JThis week, some of the best big wave surfers in the world are in Nazaré, Portugal, home to the biggest wave on the planet. An early-season winter swell batters in the submarine canyon off the Portuguese coast, with giant 8-9 meter (20-30 foot) waves rising out of the ocean. It might not be the monster 26m (86ft) wave that broke the world record two years ago, but it’s not small either.
Among the surfers is Matt Formston, 44. Like his counterparts, the Sydney-born surfer has been in the water for decades, winning national and international titles and riding some of the best waves in the world. But unlike his counterparts, Formston is blind; in Nazaré, he becomes the first blind surfer to surf such big waves.
“I trained my whole life towards this moment, even though I didn’t know it,” Formston told Guardian Australia. “I’ve been surfing bigger and bigger waves and now I feel ready.”
Formston has never been one to fear the ocean and says pursuing Nazaré is a natural progression. “I don’t remember there being a time when I didn’t go out because it was too big,” he says. “I’ve surfed the biggest swells that have hit the east coast of Australia every year for the past five years. But I know they will pale in comparison to what we see in Portugal.
He heads into the unknown, but carries an air of calm. “I felt nervous, scared, honored – all of those emotions,” he says. “And now I’m just excited. Not in a reckless way, I respect the danger and the power of the wave. But I think going in with fear and hesitation is going to cause more risk than going in with confidence.
Formston grew up in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches, a surf mecca. “Damien Hardman, a world champion, lived in my street, he says. “I took the bus to school with Nathan Hedge who became one of the best round-the-world surfers Australia has produced. Surfing was all around me. My mates were all surfing and wanting being professional surfers, but I had a disability so it didn’t seem possible.
As a young child, Formston was diagnosed with macular dystrophy. For most of his life he had no central vision, and only 5% peripheral vision in his right eye and 3% in his left eye (both have deteriorated further recently). But living in a surfer community, a lack of eyesight wasn’t going to stop Formston.
“My dad pushed me into the waves when I was five and I learned to feel the wave, paddling out back by sound and feel,” he says. “And then when I was 10, I got up.” His first wave was not a success. “I went straight to the face [of the wave], nose dive and break my brother’s board. But since then he’s been addicted. “It’s like walking – I’ve been surfing for 30 years.”
Formston has always pushed the boundaries of blind surfing. He has won four world championships and a handful of national titles. He also represented Australia in para-cycling at the 2016 Paralympic Games, having won a world tandem pursuit title two years earlier. “The transition for me was learning to shoot [on the wave],” he says. “Everyone was telling me to turn – but I was always putting too much weight on my back foot, I was doing a big turn but not finishing it and continuing on the wave.
“Being able to do high performance maneuvers now – it took the longest, trusting to be able to put weight back on my front foot. Initially I was just trying to shoot barrels, I just tried to do bends for 20 years. Then I started doing bends about 10 years ago.
For those who are not visually impaired, it’s hard to understand how anyone could surf without seeing. But Formston likens it to surfing at dusk. “Most surfers will stay out after dark if it’s pumping,” he says. Formston recently paddled with great Australian surfer Layne Beachley, who tried surfing with goggles simulating visual impairment. “She talked about this feeling of lift, this feeling of floating,” he says. “It’s the same for me – basically my front foot is my cane.”
Formston says his blindness may even provide an advantage in the water. “I ride a wave based on how I feel, whereas I think a lot of sighted people predetermine what they’re going to do on the wave. They will see a section and do something even if it is not the right thing to do. I just feel it as I go – I’m completely connected to the ocean, I’m always on the move, because I have to be. That in itself is a beautiful thing.
Formston usually surfs with a spotter, especially when the swell is stronger, which helps him position himself and know when to paddle for a wave. But even with a spotter, Formston tries to focus on the ocean. “Different waves have different audible and felt signals,” he says. “Sometimes I can be more in tune with the best place to sit on the bank – I’m in tune with the little things.”
He admits it’s not a foolproof strategy. “Most of the time I’m in the wrong spot and I’ve caught more closures than Kelly Slater,” he laughs. “But that’s part and parcel of being a blind surfer. Either you go out and give yourself a chance, or you sit in your room and don’t.
On the contrary, Formston says he finds surfing easier than navigating a world that was not designed for the visually impaired. “If I go to a local mall, to get out of the car and into the stores – there are poles, steps, potentially something on the floor, I could roll my ankle,” he says. “There are just dangers everywhere that I don’t see – it’s stressful, my mind has to work overtime not to hurt myself or anyone else. In the ocean, there is none of that.
Formston recently surfed a shallow reef in Indonesia – a dicey proposition even for advanced surfers. “It’s safer for me to ride shallow waves than to walk in the Woolies,” he says.
POlympian, world champion in two different sports, disability advocate, keynote speaker, business coach – there’s not much Formston hasn’t done. Traditionally, when he gets down to it, he succeeds. There’s no reason to think Nazaré will be any different. His detour to para-cycling is an example of this – in the early 2010s, there were no blind surfing world championships. Formston worked as a motivational speaker and felt, he says, “like an impostor” – everyone had “that book cover, Olympian, Paralympian, world champion – whatever – that’s what I wanted. I’m literally became a cyclist for this reason.
Formston had always intended to retire from cycling after the Paralympics in Rio, and the emergence of competitive blind surfing made him an easy choice. “That dream from when I was little in Narrabeen, which I thought would never come true, of me being a pro surfer. Everyone wanted to be a pro surfer and I thought it was not possible because I had a disability. Now I have more sponsors than anyone I know.
Beyond Nazaré, Formston is aiming for a return to the Paralympic Games. The sport of surfing made its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games; there has been a push for blind surfing to join the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. “My dream would be to retire as an athlete after the Brisbane 2032 Games,” he says. “By the time Brisbane arrives my children will be 18 – I could potentially have my son as a spotter which would be quite a special time.”
But first, chase the biggest wave in the world. Over the weekend, Formston successfully caught their first waves in Nazaré. A larger swell is expected in the coming days. “I feel a bit responsible,” he says. “I hope it helps other people, motivates other people – if I can surf Nazaré it shows that anything is possible for people with disabilities.”
Formston has worked hard, including strength training and breathing preparation – he can hold his breath for five minutes. “I’ve developed all the skills I need to do it,” he says. “I’m still blind – but everything else is up there at a world class level. So why wouldn’t I give it a chance?
Formston’s voyage will be featured in a film, The Blind Sea, which will be released next year.