A winter on Cape Cod

When the tourists went home, Hannah Piecuch kept swimming

Hannah Piecuch

Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is associated with crowded beaches and hot summers. But when the tourists go home, the locals have 40 miles of coastline to themselves. Last year, Hannah Piecuch decided to swim all winter and kept a diary, charting the shift from frozen sand dunes to Spring fog and the eventual return of ospreys from their migration to South America.

Cape Cod is not all vacationers and sharks. It is certainly a summer holiday destination, a sandy peninsula 100-kilometers long, spiraling northeast off the coast of Massachusetts, out into the Atlantic. And white sharks do hunt seals along its outer shores in the open ocean. 

But it’s also my year-round home. My family has lived here for four generations—though I just moved here in my thirties. My husband and I live in a wooded neighborhood. We’re two miles from salt water. Our beaches are narrow, with shore roads cutting through the dunes and parking lots that are always washing out. I swim in shallow Buzzards Bay and the Vineyard Sound. White sharks don’t bother with either, unless they are lost. 

In winter Cape Cod has grey skies, lots of rain, and all the summer people are gone. Snow is rare and when it comes it usually knocks out the power. In February the restaurants close. The sea hovers above freezing, but salt ponds and inlets sometimes ice over. The beaches belong to the locals now: dog walkers, kite surfers, oyster farmers, and to us. The swimmers. 

I’ve always been a sea swimmer, though mostly a summer one. It took me several years after our move to join an open water swimming group, and when I did, I met four people who had swum every week through the previous winter. I resolved to continue when it got cold again. 

Swimming into the cold was an inversion of a landscape I’d considered familiar. The winter beaches were my regular haunt, but actually being in ocean was another matter. As the temperatures dropped, I wrote about each swim. Here is a selection from those entries. 

After a hard frost
Chapoquoit Beach • November 6  • Air 1.5°C • Water 14.4°C
It feels surreal, getting into the water now. Deciding to do this when it is nearly freezing out. Even in a wetsuit, my first strokes are breathless. A friend tells me to take it slowly. That there is an art to bringing my panic response back down, and I will learn it. Still, I keep stopping to look up at the sky, feeling foolish that I can’t breathe yet, and marveling that everyone else just put their heads down and swam. 

It is high tide and calm. We are swimming north, close to shore, straight through low seaweed-covered rocks, towards the mouth of West Falmouth Harbor. Ahead of me mist is rising from the cooling water, and the sun shines on my fellow swimmers splashing forward. There are over a dozen of us today—the summer swimmers are here for one last ocean swim before retreating to pools for the winter.

At the harbor mouth the tide carries us into the boat channel. This route usually takes us close to an hour, as we circle a barrier island, finishing close to our starting point.

When we are nearly done, swimming through one last shallow stretch, somebody shouts. Almost at the same time, I do too. We’ve hit a wall of icy water. My panic comes back. My feet are numb. My hands are numb. I stand up and run to the nearest dune. Out of the water I am shaking so hard I can barely pull my socks off. The summer swimmers swear this is their last swim of the season. The people who swam through last winter are laughing, welcoming the cold.

West Falmouth Harbour by Hannah Piecuch

Underwater foliage
Old Silver Beach • November 11 • air 12.7°C, water 14.4°C
It is deeper here than where I usually swim, well over my head. I meet two friends in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a holiday. We’re off work. We pull on our wetsuits and decide to swim along the rocky shore, beside shallow sand cliffs and homes with private docks. Underwater, there are towers of seaweed with long fronds, like pillars. On the bottom, the rocks are covered with fine bright moss. The common bladderwort seaweed has turned from summer green to burgundy edged in gold. An underwater turning of leaves. After the first sting on my face, my body accepts the water.

