When Mike Quinn was 14 years old, he convinced his mom to let him hitch-hike to Cape Hatteras, NC from Chesapeake, VA, to surf. He came back unharmed and brimming with stoke a week later, so for the next couple of years, it became a ritual. She would drop him off at the Centerfield Turnpike Junction -- in those days little more than a fork in the road through remote corn country -- and he would thumb the remaining 160 miles along two-lane roads to the Cape Hatteras Campground, where he would pitch his tent and surf the Lighthouse until he ran out of money, energy, or waves.
"You let your kid do something like that these days, they'd have you arrested!" he quips after relating this little tale to me outside the Quinn compound, a faded red beach-box in Kill Devil Hills that has been a crash pad for various members of the Quinn family since the brothers built it themselves in 1975.
Once Quinn had a car of his own he burned up thousands of miles chasing waves, and in his glory years he lorded the peaks from Avalon to Lighthouse, taking away the 1982 Easterns title in the men's division. Even today he's a legend among those who remember, and among those who've inspected the surviving evidence. "I've seen footage of him surfing the jetty back in the '70's," says photographer Daniel Pullen. "He was insanely good."
Cut to 2015, and the Quinn to watch in the water is Mike's son Dana, who surfs with an explosive power that would have floored those twin-fin heroes of the Super-8 film era. Rocketing airs, vicious cutbacks, big spray, critical barrel drops...Dana has earned himself a reputation as one of the top surfers on the Outer Banks today -- as well as one of the most well-liked. With a what's-up and a fist-bump for everyone in the line-up, Dana paddles out mellow, charges hard, and laughs constantly. Even in crappy conditions he wears a shit-eating grin; even after he gets worked inside a massive closeout, he comes up cracking up.
"I can't stop smiling," he rues while I snap a few photos at the house, trying to get his Zoolander on. But the truth is, he can't stop smiling. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever seen Dana Quinn not smiling.
Dana's surfing style is pure millennial -- airs and 360's, speed and spray -- but his outlook and ambitions are pure old-school OBX. Meaning, he's got a day job. He works construction. Drinks beer. Tends bar. Lives cheap. Takes trips in the off-season. He's got sponsors -- Bob Hovey of Duck Village Outfitters has recently signed him to his dream team, and Mike Rowe of Hooked Surfboards has been a long-time patron -- but he's never courted the big names, never concerned himself too much with the contest scene. Never held any huge dreams about"making it" as a pro surfer.
"I figured that shit out a long time ago", Dana says. "Not for me."
Every crew in every surf town in every state and country has a guy like Dana. A guy that just plain loves to surf. A guy who totally shreds but doesn't give a rat's ass for making the big-time. A guy who will paddle out no matter how big or how cold or how messy it is, not because it's in his contract, but because it's in his blood. A guy people notice in the water, trading waves with the pros and semi-pros; who on any given day might dominate the pack; but who packs it in half an hour before his shift starts, who heads back to the construction site once the swell has passed. Surfline's Matt Pruett nailed the essence of Dana in a recent byline: "Nobody better represents the gritty, blue-collar Dare County surfer lifestyle." There is a little bit of Dana in every guy and girl on this beach who puts in their time punching the clock, who checks the surf cams on their phones while waiting on the entrées for table five. A little bit in every guy and girl who paddles out purely out of passion for the sport, the art, the camaraderie, and the inimitable feeling that a good day in the water bestows. Dana just surfs better than the rest of us.
Growing up a second-generation surfer in Kill Devil Hills, Dana had it a little easier than his hitch-hiking dad. Not only was he a ten-minute walk from Avalon pier and the numerous breaks around town, but every December the family would pack up for a month-long trip to Costa Rica. "It was great," Dana smiles. "When I was a kid, Dad used to take me surfing all over the world".
"Yeah, now he says all I ever do is take him to work" Mike quips.
Or so goes the family joke. The Quinns have made their living in the construction business for decades. Quinn Brothers Construction -- a likely cover name for an Irish mob operation if ever there was one -- has kept the Quinns, men and boys, laying posts, framing houses, and doing custom build-outs for over 30 years. Dana grew up learning the ropes and slopes from his dad and uncle, and, like so many Outer Bankers, he has kept himself in groceries and beer money, on and off over the years, by banging nails. It's good to have a trade. But three days out from the swell, he's already putting in his request for time off. Priorities.
Dana's been out of the water lately, and off the job site, owing to a nasty ankle injury that is taking a long time to repair. But that hasn't slowed him down much. He's putting his carpentry skills to work on his latest passion project: outfitting his new van. A slate-gray 2002 GMC Safari he picked up on Craigslist for a couple grand. Right now he's finishing up a platform for his bed, with space underneath for boards, tools, spare tires..."Next week I'm getting a four-wheel-drive conversion," he says. "It's gonna be sick..."
He's got no immediate plans for a major surf odyssey in the van, but it's clear the gears are turning in his mind as we discuss the relative safety concerns of various countries south of the border. "Mexico can be sketchy. Did you hear about those Australian guys? But the further south you go, the more mellow it gets. Then you just have to make it through Guatemala and Honduras in one piece and you're golden...El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama...then it gets sketchy again. Colombia can be pretty gnarly from what I've heard. Peru's cool, Ecuador's got some good spots...but once you get to Chile..." he looks off, smiles, recounts the highlights of a particularly good surf trip he took along the Chilean coast.
"Sick. Yeah, I could spend a lot more time down there..."
Until then, there's the coming winter to think about. Once the ankle heals and the north swells start to pump, that van will still be heading south -- to the old Quinn family stomping ground, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.