Photo: Maya Gabeira with surfboard

Photograph courtesy of Carlos Serrao/Red Bull Photofiles

By Mike Benoist

See the next 2009 Adventurer of the Year >>

Photo Gallery: See images of Maya Gabeira surfing >>

Bobbing in the South Atlantic, her partner, Carlos Burle, 42, still half unconscious after losing a battle with one of the first waves of the day, Maya Gabeira considered turning back. From the seat of her Jet Ski, the 22-year-old Brazilian watched as South Africa’s Dungeons break swelled to 50 feet. Holding on behind her, Burle was badly shaken: “I almost died,” he said over and over.

Then the sun came out, and Gabeira spoke up: “Can you drive?”

Gabeira, the only sponsored female big-wave surfer in the world, began her career in earnest at the age of 17, when she left Brazil and set out alone for Hawaii. Waimea is still her home break, but after spotting a massive low-pressure system on stormsurf.com this past summer, she traveled 12,500 miles to end up at Dungeons.

“The conditions were horrible,” she says. “The waves were irregular, impossible to read.” But then the swell came. Thoughts of Burle’s accident slipped from her mind, as did those of man-eating sharks, responsible for three deaths in South Africa this year. Suddenly, she was screaming down a four-story face, adjusting her trajectory only once to leap over a boil. “When I landed it,” she says, “everyone watching on the surf boats started screaming and yelling.” Gabeira had surfed a 45-footer, the largest ever by a woman. She’s clearly not turning back now. 

Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of National Geographic Adventure