Surf's Up!

A trained ear can discern surf conditions from the beach parking lot, even when cabanas, clam shacks and other obstructions obscure the ocean.

A gentle rustle means don't even bother getting out of the car, unless all you want to do is loll around on a blanket and read The New Yorker.

Repeated but rapid crashing means waves are coming in too close together or breaking too near the shore, so again you're pretty much limited to swimming or sunbathing.

But when thunderous booms follow prolonged silences, you know big, majestic combers are rolling in – especially if an onshore breeze builds their amplitude.

These were the conditions the other day when four of us approached Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly with boogie boards and kayak.

Though Misquamicut is typically packed throughout the summer with teenagers and families with small children, the lot was all but deserted now that kids are back in school and bathhouses shuttered for the season. As a bonus, we didn't have to pay for parking.

"Sounds like good surf," I announced after parking the car.

Sure enough, 4-6-foot waves curled magnificently toward shore, and then exploded in a wash of white foam.

The first order of business, though, wasn't riding waves, but a spirited ocean swim, so my friends Spyros Barres and Mary Georgetti and I donned wetsuits and plunged into the surf. It took several porpoise-like leaps to punch through breaking waves before we began stroking parallel to shore. After about three-quarters of a mile, riding up and down the swells, we had enough.

Rather than swim back we decided to body surf in and then return to our towels by walking along the beach – a reasonable plan except the spot we chose to land happened to be at a sandbar where waves built up even higher. One caught me just right – or wrong – and next thing I knew I was "Maytagging" – tumbling and flipping out of control.

I had no idea which way was up, so held my breath and waited for the buoyancy of the wetsuit to bring me back to the surface after the wave had rolled by.

"Well, that was fun," I said, after smacking the side of my head with the heel of my hand to knock sand and water from my ears.

I initially decided to confine the next phase of our adventure to boogie boarding, in which my wife, Lisa, joined Spy, Mary and me for a few wild rides.

Spy decided to take out the kayak, a short, plastic sit-on model we've used to surf before in more moderate conditions.

I watched him paddle through the break, spin around, and wait for the next wave. It loomed high over his head, and then propelled him, almost vertically, to shore.

"Do a brace!" I shouted, but it was too late. The bow plunged under, the boat broached, the paddle went flying and Spy disappeared beneath the surface.

In seconds, though, he, the paddle and the kayak all washed up separately on shore.

Ever the game trooper, Spy hopped back aboard and tried again, with much the same results.

After a dozen or so tumbles he handed me the paddle.

"Do you want to try?"

I really didn't, but figured, what the heck, we brought the boat all this way, might as well give it a shot.

Paddling from shore into big, breaking waves takes timing, with the hardest part guessing where the next one is going to crash down. I had made it half way out when a giant wall of water rolled toward me and I realized I had about half a second to decide: Hold up and hope it breaks in front of me, or sprint like crazy and pray it breaks behind me.

What I didn't want was for the monster to smash on top of me.

I sprinted, and just made it over the lip – for a heartbeat I actually was airborne – before slamming down safely on the ocean side of the wave.

Then I spun the boat around and aimed the bow toward shore. On the beach I noticed a small knot of spectators had gathered with cameras. I wondered if they wanted to see me ride a wave in gracefully or wipe out spectacularly.

I let several waves go by before picking the one I would ride in.

It briefly lifted me up and I reached the moment of truth: Paddle hard and try to ride it in, or brace and bail.

In that split second I recalled the vision of Spy tumbling through surf, limbs akimbo.

I pulled up and slid gradually, but safely, behind the passing wave.

The disappointed gawkers put down their cameras.

I took a deep breath and waited for a lull before paddling back to shore.

As if for spite, just as I prepared to disembark a breaking wave crashed over me and flung me into the sand.

I spluttered, snatched the kayak grab loop before it could get away, and staggered back onto terra firma.

"I think I'll stick with the boogie board today," I said.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Who Doesn't Love a Blizzard? (OK, Maybe a Few Softies and Killjoys)

I know there’s a good chance I’ll be eating these words when I’m shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, or huddled with a candle next to the wood stove while melting snow for drinking water after the power has been knocked out for...

Destructive Deer, Bugs, Vines and Snow: It's Always Something

In a "perfect" world – i.e., one in which all living creatures and meteorological phenomena benefited human comfort and bowed to our supremacy – there would be no need for deer fences, bird netting, herbicides,...

Prime Time for Eagle-Watching by Kayak on the Connecticut River

While kayaking just north of Lyme’s Hamburg Cove on the Connecticut River the other day, Robin Francis, Phil Warner and I watched a wildlife drama unfolding above us.

In Waning Winter, An 'Above Par' Snow-Kayaking Adventure

With snow cover stubbornly lingering and whitewater kayaking season still more than a month away, what’s an impatient paddler to do? Easy: Snow-kayaking.

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...