Chapoquoit Beach • December 4 • air 2.2°C, water 8.3°C
Just a little while ago I was in the sea. It was rough. The water was unusually deep, a seasonal high tide, according to my oceanographer husband. My goggles were fogged and the chop made it hard to spot anyone else. I fell behind almost immediately. But as I swam, allowing my body to adjust, I felt almost ridiculously content. I am in the sea—I thought to myself—and I have nothing to prove. I think part of the appeal is this feeling, later in the day. Sitting in our den with the dogs drinking tea and reading: dry, warm, intact.

Old Silver Beach by Hannah Piecuch

Underwater, there are towers of seaweed with long fronds, like pillars. On the bottom, the rocks are covered with fine bright moss. The common bladderwort seaweed has turned from summer green to burgundy edged in gold. An underwater turning of leaves.

Windy side
Chapoquoit Beach • December 12 • air 6.6°C, water 8.3°C
I don’t want to swim in the wind. I suggest we choose a sheltered beach. I am voted down. It is sunny in the parking lot, but the waves are rolling in, one after another, and the wind is strong. We wade into pounding surf, which flashes under midday sun. It’s shallow here and the waves break in rows. I can’t really get past them. I try to stick with my friends, who have plunged in, and are stroking ahead. 

I fall into a rhythm. On one breath I’m uplifted, able to see the beach, the dune, the monstrous new house, the buoys of my companions, and on the next I am alone, deep in a trough between waves. 

I keep pace, somehow. The water is so turbid that I can see nothing at all when my head is down. But the waves near the surface are shot with light. We keep stopping and riding waves, whooping involuntarily. I realise, for all my pulling for calmer seas, that I am enjoying the surf.

Proper cold
Chapoquoit Beach • December 15 • air -4.4°C, water 6.1°C
Finally a calm swim, like I have been craving. We swim down to the rocks, a shorter distance than usual, on account of the temperature. In the summer these rocks terrified me, looming suddenly mid-swim, covered in dark undulating seaweed, with striped bass darting from shadows. In rough seas they loomed up suddenly; I feared being cast against them by the waves. On a flat day like this, after many swims through, the rocks are a welcome waypoint. In the cold, they seem strangely vacant. There are no fish or crabs in sight. Just seaweed, hardly moving in today’s clear water. I circle the rocks, observing them, waiting to hear how everyone is feeling.

A stormy swim at Chapoquoit Beach. Photo courtesy of Meri Gilson.

Before the storm
Menauhant Beach • January 28 • air 2.2°C, water 1.1°C
A blizzard is coming. A foot of snow and hurricane force winds. All I can think about is when I will get into the ocean. My swim friends have already texted. At midmorning it will be above freezing with light southwest winds.

And it is calm, at Menauhant, over on the Vineyard Sound. The tide is going out, the clouds are low and the sun glows behind them. The water is silver-white. We are quiet, entering the water, as if we don’t want to provoke the weather to change. We spread out, each with our bright cap and buoy. This time, I put my face in right away. Soon enough I can breathe every third stroke, then every fifth. My lips feel numb, and then normal. 

I go home and have stew for lunch. I keep thinking of how I reacted when I heard that other people wanted to swim. My heart started racing. I couldn’t stop smiling. There is something elemental about being in the water. The simplicity of stroking and breathing. The enclosed and cradled feeling. Outside, it starts to snow. 

Hannah Piecuch and Mary Kaminski after a February sunset swim. Photo taken by an enthusiastic bystander.

Making a scene
Chapoquoit Beach • February 26 • air -2.7°C, water 3.8°C
It feels like a spectacle, swimming the hour before sunset, in the dead of winter, in front of a packed beach. People are here to walk their dogs and see the sun go down, but it feels more public than our morning swims.

I am meeting one friend. We can feel the ice through our booties as we walk down to the water’s edge. The water has a steely, closed look under the afternoon waves. The chop is not high, but it is everywhere. The sky is beginning to turn orange. We ask a stranger to tuck in our gloves.

