While the theoretical center of the Cape Cod surfing world is at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, the truth is that waves are, well, fluid. Surfers chase waves from Chatham to Truro.
In fact, 72-year-old Mike Houghton, who opened Jasper’s Surf Shop in Eastham in 1967, has taken day trips as far as Rhode Island and New Hampshire just to catch the best waves. “If there’s waves in Rhode Island, you go to Rhode Island,” he said. “It’s invigorating riding a wave. Once you do it, you’d go anywhere for the experience.”
That’s why Houghton opened Jasper’s in Eastham, near Coast Guard Beach. Now closed as a retail shop, Jasper’s still makes lifeguard uniforms. Houghton still surfs when the water is warm. But not like in the old days when he’d don a wet suit and go in the water year round.
There are certainly plenty of surfers who still do that, starting from the central base of Coast Guard Beach. As Matt Rivers, the owner of the Pump House Surf Shop in Orleans, said, “The way the Cape curves, different beaches receive different swell directions. All you need is a weather chart and a map. Then drive north or south to get the best waves.”
Of course, there is a reason why Coast Guard Beach is at the center of this strategy. “The beach is straight, and there are good sandbars,” said Houghton. “What happens is a wave comes from offshore and when it hits a sandbar, the top part of the wave breaks over. It’s like being tripped. The top falls over.”
Coast Guard Beach, in particular, has resilient sandbars, he said. “The sandbars replenish themselves a lot faster at Coast Guard Beach than they do at other beaches. And some sandbars are great for years there. They don’t get damaged by storms.”
According to Houghton, surfing on the Cape has grown significantly since he first “picked up a surf board from some guy in California” in the mid-1960s. “It’s not just a cult,” he said.
Rivers, who has owned The Pump House for 18 years, said, “There is a core group of surfers on the Cape.” He acknowledged that there is a learning curve.
When Houghton began surfing, he said, “It almost took me a whole summer to learn.”
There is another, easier option – Stand Up Paddle (SUP). “If you can stand on the ground, you can stand on a paddle board,” said Rivers, who sells both surfboards and paddle boards. “Paddle boards are very stable, very user friendly. Pretty much anybody can do it,” he said.
Plus, unlike with surfboards, SUP is not reliant upon finding great waves. It can be done across the Cape, not just in the bigger waves of the national seashore. “It’s super fun,” said Justin Labdon, owner of Adventure Chatham, which sells SUP gear. Adventure Chatham is a division of Cape Cod Beach Chair Company of Harwich.
“It’s a great way to get some fresh air and some exercise,” he said. “It’s almost like kayaking. If you want to slow down and poke around, it’s not much of an exercise. If you want to, you can get a great exercise.”
Rivers agreed that “in a lot of ways it’s like glorified kayaking. Except with SUP you can carry the board underneath your arm with one hand. And it gives you a better vantage point than a kayak. On SUP, you can see down into the water,” he said.
Fans of SUP cite their versatility. According to Rivers, they can be used for fishing, wave riding, racing, and in flat water. “People do yoga on it,” he said.
“The reason SUP is so popular,” said Labdon, “is that there are so many different options… And you can go surfing on them. It’s a total blast. You can even catch waves further out than on a regular surf board.”
There is something mythical about catching waves, no matter where or how it is done. Houghton said surfing is best described by the 1963 Beach Boys lyric, “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.”
Rivers said surfing is “one of those feelings that is almost indescribable. You lose yourself and find yourself at the same time.”
— Brian Tarcy