The Munich Surfers

Image: wikimedia

Image: wikimedia

Nestled in the heart of Bavaria, Munich is synonymous with Oktoberfest and Lederhosen. Located over 600km from the nearest beach, most residents have never even seen the sea, let alone surfed in it. Yet in the midst of the city’s English garden a group of wetsuit clad rebels defy all expectations and city swimming regulations. Kitted out with top end boards, they pose atop the crest before clambering up the banks to ride their artificial wave again and again. They do so in full view of the ‘Swimming Is Forbidden’ sign, an irony for Germany where signs are to be obeyed. This is the Eisbach wave.

This river wave has the kind of cult following that just keeps people coming back. Created by a weir as water flows under the bridge, the 1m high wall of water resembles a river rapid. The wave has attracted surfers since the early 1970s, but in 2000 several planks of wood were suspended underwater in order to make the wave more consistent. These days it is surfed day and night, giving riders ample time to perfect their tricks. Surfers as young as 13 strut their stuff, manouevering their boards back and forth across the turbulent surface and posing for the tourist paparazzi.

Wolfrick Fischer has been surfing the Munich wave since the 1970s. He started coming as a 15 year old, mentored by older surfers and now, after a long break, is back to do the same. The river is like a magnet, attracting surfers at all hours throughout the year, and he has succumbed to its pull.

Fischer sees river surfing as more closely related to skateboarding and snowboarding than its more natural partner, ocean surfing. With limited space, surfers must plan with the precision of choreographers, deciding advance what moves they will try out. Often ocean surfers are surprised by the complexity of surfing this wave, a phenomenon professional surfer Yoyo Terhorst knows all too well. A local, Terhorst always wanted to surf and as a child he saved all his pocket money to buy a board. Now, after many hours of practice on the Eisbach wave, he surfs internationally alongside such names as Paul Grey and Kelly Slater. Slater himself has visited the river surfing community and tried out the Germans’ pride and joy.

Terhorst always warns his friends that river surfing is in 3D, while ocean surfing is in 4D: Here on the Eisbach the wave stays still and you move, while in the sea you move but also have the fluid wave to contend with, adding another dimension. The hidden rocks below the surface and shallow water also add a dimension of danger to the river, one that never fails to get Terhorst’s adrenaline pumping. Although no surfers have ever died, several kneecaps and spines have succumbed to the underwater hazards.

While the Eisbach is the most famous surfing spot in the city, there are actually two other rivers in Munich where surfers congregate. The Floßlände wave is much smaller than the Eisbach specimen, making it popular with beginners, while the Wittelsbacherbrücke is only surfable after heavy rain. With over 700 people now involved in the sport in the city, it is not uncommon to see someone boarding the underground wearing a wetsuit, surfboard in tow. Chances are they are not one of the many young Brits in Munich for a stag party, but a serious sportsman off to partake in some fluid meditation. It turns out there really is more to Munich than beer and Lederhosen after all.

Image: wikimedia

Image: wikimedia

The Eisbach wave is near Haus der Kunst in the English Gardens. Take tram 17 to the Nationalmuseum and walk to the bridge.



Boarding Call (2009)

My Wörterbuch, my kiwi flag,
Socks and sandals, just like Dad,
My summer dress, my lightweight cardi,
Photos from my leaving party,
Names and addresses of distant rellies,
Marmite to treat homesick bellies,
My bulging backpack, my hiking socks,
Pineapple lumps, combination locks,
Camera, notebook, sunscreen, togs,
Glenn Colquhoun’s book ‘Playing God’,
My tiki T-shirt, student ID,
Presents for all my friends-to-be,
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss,
Metro Mag for all the goss,
My passport and my boarding passes,
My crayola felt tip washable markers,
St Christopher necklace from my mates,
Instructions to the boarding gates,
My optimism, my trepidation,
My welling pride in my home nation.