Hawaii 911

Who Better Than Firefighter Surf Gods to Initiate Novice Riders?

Dec 11, 2003
Outside Magazine

Staying ahead of the curl    Photo: Corbis

Neophyte surfers cowed by the Pacific's powerful crush will find comfort in the collective résumé of the 25 teachers at Oahu's Hawaiian Fire Surf School: They're Honolulu firefighters certified in every conceivable lifesaving skill—from emergency medical treatment to open-water rescue. More important, they're born-on-boards guys. They surf almost as frequently as they eat—catching waves before and after work and spending their days off teaching hodads like me. That the trio who coached me last fall were short on attitude, long on skills, and just happened to be built like surf-mag cover gods was a bonus, one certainly not lost on the female contingent of our six-member student body.

Firefighter John Pregil, 40, started Hawaiian Fire Surf School in 2000 with Garrett Vallez and Kevin Miller and two goals: to teach surfing with "aloha spirit" and to do it in an environment of safety. Today, their burgeoning practice has a full lineup of men and women instructors and draws clients from Waikiki hotels; the school runs a free van service out to the near-secret beach where they teach.

That would be Barbers Point, a two-mile strand of southwest-facing sugary-white sand about 25 miles west of Waikiki in Kalaeloa, on the site of the recently decommissioned Barbers Point Naval Air Station. Locals know it, but most surfers prefer bigger quarry than these undaunting one- to two-footers (albeit with nice shape and just enough power to drive a long ride in shallow, 80-degree water). The same conditions make it a great choice for bodysurfers and surf kayakers, and its length and seclusion mean it's always uncrowded. As a bonus, the point is flanked by Kalaeloa Beach Park, a 13-site campground with picnic tables, showers, and barbecue pits shaded by ironwood trees. Though camping is allowed only on weekends, the area is open for day use during the week.

"The only way you can screw up is by not having fun," Ken Waters said as he wrapped up our ground-school session. Waters and cohorts Glenn Parker and Mike Jones had given us a thorough briefing on how and when to spring to our feet on superbuoyant foam-padded boards. But to their credit, the teachers didn't want us bogging down with too much technique. They wanted us to surf.

I had plenty of opportunities for long, smooth rides to shore. I emphasize: plenty of opportunities. I mainly specialized in "pearling" (diving off the surfboard for nonexistent underwater treasures when the nose gets caught in a wave). But, heck, I did get a few rides in and earned the nickname "Big Wave Bob" for my fussiness in wave selection. I also had time to watch the others founder and to surf-gab with my teachers: "You guys are all great surfers. Don't you get bored with this?"

"Are you kidding?" Parker answered me. "You're our daily entertainment! And if you get good, we get to surf. Really, we just love to get people stoked. If we've accomplished that, then we've had a great day."

Lodging: The Department of Parks and Recreation (808-523-4525, www.co.honolulu.hi.us/parks) requires a free permit to camp at Kalaeloa Beach Park (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday only).
Sports: Catch the best beginner surf between April and October. Hawaiian Fire Surf School (888-955-7873, www.hawaiianfire.com) charges $79 for a half-day group lesson, $97 for a full day, including equipment, lunch (full day only), and transportation from Waikiki. To rent a board ($20 a day), try Blue Planet (808-922-5444, www.blueplanetsurf.com). The island's best surf-kayak shop is Go Bananas Kayaks ($30 per day for a single, $43 for a tandem; 808-737-9514, www.gobananaskayaks.com).

Filed To: Surfing, Hawaii

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