Hanging Ten with Oahu’s Fire Fighters

By Chris McBeath

There were 15 of us, all lined up like beached whales flailing our arms in the air, kicking our feet into the soft Hawaiin sand, and trying to be very attentive. But that was easier said than done. The distractions were intoxicating – sun, surf, and bronzed cut bodies of firemen who looked as if they had stepped out of one of those calendars to cater to our every need. And, for the next two hours, they did.

These fire fighters aren’t just life savers in the event of a disaster – they’re also among the best surf instructors on Oahu. Hawaiian Fire is their name; and on this occasion, teaching us the basics of surfing was their game.

Hawaiian Fire is the brainchild of business partners, Kevin Miller and Jon Pregil, both of whom work for the Honolulu Fire Department, and share a passionate love for the ocean. “Waikiki may be the traditional home of surf instruction, but its crowded waves can be a nightmare for the beginner” says Miller. “We wanted to offer a gentler and safer alternative”.

As might be expected, the school operates with their profession’s near-fanatical respect for safety so that even if you can barely swim, this is the one place where you could take to the water with ease.

Newcomers to the sport may be surprised to learn surfing was once a sacred part of life in Hawaii. “There was a time when surfing had deep and ritualistic significance in Hawaiian culture,” explains Thomas K Stone, a cultural practitioner and educator at Kapiolani Community College. “It began with the selection of the tree from which the board or canoe would be carved, and progressed to celebrated surfing contests for the ali’i (chiefs). The kahuna (wise elder) intoned special chants to bless new boards, swell the surf and give courage to those who challenged the rolling waves. Places are even named because of legendary surfing incidents”. Thomas continues, “Also, in ancient times, Hawaiian society was so stratified that the ali’i and commoners had to surf separate reefs and beaches and in different styles. Commoners generally rode waves on paipo (prone) and alaia (stand up) boards as long as 12 feet, while the ali’i rode waves on olo boards and canoes that were as long as 24 feet”.

The arrival of Captain James Cook, however, was the beginning of the end of this traditional culture. While Christian missionaries imposed their morality on the islands’ sensual way of life, disease ravaged the Hawaiian population, and by the start of the 20th century, surfing had all but disappeared. A surfing renaissance took hold in the early thirties, but by then any connection to the sport’s sacred elements had long been forgotten.

From my vantage point, face down in the sand, however, my neophyte connection with my sand-locked, soft foam board was in practicing balance points, paddle technique, and pop-ups. “The rule of thumb for success is that if you can lie face down on the floor and get to your feet in less than five seconds, you can stand in one lesson”, Miller quips.

Other than our group of wannabes, there was nobody sharing the off-the-beaten-path beach (actually an abandoned military base) where, because a barrier reef lies a mile off shore, the knee-to-chest high waves undulated shoreward with their invitation to put theory into practice.

Trying to catch a wave can be as frustrating as it is exhilarating but the instructors scoot around the water directing traffic like sea-faring cowboys. And with an instructor-student ratio that is no more than one to three, there’s no shortage of push-offs, directions and encouragement. The instructors are also expert at identifying ‘your’ wave and giving you a powerful push into its crest to make up for your feeble paddling. Within seconds, you hear their yells of ‘PADDLE’ , turn to ‘STAND’. If you stay up, the thrust of the board rushes you to shore. If enthusiasm isn’t quite matched with technique, then saltwater fills your sinuses. Either way, it’s not long before everyone is hooting and hollering, and hanging ten.

“At 64 years of age, the thought of being able to stand up on a surfboard never entered by head”, remarks class member Bill Vanderford, who ended up giving the teenage participants a run for their money. “On the first run, I surfed to the beach on my knees”, he laughs, “but after that, I made it up several times. I can’t applaud my style, but I caught the wave. And in Hawaii, can it really get much better than that?”


The Hawaiian fire fighters no longer offer surf lessons in Oahu. There are however several other fine establishments that continue to offer lessons to beginners.