Kevin McCabe is a longtime Outer Banks local who’s established himself as the quintessential renaissance man. In view of the tallest brick lighthouse on the Atlantic, writer Chris Bickford grabbed a beer to hear Kevin’s story and the bold path that landed him in this beautiful place.
If you think you discovered some exotic destination back in the day before it got overrun, chances are Kevin McCabe was there before you. From Jamaica to Panama, Costa Rica to Mexico, and all around Hawaii, Kevin experienced it all before the modern onslaught of adventure travelers came with their GoPro’s and Yankee dollars. Whether overland in a four-wheel drive or from the deck of a long-distance sailing vessel, he’s seen more empty waves and two-palapa points than most of us could dream about.
The gang from left to right, Dewey Dewhirst, Jimmy Scully, Kevin McCabe, and John Leutgens, 1970, Onslow Beach, NC. A '67 Jeep Wagoneer and a Zodiac board.
To the list of those exotic locales, let’s add one more: Buxton, North Carolina. In 1971, at the age of 15, Kevin rode north from his home in Topsail Beach in search of better waves. And he found them at Buxton’s Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, now known by all as one of the best surf spots on the East Coast. Kevin was part of a small cadre of pioneers who settled on this remote Atlantic outpost for the sole purpose of surfing the spitting barrels produced by the Cape’s proximity to the continental shelf.
“I’ve always fished and surfed, so when I saw this place I was like, this is it. I spent the next couple of summers here living in the campground, and then, literally, the night of my high school graduation, I came up here, and that was it. I’ve been here ever since.”
He hastens to add, however, that he had no permanent residence for many years, and spent his winters in Mexico; mostly, he says, around Puerto Escondido, now celebrated as one of the best big-wave spots in the world.
“Back in the day -- this was like, ’73, ’74, -- there may have been twenty people out in the water at Puerto. Now there’s like 400. It was just a little sleepy fishing town when we were there, but even then you could tell it was about to blow up.”
Kevin was in Beaufort, NC some years later, eating lunch, when he caught sight of a nineteenth-century-style three-masted schooner docked in the boatyard. The crew were readying it for a delivery to Hawaii and needed an extra hand, so Kevin jumped aboard. The ensuing journey included clandestine transactions between the captain and various bootleggers in Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua, as well as a harrowing encounter with a rogue hurricane that had tracked south after ravaging the coast of Acapulco. “89 knot winds, 30 foot broken seas. We sailed that thing right through it all night long; it was wicked.”
In order to repair the boat, the crew sailed up the coast, stopping at various ports to obtain the parts they needed. “I saw the whole coast of Central America, from Costa Rica to Acapulco. It was incredible.”
What comes across most in Kevin’s stories is his talent for recognizing and seizing opportunity, and for making friends in just about any situation. He’s channeled those talents into a business with his wife Kim, a gifted and wildly imaginative pen-and-ink artist. Together they have produced cookbooks, children’s books, tour maps, and dozens of other products they sell in local shops and at art shows on Hatteras Island.
Now in his sixties, Kevin still surfs the Lighthouse regularly. “I can count on one hand the number of swells I’ve missed since I’ve lived here,” he proudly remarks. While the rest of his peers stand on the dune making excuses about the cold or the wind, Kevin lords the peak with guys a quarter his age. When not surfing, he’s out fishing, or tending the broccoli in the garden, or making frames for his wife’s artwork.
“I just like to play”, he says. And he’s made a life out of it. Some guys just got it figured out.