A Chat with Hawaiian Fire Surf School's John Pregil

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A Chat with Hawaiian Fire Surf School's John Pregil

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Jul 30, 2012

I was sitting on Anini Beach on Kauai once with two friends talking about words and how they create a world of images and emotions when a man walked by. His hair hung in spaghetti strands to his aging shoulders. I think he had a free-ranging beard to go with it. I remember he wore faded boardshorts with a ragged hem and an equally worn, zip-up sweatshirt liberally dusted in Kauai red dirt.

A certain stereotype came to mind, I admit, and I immediately assumed a life and a lifestyle for this man.

We live in a world of symbols. A certain logo tells us one thing, another tells us something else. Clothes. Cars. Hair styles. In a synapse’s moment, our minds categorize the vast sensory input we receive every second in order to read the world. That’s a good thing when I am driving my car, say.

Back on the beach, as the setting sun sent long shadows from the ironwood trees across the ocean’s calm surface, a ringing cell phone caught my attention, and I looked up to see the bedraggled man reach in his sweatshirt pocket for the latest, all-the-rage mobile phone. And, that, too, sent a storm of thoughts whirling through my mind.

We eventually struck up a conversation with the man I’d assumed to be a bum. It’s true he was planning to sleep on the beach, but he owned five acres of land mauka. He’d also taught psychology at an Ivy League school. And I reached up with me hand to close my mouth.

In Hawaii, I’ve discovered you cannot judge a book by its cover. That cliché reminds me to leave my assumptions and judgments at the airport. Not everyone is who they appear to be. Or, as I like to say, in Hawaii, everyone has multiple lives.

Maybe it’s the nature of the place. The Hawaiian concept of kino lau, according to the book Nana I Ke Kumu, explains the many bodily forms taken by aumakua, ancestral gods. Plant. Animal. Mineral. The possibilities were endless, and constantly shifting.

I like to think of kino lau as a lesson in flexibility for today’s ever-changing world. Hawaii encourages creativity, resourcefulness and re-invention.

I’ve met Silicon Valley computer scientists, corporate lawyers, Ivy League professors and foreign correspondents who have traded one life and are growing tropical fruit, running a natural foods store, renting “island cars” and living in a tent in nature.

And, now, I’ve met a fireman who runs a surf school when he isn’t fighting fires. Make no mistake about it. John Pregil is no bum.

Meet John Pregil, co-owner of Hawaiian Fire Surf School. He’s an interesting blend of laid-back and charge ‘em and a reminder that not all surfers are slackers. And firefighters are not just brawn.

John and I met over the Internet via email. I sipped a cuppa Hawaiian Vanilla black tea. And he? Well, he might have been enjoying a cold one after a major surf session off Magic Island. Read on. You’ll see what I mean.

Let’s start with the obvious. How the heck did a couple of firefighters wind up with a surf school? Were you daydreaming on your board as you waited for the next wave? Were you chit-chatting around the fire station over dinner? And what were those early days like?

We were sitting at the station one day back in 1999, thinking about surfing and how it should be about safety, customer service and the Hawaiian experience.  Kevin Miller (my business partner) and I (we actually had a 3rd partner who left quite a number of years ago) did some primary research and laid out a pretty extensive business plan. We knew that the waves out at the former Naval Air Station at Barber's Point would be perfect for instruction so we developed a "tour" concept utilizing all the safety and emergency training we had as firefighters. The early days were tough. We had goodwill from being firefighters, but getting our name out in Waikiki and having activity companies give us a try wasn't easy. We pounded the pavement every day off from the fire station, marketing our concept while at the same time actually running our tour. We performed every function in the early days that we now have staff doing today. Starting a business from scratch while living at the station 10 days a month AND having a young family was quite stressful on my personal, business and family life. But somehow we pushed on and never lost sight of what we wanted to do with Hawaiian Fire.

Where were you born and raised?

Born in Honolulu, raised in Kalihi Valley, currently reside in Kaneohe.

What’s your background as a surfer? Did you ever compete? Want to? Have no desire?

