Kelly Goes to Abu Dhabi

Kelly Slater’s wave pool is the single most astonishing invention in the history of surfing. Jack O’Neill created the wetsuit, Greenough pioneered the modern fin, and Tom Morey gave us the Boogie Board; but in terms of sheer jaw dropping impact, that first vision of Kelly’s wave was like witnessing alien technology emerge from the skies.

Yet almost a decade after the first breakthrough, the wave pool takeover has more or less stalled. Initially, the Kelly Slater Wave Co seemed poised to license their technology to real estate developers seeking to create quasi theme parks centered around surfing. Michael Schwab, son of Charles Schwab, was set to build an ambitious development in La Quinta centered around a KSWC wave pool until the local government voted against the project. The World Surf League bought a controlling stake in Kelly’s company, but it hasn’t done much other than introduce a wave pool contest to the world tour, which was removed after tepid feedback from fans.

Various competing projects have popped up in the wake of the Surf Ranch, but Kelly’s pool remains the gold standard. Yet years after its launch, Kelly’s wave is available only to the well connected and the rich (who mostly overlap anyway). According to Wavepool Mag, it costs between $50K and $70K to rent the Surf Ranch for an entire day for a group of up to ten surfers. For most of us, the vision of being able to supplement our ocean time with some pool tuneups is still far out of reach.

Earlier this week KSWC announced its long awaited second location, and it’s in…Abu Dhabi. Not Southern California, the Gold Coast, Hawaii or even a major metropolis like New York or Sao Paulo, but right in the Persian Gulf, a body of water not exactly known for its breaks.

It’s strictly about the money, of course. And I don’t mean from paying customers. No, it’s oil money, or as Wikipedia so eloquently put it, the “large hydrocarbon wealth” in the area. The UAE probably cut a big ass check and that’s why the second ever instance of the best artificial wave on the planet is located somewhere with no connection to surfing whatsoever.

The choice of Abu Dhabi feels disappointing for a technology that has the potential to make a huge impact on the sport. Set aside the concerns about the UAE’s government. To me, the issue is that this thing has been built in Abu Dhabi for reasons that have nothing to do with surfing. Who’s actually going to surf there? Who does this benefit other than a government that has done some not great things, and a pro sports organization that, let’s be honest, has mostly made news for shooting itself in the foot over the past few years? At least Lemoore is within driving distance to a large population of surfers. There isn’t a thriving surf community anywhere close to Abu Dhabi, meaning that the pool exists primarily as a tourist attraction, or a theme park for bored expats. The whole point of Kelly’s wave, the entirety of its magic, is its ability to decouple the sublimity of surfing from geography and weather, and in Abu Dhabi, I fear that tremendous achievement will be lost on the handful of people with the means to access it.

I just wish the wave pool were being built for surfers. Or, more accurately, built for surfing. And I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable to whoever can make the trip to Abu Dhabi, but surfing considerations seem to be pretty far down the list of reasons why this particular location won out. From the WSL’s viewpoint, there are no doubt many practical reasons why Abu Dhabi was chosen. These wave pool developments aren’t cheap, and as Michael Schwab’s foray with Coral Mountain proved, getting approval from local governments poses huge risks. It’s not even clear there were any alternative locations for getting a similar project done, and there’s no way to know that for sure. Nonetheless, however justified those reasons might be, the decision to follow the money to Abu Dhabi seems to be dragging KSWC, however marginally, away from the soul of the sport.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the Abu Dhabi wave pool spawns a generation of hard charging local groms that take the world tour by storm and serve as the basis for a “Cool Runnings but with surfing” movie years after. Maybe it will pioneer a new category of surf tourism. And to be clear, if I ever found myself on a layover in the Middle East, I’d definitely go out of my way to visit the pool if it’s open to the public.

Then again, in some ways this wave pool saga is a reminder of what makes surfing so special. Surfing itself — and by that I mean the activity, the pursuit; not the people who run the WSL, not the people who get paid to sell clothes or talk about it — remains beyond reproach, immune to whatever drama or disagreement that exists in its orbit. The wave pool looks incredible, and I’d be thrilled to take a stab at it. But even if you invent the perfect wave pool and put it in the best locations all over the globe, it will never replace the sacred connection between human beings and the ocean, and that’s exactly how things should be.

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