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Saltwater Portrait

Holly Ann Firuta: Guided by a life of water

Charted a career in aquatic therapy and boating
December 11, 2018

Holly Ann Firuta has moxie.

It's a force that has propelled her through life when she knew at age 14 that she wanted to pursue a career in physical therapy, and continued later as she chased her dream of becoming a charter boat captain.

With a combination of Italian, from her mother's side, and Polish, from her father, Firuta exudes energy, determination and a can-do attitude. She gives her father, Ed Firuta, credit for instilling in her an unstoppable work ethic. Whether it was selling strawberries or lemonade as a kid from the front stoop of her Bucks County home, she said, he supported whatever she did and told her to always follow her dream.

“He left me with a legacy of life is what you put into it,” Firuta said.

When she was 14, she said, her father was the first to see her interest in physical therapy, and he signed her up for a candy striper gig at a hospital miles away from their home. For two years, he drove her to Nazareth Hospital where she wheeled patients from their hospital rooms to physical therapy and the hospital's Hubbard Tank – a predecessor of a therapy pool – planting the seeds for her future career.

“That was one of my first impressions of physical therapy and aquatic therapy,” she said.

When she turned 16, he handed her the car keys and told her she knew what to do. “I couldn't believe it,” she said. “I had to drive over a six-lane highway to get there. I was scared to death.”

But the experience was invaluable.

After graduating from William Tennet High School in Warminster, Pa., she applied to and was accepted by Ithaca College, at the time one of the best physical therapy schools in the country. “The school was perfect for me,” she said.

During her admission interview, Firuta said, her years of hands-on experience as a candy striper paid off. “They could see that I was serious about physical therapy,” she said.

Perched above the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, Ithaca College's proximity to the New York Finger Lakes was also a draw. Firuta said she has always been drawn to water, starting young when she went on fishing trips with her father. As a college freshman, she said, her attraction to water led to a spot on the school's crew team. A strong, compact body probably helped, too. “I never rowed before, but I went from zero knowledge to a rower,” she said.

Firuta graduated from Ithaca College in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in physical therapy, and got a job right away with Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. She also kept rowing with the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club. “That was convenient because it was right downtown,” she said.

At 22, she rowed with three others in what is called a four – each rower uses one oar – and they competed in an annual rowing event held in Camden, N.J. “It was exciting being part of that, and fun training and preparing for competition,” she said.

She rowed with the group for six years, and at the same time built up her own physical therapy business. Firuta went about it with the same gusto that earned her success in competitive rowing.

When she found a building in West Philly that had a pool, she said, she knew that's where she wanted to open her business so she could focus on aquatic therapy. So she approached the multi-millionaire property owner in her characteristic, direct way, and let him know what she wanted. He agreed. “He was really a cool guy. Without him, I'd never be where I was. He believed in me,” she said about a partnership that benefited them both.

For seven years, she built a clientele of patients who progressed from their debilitations through aquatic therapy. But when the neighborhood took a turn for the worse, she said, she decided to move on. “I knew it wasn't a safe place for my clients anymore,” she said.

Years of consulting, clinical teaching at universities and professional speaking engagements later, she and her partner, Laurie Bronstein, made the move to Broadkill Beach in 1998. She brought her boat “Escape” – up to then docked at Long Beach Island where she took it out recreationally – and she continued working physical therapy jobs. Most importantly, she was finally able to pursue her passion for the sea.

Much like the way her father supported her early career in physical therapy, Firuta said, she found a mentor in Lewes who helped her learn the ropes of boating and encouraged her to become a charter boat captain.

Master Captain Bill Cheyney took her on as a mate, helped her get a prime slip for her boat in Lewes Harbour Marina and taught her everything about the charter boat world. “I wouldn't be who I am without Capt. Bill,” she said. With his guidance, she said, she grew her own charter boat business, specializing in fishing trips for people with special needs and also offering eco tours highlighting the area's wildlife and natural resources.
“I loved it. Every trip was another fun experience with people who have a like-minded interest, an interest in being on the water,” Firuta said.

She operated Hook 'em II Charters from 1999 to 2011 and later Cape Water Taxi and Tours from 2013 to 2017, among countless other activities, before moving into her latest venture.

In early 2018, some information about a new boat club in Lewes caught her attention. Next thing she knew, she was hired as head captain for Freedom Boat Club, and she is now the club's membership executive. Everything has fallen into place like serendipity, she said.

“They gave me a shot, and here I am,” Firuta said.

And with the energy she puts into everything she does, this latest chapter in her career is sure to be an adventure.