Munich, Germany is 300+ miles from any coastline and worse yet, almost 700 miles from any surfable ocean break. But that doesn’t stop locals from surfing on a regular basis. Instead of traveling to the ocean waves, they created a new form of surfing; River Surfing. Munich now sports three river surfing spots; Eisbach, Grosshesseloher Bruecke, and Wittelsbacher Bruecke. The Eisbach is considered to be the best wave but it’s also the most dangerous. One surfer lost a knee cap, another shattered a shoulder and a ruptured aorta preportedly almost led to a leg amputation. Yes, the river has claimed the life of one river surfer.
Like many ocean surf spots around the world, the locals dictate who will and who will not surf Eisbach. And in this case, it may be a good thing because the locals prevent inexperienced surfers from accessing the wave.
At the Eisbach, a small channel branching off the Isar River in downtown Munich, people in wetsuits line the banks, waiting patiently for their turn in one of the world’s more unlikely surfing capitals.
The fast flowing water of the Eisbach ploughs into a deeper section of the river that barely moves at all, creating a consistent, albeit dangerous, wave effect. Signs warn inexperienced river surfers not to attempt surfing – rocks, strong currents and lack of space combine to make getting in the water perilous. Ocean surfers have to learn new skills too: there is no time to get up and let the wave approach – surfers have to be riding the second they hit the water – and movement is lateral rather than up and down the break.
Jon Ruppersberg, who repairs boards at the Santo Loco surf shop in central Munich, said river surfing requires a different type of board. “A long board is usually perfect for beginners, but because the river is so narrow, you have to start the next turn as soon as you finish the last.” Consequently, many of the boards on sale at Santo Loco are specially made by a manufacturer in Salzburg, Austria, designed to be short, relatively broad and durable. Some also have Kevlar edges to prevent damage from regularly crashing against the Eisbach’s stonewall banks.
Partly because of the dangers, surfing the Eisbach was illegal until 2010. “You would quite often see surfers running through the Englischer Garten being chased by policemen,” Ruppersberger said. “[They] regularly had to pick up their boards from the police station.”
Surfers also tried to keep their activities quiet, stopping whenever anyone arrived with a camera. But regular surfer Quirin Stamminger said this started to change around five years ago. “The internet really changed things,” he said. “With Facebook and YouTube, more people found out about it, and more people wanted to try it.” The surfers stopped trying to hide, and instead used the publicity to get support for the legalisation of their hobby. In 2010 the City of Munich bought the land surrounding the wave from the State of Bavaria and agreed to take responsibility for what happened there, legalising the sport.
Slowly, the sport has spread beyond Munich in a somewhat disorganised manner. In most instances, it is a small, independent group discovering river waves in rural Europe or Canada. But other cities are catching on. Innsbruck in Austria is attempting to create an artificial standing wave where the Inn and Sill rivers meet, but construction has not yet been successful. The will is there, but the science still needs some work. In Montreal, however, two natural waves on the St Lawrence River are pulling in the surfers.