I certainly can't speak for all surfers, but it seems to me that catching your first wave is a lot like a first kiss. Sure, we're all a little clumsy in the early going, but the sheer joy of that first time is awfully hard to forget.
Referring to myself as a surfer is, admittedly, a little ridiculous. While I've ridden more waves now than I can remember, I can still count on one hand the number of times I've actually been out surfing, and I am without any doubt a wobbly kneed beginner. But thanks to a recent lesson with the folks at the Hawaiian Fire surf school, an Oahu-based company where just about all of the instructors are also firemen, I am hopelessly hooked.
Location, location, location
People have been surfing waves off Waikiki for centuries, and thanks to the generally gentle breaks at several locations along the world-famous shoreline, it's also an extremely popular place to learn. Surf shacks offering rentals and lessons literally line sections of the beach at Waikiki, and the seemingly omnipresent, undulating swarm of bodies on boards begins to build at dawn and dominates popular surf spots with names like "Queens," "Rock Piles" and "Graveyards" until dark.
"Waikiki can be a battleground, especially in the summertime, when there are tons of people in town," said John Pregil, co-owner of Hawaiian Fire. "And it can be dangerous. I know a lot of people who got hurt in Waikiki, even local friends of mine whose kids were run over by a surfboard or worse."
A 21-year veteran of the Honolulu City Fire Department, Pregil started Hawaiian Fire with his partner, Kevin Miller, in 1999 as a way to make extra money during his ample time off each month. From day one, both men hoped to substantially improve on the surf lessons offered in Waikiki.
"We thought we could do a better job on the customer service side," Pregil said. "And we wanted to provide a safe environment for people to learn how to surf, utilizing our training as firemen."
Deciding on a suitable location away from the Waikiki crowds was an early priority; Barber's Point, a popular beach about an hour's drive west of Waikiki, had everything a surf school could ask for.
"When we went down there for the first time, our jaws just hit the sand because it was so perfect," Pregil said. "There's always something to ride, there's rest room facilities very close to the beach. ... There are no nasty coral heads sticking out of the water. Once we started taking people down there, we were like, 'There's no way we are taking them anywhere else.' Plus, it's secluded. We can keep a good eye on our students, and we don't have to worry about other people running our guys over with canoes or surfboards or other water toys."
Safety is bliss
Face down on a bright red, 11-foot surfboard, I'm paddling furiously in the sand, digging a rapidly growing pair of holes in the beach before jumping to my feet and assuming what I hope is a reasonably cool-looking surfing stance.
There are five of us, all clad in blue rash guards and doing our best to bend properly at the knees. We've reached the final few moments of 45 minutes' worth of beachfront instruction, and I'm feeling surprisingly confident, fueled in part by the knowledge that should I later face-plant on the end of my board, there will be no fewer than three firemen in the water to drag me back to shore.
"Safety is the No. 1 priority for us," Pregil insisted. "We all want to have fun, we all want everybody to get up and riding and surfing, but most importantly we want to keep everyone safe."
As you might expect, the company's 20-plus instructors hold a range of safety and life preservation certifications -- CPR, Open Water Rescue and First Responder -- not to mention the high level of physical conditioning required for firefighters. That focus on safety has made Hawaiian Fire incredibly popular with a wide variety of clients, including families with small children, honeymooners and all sorts of older adventure-seekers.
"We've taken people in their 80s surfing," Pregil said. "We've really had a lot of people that thought they might be a little too old to take a surfing lesson that got brave and gave it a shot just because they were coming with firefighters and they knew we'd take good care of them."
Those impressive safety credentials are, however, apparently only part of the company's appeal.
"We do still get the occasional group of girls who really want to meet firemen," Pregil admitted.
Today, surfing is immensely popular around the globe, but the sport was born in the Islands as a passionate pursuit of ancient Hawaii's ruling and working classes. In fact, accounts written by European explorers describe entire villages that would empty on days when the waves were good.
"Surfing's a significant part of Hawaii's history and culture, so for us it's important that we give our customers the opportunity to take a lesson and experience that firsthand," said Shauna Hyswick, Apple Vacations' Hawaii product development manager.
Not surprisingly, Pregil is quick to encourage all comers to give surfing a shot.
"Surfing is Hawaii's gift to the sporting world, and it's something that I feel everyone should try at least once, especially if you're in Hawaii," he said. "It's so unique in how it's intertwined with the Hawaiian culture. Surfing is such a Hawaiian thing to do that it would be a shame if you didn't give it a try while you're here."
Commissionable at 10% to agents, Hawaiian Fire group lessons, with no more than three students per instructor, are priced at $109 for adults and $99 for kids ages 11 to 17. Private lessons for children 5 to 10 are $139. Transportation from Waikiki to the Hawaiian Fire surf school at Barber's Point is included in rates.