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.