You’d be excused for not knowing Raquel Heckert. The humble, unassuming charger doesn’t exactly go around promoting herself, so she doesn’t have a massive presence in the media. But if you are in any way interested in big wave surfing, then hers is a name that you need to know.
I met Raquel last month, when two dozen of the world’s gnarliest pros and underground chargers gathered in Lincoln City for the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Pro. The West Coast is in the midst of a record-breaking snow season, and even Oregon’s coast has been feeling the effects of winter, with snowy peaks overlooking Lincoln City and daytime air temps dropping into the upper 30s.
But while the majority of the competitors in the expression session-style event opted to surf the frigid conditions for only one or two hours, Raquel was out from first horn til last, packing bombs and earning heaps of respect during a five-hour marathon session. And as it turns out, she spent the entire session in a borrowed, wrong-sized wetsuit that flushed 49-degree water every time she took a set on the head.
Two weeks later, I bumped into Raquel in Hawaii, during yet another XL session at Sunset Beach. While the weather conditions were radically different, the vibe in the water was strikingly similar to Oregon, largely due to Raquel’s happy demeanour and gung-ho, hard-charging attitude. After sharing waves for a couple of hours, I sat down with Raquel to learn more about what motivates her to push outside of her comfort zone.
So Raquel, you are from Brazil but have been spending your winters on the North Shore. When did you first come out to Hawaii, and what motivated you to come here?
This is my fourth season in Hawaii. I always wanted to come here, but I didn’t have the money for it.
Then one time my boards got lost in the airport at Rio De Janeiro for over a week, and my friend who’s a lawyer got me some money because of the situation. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because that was the money that I used to buy my ticket to Hawaii.
My motivation to get here was simply the big waves and barrels. I wanted to surf Waimea and Pipeline so bad
My motivation to get here was simply the big waves and barrels. I wanted to surf Waimea and Pipeline so bad.
Overcoming my limits in surfing, improving my skills and trying to learn something new has always driven me. And also, both in the water and out, I want to display the love of God, be the best surfer I can be, help people in my own way, inspire other people to go further with their goals in life, and grow as a person.
I want people to know that they can get anywhere they want if they have faith, always choose love, and work hard.
Tell us about life in Brazil. Did you grow up surfing, or was it something you discovered later in life?
I grew up doing many sports, but as soon as I discovered surfing, it took over everything. I started surfing when I was 12 or 13 years old.
My dad and I were watching surfers from the beach one day, and from the first time I saw them, I couldn't stop thinking about it. My mom would only let me surf twice a week after school, and my grandpa (who has always supported me) would go with me on Sunday before church. I would go to church all salty—and sometimes I still do!
I became fascinated with big waves, but I didn't have boards, travel money, or a trainer. One day I got to meet Carlos Burle and Maya Gabeira.
I was so stoked to see Maya and chat in the lineup. I told her to go on one of the waves that I had priority for, and felt so happy to do that, and see her surfing on my beach that day. It was cold, and she asked me why I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit.
I told her that the only one I had was so heavy that I’d sink if I wore it, so instead I just let my fat keep me warm. She laughed, and later in the session said that she would leave something for me.
That night, a friend called to tell me that Maya had left two Billabong wetsuits for me! That meant so much to me, and still does to this day. It inspired me all the more. When I went to Peru, those were the wetsuits I used. They saved me from the cold.
You have found a pretty interesting way to support your stay here on the North Shore. Can you tell us a bit about that?
When I got here three-years-ago, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have anyone to live with, so I was sort of on my own to figure things out.
That first season I started going to Sunset Beach Christian Church, to meet people, learn better English, and get involved with the community there. Pastor Larry ended up offering to support me as an athlete.
I get to stay at the church, and in return I help out with the children’s ministry, youth group and other campus projects they do. I’m so thankful to God to have this church’s support. These people have made Hawaii feel like a second home.
To fund my other travel costs, I do all sorts of side jobs when I’m not in the water. I’ve worked on plantations, in food trucks, and even nannying a 100-year-old grandma. I always tell her my stories about big wave surfing, and she loves it and remembers what I tell her.
My dream is to be supported by my surfing, so I also work hard seeking out sponsors, gathering footage and networking to make that a reality.
It sounds like your religion is quite important to you. How has that impacted your life over the years?
My relationship with God is the most important one in my life. I’ve traveled alone for a long time, with very little to my name, but there’s so much peace in knowing that I can just tell God about it.
He has come through for me so many times when I needed help, encouragement, flights... I pray every day, because he is good and I love having a relationship with him. If it weren’t for God, I don’t think would’ve made it this far.
Of course, with anything you feel called to do, there are times when you have doubts. For example, three days ago I was thinking about the reality of surfing as a career. I was a little down, missing my family.
I started getting a couple waves, and Michael Ho told me that I was “doing a good job”
Everyone has those weak moments. But God knows every feeling I have. I jumped in the water at Sunset, and a photographer encouraged me to charge. I started getting a couple waves, and Michael Ho told me that I was “doing a good job.”
He said that he was cheering for me, and getting encouragement from a legend like that is so cool. The Lord knew I needed that just then. Even when I’m trying to run from my problems to the ocean, he finds a way to speak through somebody.
So you're based at the church on the North Shore in the winter, and at home in Brazil the other half of the year?
Well, Hawaii gets the majority of my time, with about six months out of the year. Then, depending on forecasts and airline prices, I try to go to Puerto Escondido or Indonesia.
This year I’d like to try Chile, Portugal, or Tahiti, and some of the other famous big wave spots. Then I typically spend the remaining three months in Brazil with my family, building connections for sponsors and surfing smaller waves.
You were in Oregon for the event last week. What did you think about surfing cold water?
This year I got to surf Mavericks and Nelscott Reef, which we’re both colder than anything I’d surfed before. It was my first time using a 4/3 wetsuit, gloves and hoodie. I loved Mavericks—it’s such a perfect wave, and it was an incredible opportunity get to surf a clean, three-day swell for my first time there.
Nelscott was a different type of beauty. It was a little colder, and an outer reef, which makes positioning more challenging.
It’s not every session that you get to see whales, seals, and snowy mountains around you! My body adapted a little bit, or maybe my mind just accepted the shock of the freezing temperatures, but I was able to stay out for five hours. Both places were really good experiences for me, and I got to make a connection with Hotline wetsuits for future cold-water missions!
Women's big wave surfing is really taking off. What are your goals for your surfing?
My goal is to make it to the top and be the big wave world champ some day. But for now, I’m working toward finding sponsors and focusing on the Big Wave Awards.
I always want to push my limits and stretch myself at new breaks and conditions. I love exploring and getting to know people.
This year I also want to train more with tow surfing to get into bigger waves. And most importantly, in everything I do I aim to help people and inspire the girls of the future to chase their dreams and live life to the fullest.
Well you are definitely inspiring us! Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we let you go?
I want to thank my family for their support. My first big wave gun was a 10'6" that I was able to buy from a friend in Brazil because my dad and grandpa gave me 180 dollars each.
I’ve surfed that board the last three seasons out here! They have also helped me with plane tickets and little things along the way—especially my grandpa, who has always believed in me and done everything he can to help me and encourage me to follow my dreams.
Finally, thanks to all of the other people along the way who have helped me with tickets or given me boards or discounts on equipment, and all of the people who have encouraged me advice and kind words. Thank you all.