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

Mount McKinley Renamed Denali: Better Than Mount Reagan

Three cheers for the Obama Administration’s decision this week to officially restore the name of North America’s tallest mountain to Denali, which is what early inhabitants called the 20,310-foot peak in the Alaska Range.

The Endless Summer: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Remember when you were a kid how your mom wouldn’t let you have ice cream every day even though nothing in the world tasted better on a hot day than a double scoop of butter crunch?

My Favorite Kayak Race: The T.I.A.G.A.T.I.N.M.R. In Rangeley, Maine

Paddling like the dickens last Sunday on Maine’s Rangeley Lake, we competitors had two choices: steer clockwise or counter-clockwise around Maneskootuk Island.

Selden Island: Once A Bustling Quarry, Now A Quiet Haven

More than 40 years ago, Dave Wordell of Salem took his then-10-year-old son, Dave Junior, on a boat ride up Selden Creek, a narrow, secluded tributary of the Connecticut River in Lyme.

Life As A Lumbersexual

I can never remember – do you apply facial cleanser before or after the exfoliating scrub, and then finish up with healing balm and moisturizer, or should you start with the scrub, work your way through the cleanser and then top...

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.

Training For Mystic Sharkfest: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Swimmer

Among the many benefits of active recreation is hanging out with friends – which of course you can do at a bar, pizza parlor or coffee shop, but since most of my pals prefer to spend their leisure time on the trail or water, we...

Stung By Wasps AND Suffering From Lyme Disease: I Can't Catch A Break

You know that funny, itchy feeling when something is crawling around or worse, lodged where it doesn’t belong?

Which Is Worse: Getting Devoured By A Grizzly Bear Or A Great White Shark?

During years of roaming hither and yon on land and sea, I’ve been chased by a grizzly bear, nearly trampled by stampeding yaks, charged by a bull, attacked by swarms of hornets and almost struck by a copperhead – but what...

A Whitewater Dream Taking Shape in Willimantic

Asked to name the best whitewater kayaking and canoeing stretches in Connecticut, most paddlers would single out a gnarly, 2.6-mile section of Class IV rapids on the Housatonic River from Bulls Bridge Dam to Gaylordville, or Diana's Pool...