Born into a family of surfers, one could say the love of the salty ocean air courses through the veins of his body. Named after legendary surfer Derek Ho, even his name embodies the hopes and expectations of what he was to become.
“I had a dream to surf because I always lived near the beach,” says 22-year-old Derek Rabelo. “I could hear the ocean and I could feel the sound of the waves. My father was a surfer and my uncles as well.”
Being in the water, Rabelo says he feels “blessed by God to be able to enjoy His creation. I feel so much peace.”
For any other young, energetic male living by the beach in Brazil, with a father who owns the local surf shop, Rabelo’s future in surfing seemed predestined. Even before Rabelo was born, his father would pray that his son would become a professional surfer. But his dreams were shattered the day Rabelo was born, diagnosed with congenital glaucoma.
When asked if he could see anything, Rabelo says “Nothing, [not even] light.” And after three unsuccessful surgeries by the age of three, Rabelo’s parents accepted the fact that he would never have the gift of sight.
Living by faith
Yet, at the age of 17, Rabelo started surfing on his local break. Learning to surf for those who can see is difficult, to say the least. First, you have to paddle out to the ocean on a giant piece of polyurethane, ducking at just the right time so the board doesn’t hit you in the face while waves pummel you over and over. When you finally get out far enough, you have to time it so that you catch a wave, and if you actually stand up by some miracle, then make sure you’re balanced so you don’t simply fall over. More often than not, you’ll find yourself in the whitewash, winded and weary.
Rabelo faced those obstacles—and then some. “[Learning to surf] was really challenging, because people came up to me all the time and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But I never heard those guys. I was just trusting God, putting my faith in Him and believing in myself,” he says.
“Fear is something that all of us have to face in our lives. But we can’t let it stop us. We have to keep charging,” Rabelo says. “As the Bible says, perfect love casts out all fear
[1 John 4:18], so I try to live by faith and not by sight [2 Corinthians 5:7].”
Unstoppable with Jesus
Rabelo’s faith stemmed from growing up in a Christian family where “I’ve always heard the Gospel and I was interested to know more about Jesus. Then I started to go to church.”
Going to church, reading the Bible and being around people who shared the same beliefs all helped to strengthen his faith in God, cementing his belief such that, quoting the Bible, Rabelo says matter-of-factly, “With God, everything is possible.”
“The hardest times in my life are when I want to do something and people tell me I can’t,” he says. “But I have not let them stop me, because I’m unstoppable with Jesus.”
Rabelo is so “unstoppable” in fact, that after learning how to surf, he decided his goal was to take on the infamous Pipeline, a reef break in Hawaii notorious for its huge waves and cavernous reef.
Numerous surfers and photographers have been killed at Pipeline and it is considered by many to be the world’s deadliest wave. Its average wave is three metres high, but can be much larger. More people have died or been seriously injured at Pipeline than at any other surfing location.
Because he is unable to see, Rabelo never surfs alone. In the water, he always has either a coach or a friend with him. They are there to tell him when a wave is coming, whether it’s a left or a right, but beyond that, “I’m on my own. I ride the wave through feeling and hearing the wave around me.”
Not only that, Rabelo perfectly times his dives under the whitewash without assistance. “I hear the wave coming towards me,” he says. “And with practise, I know the right time to do a duck dive.”
Rabelo’s gruelling three-year journey of mental, physical and spiritual training preparing for Pipeline is documented in professional surfer, filmmaker and Christian, Bryan Jennings’ film, Beyond Sight: The Derek Rabelo Story.
Along the way, Rabelo meets and surfs with the big names of the sport, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, nine-time world champion bodyboarder Mike Stewart and professional surfers Rob Machado, Lakey Peterson and Tom Curren.
“For a blind person, it’s just a feat to catch a wave, then to actually stand up, then to angle or go in a certain direction."
"All those are big accomplishments, so for Derek to actually surf one of the heaviest waves in the world [Pipeline] is unbelievable and very inspiring! Derek has definitely inspired me,” says Slater. “Many surfers with sight do not venture out even after they see that others can do it.”
As professional surfer Laird Hamilton says, “Pipeline is one of the most dangerous waves in the world. And when you know what you’re doing and have perfectly good eyes, you can die. When Derek went out to Pipeline and surfed, the angels were busy that day.”
“It was such a good vibe when we surfed Pipe with Derek,” says 2012 World Champion and Australian surfer Joel Parkinson. “All the boys were there, helping him out and everyone watches him. He catches a wave and all the boys [cheer]. It was kind of like they were just as stoked to get him into a good wave as it is for them when it’s 15 feet [five metres] and they’re trying to get a good wave.”
Rabelo is now part of the Billabong surfing team. Poetic, when you learn that the Billabong slogan is “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
His relationship with God is strong, and it’s something he works hard to maintain. “I need to be close to people who love the Lord and are willing to help my faith increase,” he says. “Because as we know it isn’t easy to follow the Lord these days"
“God is My Saviour, my Redeemer. He is all things to me. He is my Father, He is the only Way, the Truth and the Life. He has blessed me a lot, and in all areas of my life. He has given me good friends, has provided all the things I needed in my career as a surfer. He made all things work together for my good. I never thought that one day I would be where I am now; my life has been driven by God.”
Now that he has conquered Pipeline, what’s next for Rabelo?
“I want to continue surfing big waves. I’ve never been to Indonesia or Tahiti, and I would like to go. Would you like to take me there with my coach?” Rabelo asks with a laugh.
Whether he does go to Indonesia or Tahiti, one thing is for certain: Rabelo’s story not only has the ability to touch others, it inspires them to achieve better things.
“Derek has a lot to teach people, including that there’s no limit to what you can accomplish,” professional surfer Rob Machado aptly sums it up.
How it started
Bryan Jennings, producer and co-director of Beyond Sight: The Derek Rabelo Story, first met Rabelo in Brazil at the screening of Jennings’ other movie, Walking on Water. Invited to Rabelo’s hometown, Jennings spent time getting to know Rabelo and his family.
“Derek invited me to come watch him go tow surfing with big wave surfer Carlos Burle. The waves were huge that day and I told Derek not to go out, but he didn’t listen to me. Instead he reminded me to ‘live by faith and not by sight.’ I couldn’t believe what I witnessed,” says Jennings. “Watching him surf huge waves inspired me. He was literally living by faith and not by sight.”
Returning home to California, Jennings could not stop thinking about Rabelo and eventually invited him to be a special guest at a Christian surf camp he organised.
“What we didn’t know was that this was going to be the beginning of a life-changing journey for the both of us,” says Jennings. “Derek did inspire our surf camp and the next day asked to surf with [11-time world-champion] Kelly Slater. I laughed at first, but he was serious. So I reached out to Kelly and God opened the doors and within 48 hours we were surfing Lowers Trestles with Kelly Slater! That was the first day of filming the Beyond Sight movie.”