Blind Surfer Rides Waves the Size of Houses

Derek Rabelo is a pioneer and a rare sporting talent. Despite being 100% blind he has surfed the mighty Pipeline, Hawaii, one of the world’s most fearsome waves that most surfers will never even see, let alone have the guts to paddle out to.

Rabelo’s dream to chase waves was captured in a short YouTube video by Brazilian film producer, Bruno Lemos back in 2014. Bryan Jennings, founder of Christian film company Walking on Water, saw the footage and created Beyond Sight, a film that lays bare Derek’s life and a quiet determination that has inspired the world’s most accomplished wave riders.

Derek’s story begins on a moving note as his mother confesses she came close to having an abortion when she discovered she had fallen pregnant. Her husband Ernesto, prayed that his son would one day become a professional surfer, even naming him after the Hawaiian legend, Derek Ho. But when Derek was born blind on 25th May 1992, it seemed those prayers had gone unanswered.

Derek grew up within earshot of the breaking waves in the beautiful Brazilian coastal town of Guarapari. Then, aged 17, he decided to learn to ride the waves that had been in his mind throughout childhood. It was the first step of a three-year journey of faith and determination that would culminate in Derek having a shot at realising his ultimate dream of catching a tube at the legendary Pipeline.

Derek with Koa and Makua Rothman on Hawaii's North Shore © 2017 - Bruno Lemos/Liquid Eye
Derek with Koa and Makua Rothman on Hawaii’s North Shore
© 2017 – Bruno Lemos/Liquid Eye

“Wow, this guy can’t see but he can surf?” was the reaction of Hawaiian pro, Makua Rothman. To explain how this could be possible, Derek points to his faith in God who made amazing things happen at just the right times. One of the film’s many twists is so incongruous, so far out of the blue, it’ll make you spit your beer out.

Visually, the film is a treat; plenty of waves get ripped up – the clarity of the sound and colour make you realise how much the cinema enhances the surfing and story alike. Now, the Americans believe in fairy tales, which partly explains why they’re so infuriatingly positive all the time. My concern was that, coming out of California, what is essentially already a fairy tale would be so saccharine in its production on the silver screen that all meaning might be sweetened out of existence.

However, filmed as a ‘warts-and-all’ documentary, Beyond Sight lets Derek’s character come through; he’s stubborn, he’s determined, he gets grouchy when he’s hungry and he’s not about to let a few wipeouts stop him from carving lines on his skateboard.

Directors Jennings and Lemos take an honest approach to Derek’s disability. Eleven-time world champion, Kelly Slater laughs at his own bewilderment when he asks how it’s even possible for a blind person to surf. We get great shots of Derek trimming the waves, as well as some of an unsuspecting Derek getting bounced into the air by closing sections, which if less sympathetic, are necessary to portray the realities he’s dealing with. On land Derek shows he’s more than willing to use his lack of sight to get everyone hooting with laughter.

Kelly Slater making his way to the sea with Derek © 2017 - Bruno Lemos/Liquid Eye
Kelly Slater making his way to the sea with Derek
© 2017 – Bruno Lemos/Liquid Eye

We also get lots of interviews with all those involved in Derek’s story, while Bryan Jennings’ narration keeps us current on how these many voices impact on the youngster’s development as a surfer and a person. Beneath this, we see how others are affected by Derek’s progress, and it’s not always for the better. By definition, every leap of faith involves fear and doubt and it’s dramatic to see how these create new concerns which threaten to undermine all the good work being done.

But Beyond Sight is an overwhelmingly heart-warming tale; from Derek being given a chance in life, through realising that he was the only child at school who couldn’t see, to daring to follow his dreams, the overriding theme is one of far-reaching faith. Equally as powerful as the surfing is how Derek, whether he likes it or not, becomes a symbol of hope and a source of strength for people facing difficulties in their own lives.

His influence also puts our favourite surfers in a different light. When the pros don the blindfolds and try to catch a few small waves, they’re reduced to fumbling learners while Derek cruises along in the background. Turns out Bodhi’s night surf for special agent Utah isn’t very realistic after all, who knew? We are used to seeing the intense focus of Slater as he prepares for a heat, and the steely determination of Laird Hamilton talking about his latest big wave. But these guys aren’t the centre of attention and this allows their personalities to grow beyond what we are used to seeing through the media lens.

Derek with Bruno Lemos.
Derek with Bruno. © 2017 – Bruno Lemos/Liquid Eye

Throughout the film the question-mark grows over just what Derek’s visualisation of surfing is. “I just hear the wave, feel it coming and I don’t get afraid,” is his response. It is moving to witness someone who has no loss of stoke for not having something most would consider a fundamental part of surfing.

You’re going to try it too – you’ll shut your eyes when you’re in the line-up, and after about five seconds you’ll think “forget that”. That shadow has defined Derek’s life, and despite it he has succeeded. In reaction, Aussie surfer Joel Parkinson quotes Derek’s sponsor, Billabong: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”

Ultimately, Beyond Sight is about true leadership. It shows a person following belief to scale their own personal Everest. It opens the eyes of all viewers, Christian and non-Christian, surfers and non-surfers, to know they have it within to do the same.