Surfing in the Heart of the Desert

D.J. Struntz

A landlocked 2.8-million-gallon pool in the United Arab Emirates is not the world’s largest mirage but a water park on steroids, where 11-foot waves rival any created by Mother Nature. 

When I was 20, I spent a few months in a van with some friends surfing up and down the coast of New South Wales. We carried Mark Warren’s Atlas of Australian Surfing—a worn, full-color, large-format hardback—and were devoted to it. We used the photographs as guides and went where the waves looked the best, the water the bluest. We slept on the beach, in the van, in campgrounds. Every night I would fall asleep remembering my best waves and wishing I could surf them again.

A part of me still longs for that itinerant life—the ocean, a new swell, soft offshore winds. And like many surfers, I nurture my fantasies by watching videos of people riding pristine waves, happily leaping from yachts and paddling into flawless surf in the Maldives or the Mentawais. But one cold afternoon in New York, I stumbled on a film of a professional surfer named Dion Agius paddling into what appeared to be a large swimming pool, where he surfed perfectly shaped, seemingly powerful waves. And he was doing it alone. That large pool, I quickly discovered, was sunk in the Arabian Desert, midway between the Persian Gulf on one side and the Gulf of Oman on the other. Which is to say in the United Arab Emirates, a country that will not be hindered by its climate or geography. The U.A.E. is, after all, the same country that brought indoor snow skiing to the Arabian Peninsula.

The idea of having all those waves to myself was seductive. Short of heading off on a yacht or climbing back into a van and spending weeks searching, I knew no other way to find those empty, consistent waves. A wave pool could never be a replacement for the real thing, of course, but it was intriguing nonetheless—and apparently not only to me. The Emiratis may have built the best wave pool, in 2012, but it certainly wasn’t the first. There are similar parks in Japan, Spain, Malaysia and the United States as well.

I’d never thought such a thing was possible. As a kid, I used to dream about having my own wave, a place to practice alone. And there it was—a bright blue body of water far away from the gloomy winter. Which is why I’m now sitting on a crowded plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the middle of a snowstorm and praying that my flight won’t be canceled again. If the snow stops and we make it to Dubai, I’m going surfing in the heart of the desert.

Seven hours later I’m in the back of a silver sedan heading east to Al Ain, near the Omani border. There’s an occasional gas station; otherwise all I can see out the window is blackness. My driver, an Indian man from Kerala, promises me that in “all directions there is sand, sand, sand.” He keeps the car precisely at the 75-mile-per-hour speed limit while white Range Rovers go ripping past. “Locals,” he tells me. “Different rules.”

At the Rotana hotel I stand on a balcony, peering down at a table of men dressed in long white kanduras and talking quietly around an elaborate shisha. The air is cool and fragrant with their smoke. I sleep with the windows open, and in the morning I’m awakened by the lilting sound of nearby muezzins singing the adhan. I eat breakfast on the balcony and look out beyond the hotel grounds, across the city and into the Emirati desert. There is a haze hanging in the air, which reminds me of Santa Monica’s June Gloom—Santa Monica, where I grew up, where I learned to surf, where I learned to love the ocean.

I don’t know if it’s the cars or the sun or the palm trees, but as the taxi takes me through the city toward its outskirts, I can almost believe that around the next curve I’ll find the Pacific Ocean spreading out before me. Instead, beyond the industrial parks, the malls and a military base, there emerges out of the bright desert Jebel Hafeet, a jagged mountain 4,000 feet high, the dramatic backdrop of the $54 million Wadi Adventure with its 2.8-million-gallon wave pool.

A few minutes later I’m paddling a rented surfboard through the chlorinated water, finding it hard to believe that somehow a wave will rise up out of the back of this thing, let alone a wave big enough to surf. When I get out far enough, I follow the instructions of the two Sri Lankan lifeguards. “Wait close to the wall,” one says. There’s something ominous about the walls, which rise more than 11 feet above the water’s surface. I do believe a wave is coming but see no evidence of it. There are none of the natural signals I’m used to: no waves on the horizon gradually growing and steadily coming toward me. Just the flat water of a 108-foot-wide pool. I’m giddy, like a ten-year-old with a toy I’ve longed for all year but that I’m nervous won’t be all I’d hoped or that I won’t know how to use.

“Paddle when you hear the thump-thump,” a lifeguard calls down. I imagine an enormous lion being released into an arena. Then comes the thump and, like magic, a wave appears out of nowhere. I spin and paddle, and it goes right by me. I’ve floated too far from the wall, floated too deep. “Closer,” the lifeguard points to the sand-colored concrete. I wait until the water settles down. I listen for the sound, and when it comes, I keep to the wall and paddle.

