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BLIND FAITH: Derek surfing Hawaii’s Pipeline.
Marcelo Lima/Camera Press/Redux
BLIND FAITH: Derek surfing Hawaii’s Pipeline.

Not by sight

Documentary | A new documentary tells the amazing story of blind surfer Derek Rabelo

Issue: "What price conscience?," April 19, 2014

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.—The Big Wave Blog calls Hawaii’s Pipeline “one of the most perfect and deadly waves in the world.” According to the blog, “Pipeline pitches really quickly as the wave moves over first reef, making for some intense late drops straight into the barrel. … Pipe is strictly for experts only.”

Few people can say they’ve surfed Pipeline. Derek Rabelo may be the only person who has surfed it blind.

The 21-year-old Brazilian native was born without sight but didn’t let his handicap stop him from pursuing his dream to surf. During the four years since he began his quest to master surfing, his inspirational story has caught the attention of surf legends across the globe and a movie producer in California. Beyond Sight is a full-length documentary that details Rabelo’s journey from an unknown boy in Brazil to a famous blind surfer whose life story has become a living example of “walking by faith, not by sight.”

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Rabelo was busy signing autographs and answering questions at the film’s March premiere in southern California, but he still made time to catch a few waves at a local surf competition sponsored by Soul Surf, a Christian surf organization. More than 100 “groms”—surfers under the age of 15—and older teens competed in six different age brackets with contestants scored on the waves chosen and skills displayed.

But Rabelo was the highlight of the event: A crowd formed around him as he clutched his yellow board with one hand and the shoulder of professional bodyboarder Magno Passos, also from Brazil, with the other. A guide took him to the water where he used his keen senses to paddle out, feel the sets, time his drop-in, and skillfully maneuver his board along the waves.

Maura Short came to watch 11-year-old daughter Megan compete, but her camera was trained on Derek as he surfed the break at San Clemente’s T-Street Beach. She said watching him go outside of his comfort zone was “inspirational” and a moment she didn’t want to miss.

Rabelo’s father dreamed that his son would one day become a professional surfer and decided to name him after Derek Ho, one of the sport’s legends. When Rabelo was born blind on May 25, 1992, his father realized that his son might never set foot on a surfboard.

But 17 years later, Rabelo showed some interest in the sport and his father took him out for a quick lesson at the beach across from the family-owned surf shop in Guarapari, Brazil. The teen showed incredible determination and eventually attracted the attention of a local surf instructor who wanted to help Rabelo pursue his dream of surfing Hawaii’s Pipeline.

In 2012, Rabelo was ready: He flew to Hawaii with his surf coach in search of an epic wave that would give Rabelo the right height and pitch to accomplish his lofty goal. Local surfers reacted with skepticism when they saw the blind man paddling out but quickly joined his mission, helping clear out the crowded surf spot. 

While visiting a Brazilian church on the island, he met Bruno Lemos, a film producer who took interest in his quest, connected Rabelo to some Hawaiian pro-surfers, and posted a YouTube video of “blind surfer Derek Rabelo surfing Pipe” that went viral. “He’s an inspiration,” pro surfer Koa Rothman said in the video. “How many blind people do you know that surf and pull in at Pipe?”

That’s when Bryan Jennings, a former professional surfer and founder of Walking on Water Films (WOW), picked up the story. Jennings started WOW in 1995 and has produced 11 independent faith-based movies, including Heart of a Soul Surfer, a documentary about shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton that inspired the movie Soul Surfer.

Jennings met Lemos while in Brazil for a showing of Walking on Water, one of WOW’s earlier films. The two agreed to co-produce a documentary using the video Lemos shot in Hawaii and picking up the story with Rabelo’s renewed mission to increase training and return to Pipeline for a “barrel”—a surfing challenge that involves riding through the tube of a wave.

During the summer of 2012, more doors opened: Jennings created a lineup of legends to surf with Rabelo, including 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, Lakey Peterson, and Rob Machado. These are the “Michael Jordans” of the surf industry and Rabelo’s long-time heroes, but they were the ones impressed by Rabelo.

The film is about more than surfing with legends, conquering fear, and watching heart-stopping waves crash in on Oahu’s North Shore. “I want to show that my movie is not just another surfing story,” Rabelo told me through a translator. “God exists and He is present in my life. If I surf, it’s because He gave me this gift and I’m really grateful for this gift.”

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