, you have to believe in yourself. Otherwise, you can not do it. I believe all of us have strong senses given by god. Use them with passion and perseverance.”

 

Having vanquished Pipeline several times, Derek Rabelo has now set new surfing goals for himself, like tackling Hawaii’s Jaws, Tahiti’s infamous Teahupo’o and several other big wave breaks in Indonesia. He also likes skateboarding and hopes to one day learn how to snowboard as well. The sky’s the limit as far as this inspiring young man is concerned.