By Romain Fonsegrives
Matt Formston proudly shows off a photo of him surfing a liquid mountain off the Portuguese coast, where some of the biggest waves on the planet crash to shore. No matter that he can’t see it because he is blind.
Despite having lost his sight when he was very young, Formston has spent his life taming the ocean.
Last month, at the age of 44, he added surf’s Holy Grail to his list of accomplishments, riding waves his team estimates were up to 12 meters (39 feet) tall off Nazare, Portugal.
“Most sighted surfers don’t want to have anything to do with that wave,” the Australian told AFP in California.
“But I love it. I love big waves.”
Formston’s blue eyes shift rapidly as he talks, the result of the macular dystrophy that struck when he was just five years old.
The condition, which affects the retina, left him with no sight at all in the center of his eye, and only a tiny amount of peripheral vision.
What little he can see around the edges is blurred like “you’re rubbing your windscreen with sandpaper and you scratch it up.”
Reliant on his other senses, he learned to ride the waves at Narabeen, a small resort outside of Sydney that has produced some of Australia’s best surfers.
‘Feeling the wave’
Formston is now among the best disabled surfers in the world, and competed at Pismo Beach last week in the World Para Surfing Championship.
With the help of a guide who tells him when the waves are about to hit, Formston glides effortlessly on the crest, drawing curves that naturally follow the break of the rollers.
His forefoot acts like a cane, he says, giving him tactile feedback that allows him to adjust his body in fluid, graceful moves.
“I’m just feeling the wave and doing what the wave wants me to do,” he says. His suit marked “Blind Surfer” is the only way a casual observer would know about his disability.
Formston and other disabled surfers who descended on California last week are hoping that para surfing will make its Paralympic debut in 2028, when the Games come to Los Angeles.
But if it does, and if he makes it to the Australian team, it won’t be his first time — Formston was a cycling Paralympian in Rio in 2016.
Despite his status as a world class athlete in two entirely separate disciplines, Formston does not consider himself exceptional.
“When conditions are really good, many surfers stay out well after the sun goes down,” he said.
“So they surf like me in the dark. I just do it every day.”
Able-bodied surfers disagree with the idea that he is just a regular guy.
“Matt is better than a lot of sighted surfers that I see when I get out there in the water,” says Dylan Longbottom, the big-wave specialist who helped Formston in his preparation for Nazare.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s a very strong willed person.
“For a blind surfer to go to the biggest waves on the planet at Nazare, and then to surf waves from 10 to 12 meters… I just think it’s history in the making,” says Longbottom, who had a brush with death at Nazare in 2018 when he fell from a monster wave.
‘Ocean is the safest place for me’
To train for the challenge, Formston worked extensively on his breathing, and was ultimately able to hold his breath for up to five minutes.
Jet skis towed him out to the spot where the waves break, and he had to listen for a whistle from his team to know when to let go of the rope and then when to turn at the bottom of the wave to escape the avalanche of foam.
After the success of Portugal, he now has his sights on legendary mega-surf spots like Jaws in Hawaii, and Shipstern Bluff in Australia.
“People think ‘blind’ and ‘surfing’ are like two things that shouldn’t come together,” says the father-of-three.
“But the ocean is the safest place for me.
“When I walk through a car park, there are gutters, and holes, and cars… everything is dangerous when you’re blind.
“In the ocean, if you fall off your surfboard, you’re in water and as long as you can swim, you’re safe.”