My Perfect Adventure: Maya Gabeira

The big-wave surfer on her weakness for sashimi, why she’d want to meet Pele, and her far-fetched dream of becoming a famous singer

Maya Gabeira.     Photo: Court Leve/Zozi

"I learn with my mistakes, but I am not scared of being exposed to the challenges of a life on the road."

Forty-five feet. That’s the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman. And the one who did it was Maya Gabeira. She set that record at Dungeons, South Africa, in 2009 but was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, the daughter of a prominent politician.

Though she’s from Brazil, Gabeira didn’t fall in love with her sport until she traveled to Hawaii at age 17. And then everything clicked: She—and the rest of the world—discovered her fearlessness. Since she surfed her “first big day out at Waimea Bay,” she’s won five Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards and an ESPY that named her the best female action-sports athlete.

She takes that conquering spirit on the road with her. In this interview, she tells us that a life without traveling bravely wouldn’t be a life at all. She’s especially passionate about trips to Tahiti but yearns to see Tibet. In San Diego, she helps others face their fears during the surf lessons she teaches via the adventure-travel company Zozi. Gabeira specializes in the tow-in method—the better to get to big waves with—so if that’s something you’ve wanted to get into, consider adding a session with her to your bucket list.

Meantime, read this interview. In it, Gabeira muses that if she’d had the talent for it, she might have become a singer or actress. She makes no qualms about the fact that she’s addicted to her computer screen—Skype, she says, is a blessing to her global lifestyle. And she touches on her commitment to healthy living: Besides surfing, she’s also big into yoga and Pilates.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I’d start by having breakfast and a nice coffee in the dark while checking the news and forecast. Then I’d spend the morning surfing with friends and the afternoon doing a lunchtime Pilates class. Then I’d have dinner and a movie with my boyfriend [actor Jesse Spencer].

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Tibet. I have always wanted to check it out. I love the scenery and history of the place.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Tahiti. It's a true paradise, and it’s where one of my favorite waves in the world is—Teahupoo. I also love the people and the food. If you make it out there, order the poisson cru—it’s the best sashimi plate ever.

If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be and why?
Thats a hard one. I can think of so many people I would love to meet. Let's say Pele, the Brazilian soccer hero. He seems so down to earth and is one of our all-time heroes in Brazil.

What’s something you can’t travel without?
My computer. I need it to check the surf, for news, and for downloading and playing with photos and footage of my trips. I can’t live without Skype while on the road, either. I need to see my family on screen.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
Food is usually a first. Then I think about exploring and surfing.

What motivates you to keep surfing?
The lifestyle, the challenge, and the fun. I love being in the ocean, as well as being healthy and active. I always come in from a surf session feeling refreshed and so much better.

When and how did you first venture into big-wave surfing?
When I was 17 years old and first came to Oahu, Hawaii. That was when I really fell in love with the big waves. I started surfing Sunset and small Waimea that year. At age 18, I surfed my first big day out at Waimea Bay.

What advice you would give to a young athlete?
Keep healthy, have fun, and be passionate about what you do because it shows on your performance. Also, it’s easier to reach the top that way.

Who was your most influential mentor? What did he or she teach you?
[Big-wave champion] Carlos Burle. He taught me so many things. But maybe one of the most important was to always have fun with this sport. He never wanted me to stress out too much, and he kept me grounded.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Not really, but I love being healthy and keeping life simple but exciting at the same time.

Have you ever made a mistake in your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
Oh yes, many. But I would never stop traveling because to me, that would be like stopping to live. I learn with my mistakes, but I am not scared of being exposed to the challenges of a life on the road.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I don’t know what I wanted as a child. At one point I guess I told my mom I wanted to be famous—an actress, model, or singer. I was obviously a kid, because I couldn't sing to save my own life, ha!

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
If I had any talent, maybe a singer. It must be incredible to be able to light up a whole stadium with your lyrics and on-stage performance. Music is inspiring.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Paddle the left at Jaws.

Freedive to 200 feet.

And backpack around Europe.

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