Last February, Eric Dranginis and two of his friends stood atop a dune in Eastham and looked down at the nameless beach below. A storm had washed away the face of the bluff, spread a thin sheet of ice over the sand, and left picture-perfect surf in the water. That was where they wanted to be—provided they didn’t plummet to an early grave first.
During their descent, the three surfers took a vertical drop down the dune, dinging their boards and bodies in the process. Hours later, too far from a public access, they climbed back up in bloated wet suits. “It was like trying to climb an ice face, which is pretty much impossible with boots and gloves and a surfboard,” he says. They used their boards as ice axes and held on to exposed roots, tying their leashes around trees when they met the woods up above. “Usually in surfing, you’re not dealing with life and death before and after,” Dranginis says.
But in between was the fruit of the effort: waves rolling in head high or bigger, punctuated with small barrels. And the trio didn’t have to share the waves with anyone else.
At their best, winter nor’easters can bring some of the biggest rideable waves anywhere—clean, double-overhead sets that are worth the paddle out. But this requires a life tailored to finding them: constantly monitoring the winds and tides for the best conditions, calling friends to keep apprised of the best spots, and even then, it can take an hour of driving to find a good break. And because storms build and destroy sandbars, the process doesn’t get any simpler the next time.
Dranginis picked up surfing long before he made the move to Orleans in 2005. Now, the 29-year-old is a surf instructor at Cape Cod Surf Camp in the high season, then he picks up landscaping work, odd jobs, and gigs working within the surf industry to round out the rest of the year. The work flexibility gives him the chance to cut out and catch waves at a moment’s notice, a huge benefit during Cape Cod winters. “It can change in an hour, and go from world-class to complete garbage in a matter of minutes,” Dranginis says.
The near-empty breaks might indicate otherwise, but winter surfing is more popular than ever before, Dranginis says. Today’s six-millimeter-thick neoprene wetsuits are more flexible and functional than their forebears. Sport-specific boots, gloves, and hoods are part of the uniform—only the face is exposed to the water. With temperatures that can dip into the high 30s, numbness is normal. Dranginis says he know its time to call it a day when he can’t fold his fingers into a fist.
But in the face of perfect waves, it’s all worth it—the stinging paddle-outs, the fickle forecasts, the fall from the precipice and the climb back up. Surfing, Dranginis says, is basically an addiction. “Once you get to the point where it’s part of your life, you’re definitely not going to let cold water get in the way.”
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- Posted in Seasonal: Winter