Catching a Cape Cod Wave

Surfing the Cape for the best water-fueled rides


The first thing to understand about the quest for the perfect Cape Cod waves is that waves are, well, fluid. And although there is a theoretical center to the Cape Cod surfing world at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, the reality is that surfers chase waves from Chatham to Truro.
“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, says Matt Rivers, owner of the Pump House Surf Shop in Orleans.
Mike Houghton, 72 and owner of Jasper’s Surf Shop in Eastham since 1967, has taken day trips to Rhode Island and New Hampshire just to catch the best waves. “It’s invigorating riding a wave. Once you do it, you’d go anywhere for the experience,” he says.

Houghton still surfs when the water is warm. Just not like in the old days when he’d don a wet suit and go in the water year-round.

Coast Guard Beach is wave central, where many surfers still hit the water 12 months a year. There is a reason why the beach is popular. “The beach is straight, and there are good sandbars,” Houghton said. “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 also has resilient sandbars. “The sandbars replenish themselves a lot faster at Coast Guard Beach than they do at other beaches,” Houghton said. “And some sandbars are great for years there. They don’t get damaged by storms.”

Surfing on the Cape has grown significantly since Houghton 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-boarding. “If you can stand on the ground, you can stand on a paddleboard,” said Rivers, who sells both surf boards and paddleboards. “Paddleboards are very stable, very user friendly. Pretty much anybody can do it,” he said.

Unlike with surf boards, paddleboards are 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 paddleboard gear.

“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 great exercise.”

Rivers agreed that “in a lot of ways it’s like glorified kayaking, except with paddleboards you can carry the board underneath your arm with one hand. And it gives you a better vantage point than a kayak. On paddleboards, you can see down into the water,” he said.

Fans of paddleboards 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 paddleboarding 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.”

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