Surfing those monstrous swells found in Nazare, Portugal under the very best of circumstances is a daunting prospect — now imagine tackling the damn thing legally blind, like Australia’s Matthew Formston.
In the coming week, this three-time surf world champion / Paralympian / madman – whose sight has been reduced to just 0% central vision + less than 5% peripheral vision thanks to macular dystrophy – will make the pilgrimage to the famed Oeste region coastal town, where he’ll rely solely on the judgement of his team and the instinct of his nerves to tame these notoriously sizable waves.
“A surfer turns up at a headland and says, ‘Nah… that’s not for me. I can’t do that,’” the 44-year-old homegrown talent explained to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’m relying on my team to say we’re good to go because I can’t tell how big the wave is until I get to the bottom of it.”
“People say: ‘That’s not possible – a blind person surfing a wave that big.’ I want to show the world that it is.”
While Nazare has been known to serve up waves as high as 100 feet tall – the current Guinness World Record for biggest wave ever surfed here hovering around 86-foot; set by Germany’s Sebastian Steudtner circa 2020 – Matt Formston’s efforts will be capped for practical reasons.
“Day in day out, it’s about 30-to-80 feet. I’m unlikely to be going out in surf over 50 feet. But I’m going with an open mind. Everything’s on the table.”
Two years ago, Formston attempted to ride a wave at Lennox Head’s Boulder Beach that measured around 30-foot. Sadly, to not much success.
“I didn’t make it. I got rolled. I was underwater for a good while,” he admitted.
“There were 30 or so people on the headland and nobody could spot me. But there was no flotation in my wetsuit that day.”
“In Nazare, I’ll be wearing my Billabong inflation suit, which has CO2 canisters in it that can bring you to the surface. That changes the game significantly.”
So what’s it actually like to surf without the privilege of sight?
“Most surfers, when it’s pumping, stay out after dark,” revealed Matt Formston.
“It’s like that. There’s a feeling of ‘lift.’ I’ve recently surfed with [former world champions] Layne Beachley and Joel Parkinson and gave them goggles that simulate my vision. They talk about this ‘lift.’ It’s like flying basically.”
“Walking through a carpark for me has more risks than surfing. Can’t see gutters, can’t see tow-balls, can’t see poles. I’m forever rolling my ankle and smashing my shins into things. Getting hit in the balls by railings at shopping centres.”
“On a wave, if I make a mistake I fall into water. It’s freedom. Absolute freedom.”
Matthew Formston will go down in history as among the first blind surfers to take on Nazare, though not exactly the first.
Back in late 2017, Brazilian Derek Rabelo towed into a solid, Hawaiian-scale 15-foot wave. Rabelo, who was only 23 years old at the time, was born with zero vision due to a case of congenital glaucoma. Of course, this is by no means a competition.
“I feel a responsibility in some way. A lot of people have a disability and go, ‘No… too hard,’ whereas I’ve proven a lot of times if you have a crack, you’ll find a way,” added Formston.
“Apart from the fact my eyes don’t work, the rest of me is ready for it.”
Godspeed, you crazy bastard.
Anyone keen to follow Matt Fomston’s exploits will be keen to hear his documentary The Blind Sea – which has followed him on his big-wave chasing journey from Indonesia and Fiji to Hawaii and the US west coast this past year – is scheduled to air sometime in early 2023.
Keep an eye out for it.