Marcelo Luna - from troubled youth to giant waves

3 min
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Nazaré (Portugal) (AFP)

Marcelo Luna has travelled a long way from his drug-riddled teenage years in Brazil, unable to swim, to carve out a career surfing some of the biggest waves in the world.

The call of the ocean helped save Luna from drugs in the tough working-class Sao Paulo neighbourhood where he grew up and he now rides the monstrous waves at Praia do Norte in the Portuguese coastal town of Nazare.

"When I saw pictures of these waves for the first time I discovered my reason for being, as if I'd just met the love of my life," Luna said.

Three years after that awakening, the slightly built Luna has embraced Nazare -- and it him -- going as far as having a picture of a huge wave breaking at the foot of the local lighthouse tattooed on his forearm.

"I've chosen to launch my career in Nazare because a surfer capable of facing up to the sea here can do it no matter where in the world," said the 32-year-old, who sold his real-estate business and car to finance himself in the absence of a sponsor.

Luna's childhood was a tough one and he grew up without his father, a violent alcoholic who abandoned the family.

"I struggled to manage all that," Luna said. "Then I rebelled and I started drinking and smoking at the age of nine. By the time I was 11 I'd started taking drugs."

His descent into troubled times took a significant upswing when he was 16 and a friend took him to the beach, pushing him around lying on a surfboard.

Luna couldn't even swim.

"I thought I was going to die, but on that day I decided that surfing would be part of my life. It's surfing which freed me from drugs, which changed my way of seeing things and interacting with others."

- Extreme -

Taking on waves 15 metres high in Nazare from his second season, "Marcelinho" found his place at the heart of a community of extreme surfers who come together in Portugal in autumn and winter every year.

Like the others, he dreams of beating the world record for the highest wave ever surfed (American Garrett McNamara at Praia do Norte in November 2011 at a staggering 23.77m).

But Luna also wants to "become a surfer renowned for being able to influence peoples' lives in a positive way".

Marked by his troubled childhood, Luna has launched a drugs and delinquency prevention project for children and teenagers to whom he tells his story, presented as an example of "tenacity in the face of adversity".

Standing in front of three classes of a high school in Nazare, Luna lists the different jobs he's done to "make up for lost time" and ultimately be able to devote his time entirely to surfing, which demands hardcore training and costly equipment.

"It's very important for these youngsters to hear his story," said maths teacher Nelia Mendes.

"Meeting someone who has never given up on his dreams despite all his problems opens up new horizons for them."

Several Nazare locals have reacted to the Brazilian's atypical background by taking him in during the season and guiding him by radio from the clifftops when the huge waves hit.

Nazare mayor Walter Chicharro typified the way that people in the area have embraced Luna: "Marcelo is a great little man because he has not only the courage to attack these enormous waves, but also to tell his story to bring something to the community that welcomes him."