River of dreams
Perhaps the most peculiar sight you'll see while in Munich, Germany, for the X Games this month -- besides the nudists in the Englischer Garten and the dudes dressed up in Heidi's brother's castoff lederhosen -- is a neoprene-clad surfer cycling his way through the city, dripping wet, with a board under his arm. No, he hasn't been ejected from a "Hawaii Five-O" theme party; he was probably just sessioning Munich's premier river wave, the Eisbach.
Tucked away in an unlikely corner of the Englischer Garten -- a four-lane fastway thundering overhead and the Haus der Kunst art museum on its other flank -- is a standing wave whose name roughly translates to "ice stream."
The raging water here is cold enough to drop the toes off a yeti, even in the summer months, and come the dark days of winter, when ice sets thick on the concrete banks and the surrounding trees hang heavy with snow, it is quite literally freezing. But whatever the weather, and no matter the season, this most unlikely surf spot is flanked by rows of surfers waiting and shivering for their next drop.
The wave is formed by water gushing from under the bridge into a 39-foot-wide channel hemmed in by right-angled, gritty concrete walls. With a little persuasion in the form of a barrier of concrete bollards and a system of ropes, pulleys and stopper planks laid down by the resident surf crew, a consistent waist-to-chest-high wave is forced to peak and break.
"The wave is standing still; there's no forward motion," explains Quirin Rohleder, a local sponsored surfer. "You can't go vertical with turns, but it's still a good training ground, as you can do airs, reverses and shove-its."
Rohleder, a Munich local, has surfed the wave for more than 26 years and has made a career as a professional surfer off its back, traveling the world courtesy of a clutch of sponsors that would be the envy of most beach-dwelling pros. Not a bad achievement, considering the nearest salty wave is 300 miles from Munich.
The Eisbach was first surfed back in the early 1970s, when the likes of Dieter Deventer rigged up a tow rope to the bridge and skimmed what was then a lump in the river. The surfer's ingenuity that now causes the Eisbach to break wasn't even a twinkle in Deventer and his mates' eyes as yet. Deventer still surfs the wave, as do his two daughters, and both he and Rohleder were featured in a documentary about the wave called "Keep Surfing." Made by a keen fellow surfer and filmmaker, Bjoern Richie Lob, the movie gives brilliant insight into the wave and its community of rippers, both past and present.
The crew that surfs the wave now has come a long way since hanging off the end of a rope; it's all about power cutbacks, airs, spins and shove-its. A leading protagonist of this freestyle movement is Tao Schirrmacher, a Munich-based industrial engineer who has been surfing the wave since 2001.
"He has got good style and all the tricks on lockdown," says Rohleder, who also acknowledges a young crew that is emerging. "There are a couple [of surfers] who literally spend all day there. It reminds me of myself 25 years ago."
And that's the rad thing about the crew that surfs the wave: They come from all walks of life and span at least three generations. There can be a bit of an aggro vibe sometimes, like at every break, but generally if you show up, put in a good wave and live by the unwritten etiquette of surfing, then you'll be welcome -- or at least tolerated.
The Eisbach River in Munich attracts surfers from around the world to sample one of the planet's best fresh-water waves. Among them are X Games Real Surf champ Gabriel Medina (left), who lit the place up.
The gear needed to surf the Eisbach, besides a good 3/2 wetsuit in the summer, is a short, ding-resistant board. I made the mistake of taking a 6-foot-5 Al Merrick with comp glass into the wave and regretted it for every ding we picked up over the course of the session.
"You don't want to surf anything bigger than a 5-8," Rohleder told me, too late to save the Merrick. "Maybe surf something a little wider in the tail, but to be honest I've surfed some heapers there and they all work."
He went on to tell me about a friend of his who surfs a Mini Malibu -- also known as a "mini-mal," or "funboard" -- there and pulls hang-5s and -10s like he's out at Waikiki. In fact, you will notice that most of the dudes lining up to drop are armed with short, epoxy fish-like things with a little more float and a little less length. But be warned: The concrete walls on either side of the wave will eat any board -- however tough -- quicker than shallow reefs.
If you're keen on catching waves and find yourself at a loose end during the X Games, head down to the Eisbach for a couple of cutbacks. Board rentals are available at megastore Planet Sports or the independent surf shop Santo Loco.