Welcome to Munich, the Mecca of River Surfing
In the center of Europe, surf's up in the most unusual location you can imagine. Don't mind the nudists.
Photo by Tom Sekula
On a crisp, October morning in Munich, Germany, there's a crowd beside the Haus der Kunst, the imposing grey building built by the Nazis as a museum for Nazi-approved Germanic art. Today, the Haus stands in remembrance of that period; it houses temporary art exhibits--often displaying the kind of art that would have really pissed off the Nazis--and a nightclub. But the people gathered outside today are here for something else. There are maybe 50 of them, standing on a bridge overlooking the Eisbach River as it gushes into the canals of Munich's English Garden. More people stand on the banks; occasionally, they applaud. On the water, surfers in full-body wetsuits cut back and forth between the banks. They ride a standing wave--a kind of perpetual break--trying tricks, catching air. When they fall, they're swept momentarily out of sight before popping up 20 feet downstream and paddling hard for the bank.
The English Garden is one of the world's great urban parks. It's bigger than New York's Central Park and a good bit more peculiar. It's a wonderful place to stroll along the water and picnic or maybe play a game of pickup soccer. But it's also home to a Chinese tower with a massive beer garden. The park is infamous in part because of the nude sunbathing that happens when the weather is right. But nudism isn't the only sub culture that thrives there. Surfers love the park too. The Eisbachwelle, as the wave is known, is Germany's premier surf destination. It's been the subject of feature-length documentaries, and guys who grew up shredding this little wave--which is some 200 miles from the Adriatic and 400 from the North Sea--have turned pro. Other pros--the kind who grew up on real waves, waves with salt--and legends like Rob Machado sometimes stop by and check out the Eisbachwelle. On rare occasions, when things get especially weird, the locals surf naked.
That the wave exists at all is the result of a rare mistake in German engineering. The Eisbach's water comes from the nearby Isar River. In order to slow the flow and create the necessary serenity in the English Garden, engineers submerged concrete blocks just beyond the bridge. This served to slow the water but it also created a rapid. Surfing on the rapid started in the 70s, but it was only possible with the right amount of water flow. Over time, surfers learned to manipulate the wave, submerging boards and lashing them to the bridge pylons. The boards have a kind of smoothing effect on the water that creates a perfect wave even when the flow is low.
Surfing on the Eisbach is less dynamic than ocean surfing, constrained as it is to a small place. But on the flip side, it's much more predictable than the ocean, and the surfers know how to work its different sections. It also makes for a much better spectator activity than ocean surfing. There's something intimate and almost soothing about standing on the bank and watching the surfers take turns. They joke with one another and encourage each other. When one sticks a trick--catching air, maybe, or spinning the surfboard--they applaud and whoop from the banks.
The surfer with the most tricks at the moment is a guy in a black wetsuit with green accents and earmuffs named Henry Palms. At about 5'9" he has the kind of compact build that's ideal for board sports. His turns are crisp and powerful and he has a way of hitting a section on the right side of the wave where he catches big air.
Palms moved to Munich from the Cologne area about 10 years ago, and he always had his eye on this spot. "I saw this place, how it was really working here," he tells me after his session, dripping wet, loading his board into his car. "I was already trying to surf in the ocean at that time, doing lots of sports like snowboarding and skateboarding. And actually my way to work was here, through the park, and I saw [the wave] all the time and I decided, I will try this once!"
Palms, however, like many Munich surfers, cut his teeth on a less powerful wave that sometimes runs on the Isar, just outside town. Because of the submerged rocks, the Eisbach is very dangerous. Signs along the bank warn inexperienced surfers not to even try it, and the locals can be as cold as the water to unwelcomed newcomers.
Those deterrents don't always work. The other wave isn't running right now and, as Palms explains it, "Everybody's aim is to come here, because this is the strong one. Everyone wanted to go to Pipeline too. It's something like this. So everybody wants to come here, even if they're not that skilled. And it's dangerous, you know. You have to get used to the rocks. You have to know how to fall and it's very chaotic to just come out and learn how to do it, and it's quite dangerous."
People have drowned in the area, but as far as I know nobody has died surfing the Eisbach, although injuries are commonplace. Palms has been hurt a couple times himself, "but not that bad", he says. "From hitting the rocks or getting a fin in the nose. But the rocks are quite bad. If you hit your head on the rocks, you might not come up again. Especially at night. Because it's so crowded, people often come at night. And if you don't look after each other--it's totally dark, you don't see anything--so after five minutes? Where is he? Where is he? He can be drowned. So you have to really look for each other."
It's no surprise then that the city has mixed feelings about surfing. According to Palms, it was forbidden for a period, when the land was owned by the State of Bavaria rather than the city, which created insurance issues. Of course, that didn't stop people from surfing. "So it was a big problem because it's quite popular and everybody has a mobile phone and was doing videos and stuff like this," says Palms. "And so the politicians saw that it was a tourism thing. So the city and [the state] switched land and now for insurance stuff it's like if you fall down on the street. It's your own problem."
Nevertheless, the locals don't want some punk coming through and getting hurt and ruining it for everybody, so if you show up with your board and a wetsuit, don't expect a welcoming committee. But until that happens, people will still come from all around to shred the Eisbach. And then maybe grab a beer, strip nude, and relax in the park.