I’m pure amateur...still learning :) I’ve only competed in firefighter surfing events. In order to be successful in surfing competition, one needs to be very aggressive. I've always been very laid back in the water so I wouldn't do too well! It's kinda funny because I grew up playing conventional sports and actually played college football which requires pure aggression! I think the ocean makes me a peaceful person :)

How old were you when you learned to surf?  And how did you learn to surf? Sink-or-swim? Or did someone take you under their wing?

I learned to surf in the 6th grade, tagging along with a buddy's dad who would come home from the graveyard shift at Pearl Harbor and take us to Waikiki every day during the summer. They had a beat up board that I borrowed, and it was definitely sink-or-swim! I hit the reef a lot that first summer. Back in the 70's surfers still had a reputation of being bums and my dad wasn't too thrilled that I was interested in the sport! Luckily, my friend's dad was my dad's buddy so that made it easier to go!

What do you consider your home break?

Bomburas, off the tip of Magic Island @ Ala Moana.  It’s fickle, not too reefy, and close to the rocks, which keeps it uncrowded. Just how I like it.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to being a fire-fighting surf instructor? I mean, there are the obvious ones for your students—that you are trained in emergency first response and all. But I mean what are the advantages/disadvantages for you, personally?

The emergency training is very important. We’ve taught well over 50,000 people how to surf, and we've had unfortunate injuries that needed attention. But aside from that, there’s a general willingness to help people that is strongly instilled in firefighters. The perfect combo is a firefighter who grew up surfing and has a friendly disposition. And lucky for us, Honolulu Fire Department has a seemingly unlimited supply! Personally, the only disadvantage sometimes pertains to the work schedule and the unpredictable nature of the job. Having a guy come down to the beach to teach surfing after a long night of battling a brushfire is a drag, and it can make scheduling challenging at times.

Did you ever dream you’d be a business owner? And of a surf school, at that? What’s surprised you the most teaching surfing and owning your own surf school?

I actually earned an MBA in California before I got into the firehouse, so with my entrepreneurial spirit and biz theory, I just needed to find that "thing" I could focus on. Thank God surfing entered the picture! And partnering up with Kevin has been such a blessing because we both bring different skillsets to the business. Packaging the attributes of the Fire service with surfing happened to work very well! The act of teaching surfing is a very rewarding experience in that you are imparting a lifetime memory full of Hawaiian fun! Running a surf school with its labor requirements, insurance requirements, inventory ordering, vehicle maintenance, contractual issues, heavy customer service and transportation challenges is all business! But I still feel very blessed that I do the business that I do because when it's all said and done, we get to surf!  

What three pieces of advice would you give aspiring surf students?

Rest up the night before, eat a light but nutritious breakfast and listen to your instructor :)

Will you describe your perfect wave?

That means different things to me. A crumbly two-foot day when I'm out with the kids is perfect.  Or it can be a four- to six-foot lined up Bomburas or a sandbar-barrelling beachbreak. I guess the perfect wave is the one that lets me surf my best...whatever that is. And after almost 40 years on a board, it's all good :)

Have you picked up the paddle? That is, are you enjoying the burgeoning sport of stand-up paddling? Or, maybe as a fire fighter and business owner, you simply have no time to get in the water these days?

I have not! And you nailed it, I have no time! I do have about 2.5 years before I can retire from HFD so I'll probably start my SUP "career" then.

Lastly, and some might say most importantly, where do you go for grinds after an epic surf session?

Oh boy that's changed throughout the years. In the early days, any place with a big, cheap plate lunch would do! As I got older, I needed to be a little smarter with my food choices in order to function at the highest level I could. It's not real glamorous, but I usually head on home for food after a session. Once in a while, though, the need to wash down that saltwater with a cold beer and some pupus at the Mai Tai Bar at Ala Moana Center does the trick!


Sandra Foyt | Jul 30, 2012 05:38 PM

Great lessons in this article - I'm sharing this with my daughter.

Susan | Jul 31, 2012 04:08 AM

'70s not 70's :-)

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