ORLEANS — Fifty paces. That’s all it takes — on a normal day — to cross the boardwalk over the dunes to Nauset Beach. But with Hurricane Sandy bearing down, kicking up sand at a blinding, pelting speed, those 50 paces from the parking lot became a gantlet.
The grains lashed uncovered skin like pinpricks, filled pockets, forced all but the hardiest to turn back. A few squinted, covered their heads, or ran backward, pinballing against the railing and other adventurers, determined to reach the beach. And then down a set of steps: shelter from the sand whipping up above on the boardwalk, and a dramatic, close-up view of whitecaps crashing on the beach. A victory howl, a sigh of relief.
“I’m about to go get the surfboard,” joked Chris Karras, 20, a Harwich technical student with the day off, and one of many on the Cape dashing about in the last hours of daylight before Sandy’s late-night landfall, soaking up — soaking in — the mist, the gale-force winds, and the dramatic waves that preceded it.
The Sullivan family made it only a few paces down the boardwalk before turning back, cheeks red, eyebrows embedded with sand. “That was terrible!” 10-year-old Emma said, as the family took shelter on the far side of their minivan. “I still can’t see anything.”
“Oh, I think we need a shower,” said her mother, Amy, a school nurse.
But missing Nauset was only a minor loss. Already, they had been to the lookout in Chatham above Lighthouse Beach and to that town’s fish pier, where they saw waves wash onto the parking lot.
“And we saw a seal,” Amy Sullivan said, as daughters Abby, 12, and Hannah, 5, nodded enthusiastically. “Bobbing up and down. Looked like he was having fun.”
Across the Cape, most hunkered down, but the roads were hardly empty, at least by daylight. Supermarkets, gas stations, and scattered restaurants stayed open. And the curious — especially those who had already hauled in their lawn furniture, checked their flashlight batteries, and stocked up on groceries — flocked to beaches and piers to watch sea and sky.
They navigated around fallen branches, utility crews, and the occasional road flooded by tides, the absence of heavy rain making the day more inviting.
In the early evening, Dave Dwyer and his dad, Dennis, stopped off at the Stop & Shop on the Eastham-Orleans line, the wind fierce enough to force slightly opened car doors out wide or to slam them shut. The parking lot was mostly empty, the store fully staffed but bereft of customers. But the Dwyers weren’t out for emergency provisions. They were buying Halloween candy.
“You know, going out like you’re not supposed to,” said Dave, 33, shrugging as he ticked off the list of beaches they had visited. A carpenter, he had worked the weekend boarding up residences, so this was a day to tour the area and admire the waves.
Earlier, during the midday high tide, Kevin Biernacki walked along Sea Gull Road in West Yarmouth and marveled at Lewis Pond — a salt marsh that most days shows more tall grass than water. Not Monday, when it looked like an extension of the sea, roiled by Sandy.
“We’ve been here seven years. This is the most amazing thing we’ve seen yet,” said Biernacki, 48, home for the day from his job as environmental and safety director for a firm in Boston.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s normally some water in that, but nothing like this at all,” he said, as the saltwater spilled onto the pavement. “This is like the ocean.”
Down the road at south-facing Lewis Bay, home builder Michael Cimmino pulled his SUV into the municipal parking lot and pointed his smart phone at the waves churning beyond Englewood Beach, lapping at a small pier. Impressive, but hardly — and thankfully — a once-a-century sight, given that the wind was coming from the northeast.
“I think we’re going to have some serious winds and high water,” Cimmino said, “but it would’ve been a lot worse with a southerly wind.”
Down around the elbow of the Cape, facing the open ocean, those winds hit more directly, and the parking lot near the Coast Guard Station overlooking Lighthouse Beach was packed with gawkers, traffic backed up along Main Street as drivers waited to nose into one of the coveted three dozen spots.
As others pulled jackets tight or crouched against the wind, amateur meteorologist Josh Smick, 31, held his anemometer aloft, exposed to the elements in a short-sleeved San Francisco Giants jersey. Smick, who caught the weather bug at 10 during Hurricane Bob while staying at his family’s home in Chatham, has tried to document every major meteorological event since.
His jersey whipping and billowing like a tall-ship mast, Smick shouted out a midafternoon reading: a one-minute average of 39 miles per hour, with gusts above 50 — “which is literally taking the air out of my nose,” Smick said. “And we’re not even close to the worst yet.”
At the end of the lot, David Eldredge was boarding up the wood-shingled clubhouse of the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club, hauling out plywood he had not needed since 2010’s Hurricane Earl. “Earl Go Home,” one of the boards said, and on top of that, “Non Event,” after Earl fizzled out.
It was still just a waiting game, the worst not expected until late. But something seemed ominous. On the horizon, the barrier known as South Beach — itself created when a fierce winter nor’easter broke through in 1987 and ripped a hole through what had been North Beach — appeared at risk of rupture. And already the wind was rearranging the dunes and burying the club’s s’mores fire pit under two feet of sand.
So Eldredge crossed out the “Non Event” that had crossed out the Earl warning. Sandy, he thought, could be big.