Seeing through a blind surfer

By Kevin Acee
July 27, 2012
U~T San Diego

Derek Rabelo shows off some unique form at La Jolla Shores - Kevin Acee, Jim Caldwell Redondo Beach

I’m standing on the sand of La Jolla Shores on Friday morning.

Out in the water, a blind man stands up on his surf board, and for a moment I feel like I actually might burst into tears.

A guy who can’t see has shown me that anything is possible.

Derek Rabelo does not stay up long on this first ride of the day. No one would have. The wind is mild. The water is glassy, its waist-high waves more crumbling than crashing.

But these few seconds are enough to confirm for me that too much time is spent focused on fear, on what we can’t or won’t do, on challenges we not only won’t accept but don’t even look for.

Derek, 20 years old and blind since birth, took up surfing three years ago. Already, through a series of events he attributes to a greatly generous God, he has surfed off the shores of his home country of Brazil, as well as a number of the legendary breaks of Hawaii and California.

He has spent the past few weeks in California as a guest of local surfer and filmaker Bryan Jennings, who is producing a movie about Derek called “Beyond Sight.” With Jennings’ help, Derek has surfed the past two weeks with Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Tom Curren, the latter with whom he paddled out on Friday morning. Saturday, he will be in Malibu to ride with Laird Hamilton.

These men are the titans of surfing. Want to play H-O-R-S-E with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? Want to take batting practice with Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs?

Derek’s English is slightly better than my Portuguese, and he seems to be a man of few words anyway. Even through an interpreter, he shared precious little.

In part, you see, it’s because what he does is pretty simple. To him.

“I feel through hearing and through touching,” Derek said.

And that’s the way it always has been.

Bruno Lemos, who is shooting a documentary featuring Derek, explained: “To us, if we close our eyes we are lost. To him, he doesn’t know the difference.”

Sure, OK. That makes it no less astounding.

For that, there is definitely a nerve Derek has touched in many people. A three-minute video about his surfing the famed Pipeline in Hawaii with pro Makua Rothman has been viewed almost a half-million times on YouTube.

Even if you don’t surf, you appreciate a man making the impossible seem ordinary. I mean, I can think of a few more intrepid things to do blind than surf, maybe. Juggle chainsaws? Drive an IndyCar?

Surfing is a sport engaged on a moving and unpredictable playing field. And to think that waves at some of the places Derek has surfed could crush buildings.

Everyone who has surfed with Derek has a story about incredulous onlookers alarmed that he was being towed out into waves above his head or a surf that was closing out hard on the beach.

Makua Rothman and Derek at North Shore

Curren had surfed some hard-pounding stuff with Derek once before in Brazil. Before paddling out with him on Friday, the plainspoken Curren said he could almost fathom a person who surfed continuing to do so after losing their sight. But what Derek does, that is almost beyond comprehension to the man who was three times surfing’s world champion.

“To actually be blind from the start,” Curren said, “that’s what I’m totally baffled by.”

Jennings on Friday recalled recently teasing Rabelo that maybe they could surf the monstrous waves at the epic Jaws reef break in Maui later this year.

“I was kidding,” Jennings recalled, shaking his head and smiling. “He got all excited. He said, ‘Yeah.’ This guy is nuts. He has zero fear.”

I can’t help but think about the ocean’s visual majesty that Derek is missing. But he doesn’t think about it.

“We don’t have to physically see,” Derek said. “You just need to see through God’s eyes.”

Whatever your beliefs, you must know that Derek Rabelo hears what most of us don’t hear, feels things we don’t feel.

But one thing he doesn’t feel is fear.

I’m not sure I will be tying on a blindfold and jumping on a surfboard any time soon, but I just might measure my fear against the litmus test of whether I would be embarrassed telling Derek Rabelo about it.

For more information on the movie “Beyond Sight,” visit walkingonwater.com

Read more at U~T San Diego…

Jim Caldwell
Redondo Beach

About jw60sea

Jim Caldwell has over 26 years of experience in the public safety sector in occupations ranging from professional ski patrol, and ocean lifeguard to firefighter. Jim has worked for the Redondo Beach Fire Department for the last 22 years holding successively higher positions of responsibility. For the last six years, Jim has held the rank of Engineer with responsibility for driving and operating the Department’s Engines and Tillered Aerial Ladder Truck. Throughout his career, he has shown a dedication not only to public safety but also community service.
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