For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to surf a 73½-foot (22.4-meter) wave, rest assured — it’s just as scary and exhilarating as you think it is.
Brazilian big wave surfer Maya Gabeira is one of few who can provide a first-hand account, having surfed a wave that size during the World Surf League Big Wave Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge in Portugal on Feb. 11. She remembered thinking at the time there was something different about that wave.
Her feeling was confirmed on Thursday, when the World Surf League announced her ride on that wave had earned her this year’s cbdMD XXL Biggest Wave Award and also set the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed by a woman.
“I remember riding out that wave and going back outside and being like, ‘OK, that’s a no repeat,” she said with a laugh during a Zoom interview with The Japan Times. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll take that, but I’m not going there again. That was too close. It felt quite scary.”
Gabeira held the previous world record of 68 feet (20 meters), which she set in 2018.
Big wave surfing takes a certain amount of bravery. The discipline is defined by surfers either paddling to or being towed into waves that are at least 6 meters high. There’s a danger to it, as surfers can potentially be held underwater if caught when the wave comes crashing down.
The waves they ride can reach amazing heights. Gabeira’s record-setting wave, for instance, was higher than the highest point of the White House, which reaches 70 feet (21.6 meters) on the south, according to the White House Historical Association.
“It’s hard to describe,” Gabeira said of riding the wave. “You know, that particular wave felt a little different than my previous waves. That’s why I had a strong feeling it was a world record and it was definitely bigger than my previous world record in 2018.
“I think the most impressive thing for me was the noise. I was very close to this explosion. If you see the ride, I don’t get the channel, so I rode it from behind and as I’m getting to the bottom of the wave, I’m very, very close to where the lip of the wave landed on the bottom, so it explodes really high. It was the loudest and the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.
“I’m just holding on and thinking that I have to stay on my board for as long as I could to get out of that first real strong impact.”
Gabeira edged French surfer Justine Dupont by 2 to 3 feet to win the women’s cbdMD XXL Biggest Wave award. She also beat men’s winner American Kai Lenny, who rode a 70-foot wave at the same WSL event in Portugal in February.
“That’s a crazy thought,” she said. “I don’t think we get to see that in sports very often, especially in a sport that is so heavily male dominated. We do have a gap between women and mens’ performance in surfing, and to see in a particular moment in time that that was surpassed. It was one moment, but I think it’s quite meaningful and I think it’s representative. Because if that moment can happen, it can happen in other areas of surfing too.
“It feels a little surreal to be the name attached to that kind of achievement, a woman being able to surpass a man’s division in that year. But, I just embrace it because I love the way it sounds. I think it’s so powerful, I think it’s so inspiring.
Representation for women is increasing and Gabeira is one of the stars on the big wave side of the ocean.
“It’s been improving a lot,” she said. “I think in the way that we see in society with more and more knowledge about the issues and the lack of opportunity and the fact that more often than not we are a minority in the professional field, we’re definitely a minority in big wave surfing.
“Yes, we are a minority, but surfing, they do have a pretty solid tour. It’s been professional for women for a very long time too. I think we in big wave surfing are a little bit still behind on that progression of involving more and more women, but it has gotten a lot better.”
The Brazilian surfer isn’t planning to go out chasing another world record — she wasn’t actually chasing this one. She plans to keep competing and keep riding and following her path. Next year, she’ll be a curious observer, when surfing — though not big wave surfing — makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“I love the Olympics, I was so curious to watch it all unfold this year,” she said. “Unfortunately, it was all delayed. I’m just on the curious side, as a fan. It’s not my direct discipline, big wave surfing is quite different. But as a fan of the sport and being involved in the sport, I’m just extremely curious to see how it’s going to go.”