We wade out, shrieking a little at the cold. I have a memory of having my face pressed into a snowbank when I was a girl. The cold feels like that, at first, encasing, crystallising. And then we are off, swimming down Chapoquoit Beach. On my right is the sky, with a low sun flaring. On my left is the dune, glowing yellow. We finish as the sun is sinking past the horizon, leaving an orange afterglow on the clouds.

Waiting for the Osprey
Menauhant Beach • March 18 • air 11°C, water 4.5°C
Thick fog this morning. The sea and sky are grey and white. On the swim back it looks like the sun is going to break through, burning white up above and sparkling mist on the horizon. We swim far apart: one friend deep at the edge of the fog, casting a dark line of wake; another ahead. I can see the shore the whole time. 

There is a feeling of spring. A fresh smell in the air. A change in the birdsong. We’re all expecting the Ospreys, like the return of old friends. These hawks winter in South America. They arrive on Cape Cod in March or April and build nests on platforms in marshes and sometimes—ill-advisedly—on the top of telephone poles. We search the sky for them at the halfway point, looking for their wide wingspan, their signature hover.

The dune at West Falmouth Harbour. Photo by Christopher Piecuch.

We’re all expecting the Ospreys, like the return of old friends. These hawks winter in South America. They arrive on Cape Cod in March or April and build nests on platforms in marshes and sometimes—ill-advisedly—on the top of telephone poles.

Chapoquoit • March 26 • air 7.7°C, water 5.1°C

Today my friends have parked with their tailgates open, facing the sea. I do the same. It is sunny and calm, high tide with waves lapping gently. We swim down through the rocks, all the way to the pier at the mouth of West Falmouth Harbor. At the midway point, we stop and float, chatting as if it is a summer swim. After a while someone says, “I know we feel good, but we’re in 4°C water and we should probably swim back.”

As we return, the water is so clear that I can see every ridge in the sand and the seaweed flowing over the rocks. Today it is brown and yellow—just like the grasses in the marsh—that tawny palette of early spring, before everything goes green.

After the swim, we have a potluck at our tailgates: muffins, quiche, hot toddies made with Lithuanian honey liqueur. We talk, and take pictures, and marvel at the swim. 

Mystery jellies
Chapoquoit Beach • April 24 • air 7.7°C, water 10.3°C
As we walk over the dune there are yellow jellyfish washed up all over the sand, like forgotten candies, melted in the sun. Half sunk. No trailing stingers visible. Somehow diminished. It is high tide and we wade in easily, submerging right away. 

I expect to get stung. I smeared cream all over my face in anticipation and am wearing neoprene on every other inch of my body. But as we start across the empty harbor, I see only two, floating harmlessly. 

It is warm enough to swim through the inner harbor again, something we have not done since fall. The bottom here is monochromatic. The seaweed is coated in silt. But, after months of swimming over empty sand and vacant rocks, I start to count the creatures that I see. One fat starfish. Three horseshoe crabs (two stuck together, amorously), a school of minnows so small I almost miss them. A scatter of mussels, oysters, and scallops.

There is a strong north wind blowing against us as we approach the harbor mouth, even though we are swimming with the falling tide. After we fight our way out, we regroup for a moment, bobbing beside a wooden pier, comparing jellyfish sightings (no one saw very many at all). Then we set out for the last stretch. Now the wind is behind us. The waves are pushing us. The current is fast. 

April is the slowest month on Cape Cod. When temperatures rise in the rest of Massachusetts, a fog rolls in here. While people in Boston get their first sunburns of the year, I find myself bundling in the same layers I needed in the depths of winter. In the water, spring is not so slow. I see it today, in the greening of seaweed as we ride the tide through the rocks. In these jellyfish that I’ve never seen before—and don’t succeed in identifying—blooming out of the marsh. In the call of the Ospreys, back at last. 

Back at the beach, we peel off our wetsuits while still in the water and bask for a while. 

Hannah Piecuch