I’m surprised by the size of the wave, by its power. The drop is steeper than I expect, but I make it and turn and there I am, riding a wave through the Arabian Desert. As I paddle back out, I’m laughing to myself and shaking my head. It is indeed like the greatest toy ever invented, and it’s all mine. By the tenth wave, I’m exhausted. I’ve never surfed so many waves in such a short period of time. I fall hard on the next one, but I hate to watch a wave go by, so I keep surfing. It’s impossible to maintain this pace, so by the 15th wave, I’m relieved to see Ryley Heffernan, the surf manager, paddling out to meet me.

We chat and trade waves for a while. Heffernan, an affable Australian surfer, has been working here since January 2012, when Murphy’s Wave, a Scottish company that specializes in wave pools, finished construction. He found the job after his wife was hired to work at a university in Abu Dhabi. As far as jobs for surfers stranded in the desert go, this strikes me as about as good as it gets. And really, who wouldn’t want “Surf Manager” stamped on his business card?

And that thump? Heffernan points to ten tall chambers standing vertically behind the pool—each with a capacity of 10,000 gallons. A wave is created when water is released from the tanks, he explains, rapidly raising the water level. The more water in each chamber, the bigger the wave. The rising swell moves forward, and as it passes over the shallower bottom, it begins to break. The shape of each wave is determined by the order of release from the tanks. The thump I hear is the sound of huge amounts of water being forced down into the bottom of the pool.

Just above us is a silver control panel with knobs labeled “Surf Wave Height” and “Surf Wave Pattern.” We’ve been surfing at level four, which produces a wave about shoulder height, but now Heffernan calls up to the lifeguard, who cranks the wave-height knob to six—the highest setting, capable of generating the world’s largest manmade wave, at nearly 11 feet. I feel the same surge of adrenaline as when I’m in the ocean and I see a set coming in, or perhaps more accurately when someone in a lineup calls, “Set,” and everyone starts paddling deeper. Except here there is no “deeper” and no one in the lineup. I just barely make the drop, and I’m moving fast coming off the bottom turn. I ride it all the way to the cement beach. After a while, Heffernan leaves me to spend the last 30 minutes of the session alone, and I surf and surf and surf.

By the time I’m sitting on a pool chair wrapped in a towel, I’ve ridden some 60-odd waves. It’s an astonishing number; probably more than I’d total in an entire summer of casual surfing, and the effect is tangible. Surfing is a sport of tiny adjustments—a subtle change of pressure, of stance, the shifting of weight. I remember during that first surf trip in Australia, one of my friends suggested a slight shift in stance—a matter of inches—and it altered everything. In the short time I’ve spent surfing today, I’ve already fixed some problems, broken some bad habits. If I were to spend a week here, I’d leave a vastly better surfer. For the average weekender, let alone a landlocked tourist surfer, it could take a lifetime to surf as many waves as one might over the course of seven days at Wadi Adventure. As a training ground, the possibilities are myriad.

That is why a variety of professional and junior professional surfers have begun to arrive. Australian surfer Sally Fitzgibbons recently spent a week at Wadi with her coach, working on a single trick. Heffernan estimates that she surfed about 500 waves in that time. Maui surfer Matt Meola was here last January. Kelly Slater, by far the world’s most famous and successful surfer, has recently founded a company that aims to produce an endless wave in a circular pool. “This is the future,” Slater says. Another company, American Wave Machines, recently won a contract to produce a 35,000-square-foot wave pool in Sochi, Russia. And there is a host of other companies building or preparing to build pools in a variety of designs. While there will never be a replacement for the ocean, wave parks like Wadi Adventure will continue to draw surfers, like Meola and Fitzgibbons, who are looking for a way to become even more highly skilled. Surely recreational surfers will follow. Open for only a year and a half, Wadi Adventure is regularly booked weeks in advance.

When I ask Heffernan about local surfers, he tells me that one of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s sons, who learned to surf in Australia and now lives in the palace at the top of Jebel Hafeet, frequently comes down off the mountain in the evenings to surf with his friends. Expats from Dubai and Abu Dhabi keep their boards here and visit often. Wadi Adventure is, for a growing number of people, just a local surf spot. And Heffernan, the Sri Lankan lifeguards in their red shorts, the sheikh’s son, the veiled women at the front desk, these are the locals, the people you get to know while you get to know any surf spot. As with so many exotic places I’ve traveled, it is both strange and familiar.

Whether you believe all this is a positive step toward the democratization of surfing or another example of our dead-souled Western culture sterilizing and sucking the mystery from what is one of the world’s most beautiful sports, the wave pools are coming faster and faster. And that night as I’m falling asleep, I don’t think about the strangeness of the place. I think of all the waves I rode. I relive my strongest turns. I can hear that thump-thump, and I can feel the waves rising under me. Just before I drift off, I wish more than anything that I could go back the next day with a few friends and surf them again.

To surf perfect waves at Wadi Adventure, contact Ryley Heffernan at A private one-hour lesson is $135;