The Urban Surfers of Munich

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Esteban Benrei, Markus Mühlbauer, and Michi Bloch

As a rule of thumb, surfers tend to live on the coast and outside of big cities, striving to be closer to the waves where they can spend their downtime. Perhaps this is more the case in Britain than it is in some surfing-oriented countries, America, Australia, and Brazil being the main ones which spring to mind, where cities like Sydney, Rio, and Los Angeles are built on the sites of popular point breaks.

Looking back at Britain, and indeed most of Europe, you would be hard pressed to find a large city that’s located on a surfable coastline. Newquay in Cornwall is probably the most urbanised surf spot in Britain, whereas in Europe you would probably have to go with Biarritz, though it isn’t as notorious for its surfing as smaller towns like Hossegor.

That being said, some of you might be surprised to learn that one large city with an underground, almost bohemian, surf scene is Munich. Yep, the one in Bavaria that’s more than four hundred miles from the sea. It’s not difficult to guess what must be going through your minds: ‘Don’t you need the sea to be able to surf?’

Two words can explain this conundrum: ‘river surfing’.

Now, those of you who are students of British surfing might be starting to groan, thinking that you’re about to hear yet another story of seasonal river waves like the infamous Severn Bore. However, the Eisbach River in Munich produces a consistent, year-round wave in the Englischer Garten of the gothic city.

Andreas Muellner surfs the Eisbachwelle in front of an admiring crowd in the Englischer Garten of Munich. (Photo by Esteban Benrei)

Stretching over a total length of two kilometres, the Eisbach (meaning ‘ice brook’ in German) has two different sites where manmade breaks allow local the Münchners (what a brilliant word) to carve through choppy, everlasting waves.

Local surfers have even been known to ride the metro in Munich, clad in full-length wetsuits and carrying surfboards, much to the confusion of the tourists who are just trying to reach the Neues Rathaus. What a random cultural gem this presents.

The fact that Münchner surfers can spend their Saturdays riding the Metrolink with their mates, surfboard in hand, and tear up the white-water, right in the middle of the city, is incredible on its own. But then, when the sun gets low, they can all head off to the bars and clubs, a stone’s throw away from where they’d been surfing earlier in the day, and enjoy the nightlife like any other Londoner, Parisian, or Amsterdammer.

This kind of lifestyle sounds like an Elysium for the urban youth. If you went to university in a big city, could you imagine flitting between lectures, surfing sessions, and nights out? Enlightenment, adrenaline, and society all within a one-mile radius, and at a time in your life when you feel bold enough to explore all of it.

Needless to say, the twenty-something surfing community of Munich must be euphoric from the sheer volume of experiences that they can cram into each day of surfing and each night of revelry. But what is it actually like?

Andreas Müllner, a thirty-one-year-old actor and model, has been surfing for a decade now and can be seen riding the metro in post-lockdown Munich, wearing a full-length wetsuit and carrying a shortboard, on his way to the Eisbachwelle.

Andreas gets ready to pop up on the Eisbachwelle whilst the other locals queue up alongside the river. (Photo by Esteban Benrei)

In a recent interview, Andreas described the Eisbach surfing community by saying: “The urban surfing scene captures moments that you could only see in Munich: surfers on a bike or skateboard, surfers with their wetsuit and surfboard on the metro, everywhere you wouldn’t expect them in an ordinary city.

“The atmosphere is mostly friendly, but not always because a beginner cannot just try the wave. They must start at the smaller waves in Munich. This is the official rule which the club of surfing in Munich (IGSM) promotes, due to the number of injuries that have happened already.

“There have been rude and rough times at the Eisbach, with some really heavy locals who did once forbid Kelly Slater [eleven time World Surfing League champion] from riding the wave and then sent him away.”

In the late-nineties and early two-thousands, when the Eisbach surfing scene was in it’s infancy, the aggressive and localist side of surfing definitely reared its ugly head, infecting the local Münchners. As much can be seen from Andreas’ recollection of Kelly Slater’s failed attempt to surf the Eisbach, but recent years have seen a change now that surfing has been allowed on the river.

Valeska Schneider, who moved to Berlin some three months ago, is a professional surfer from Munich and won the Zurich Masters 2020 in August. She explained that: “You weren’t allowed to surf the wave back in the day, but people just did it illegally and had someone watching so that, if the police came, they all knew when to run away.

Professional surfer, Valeska Schneider, tears up the Eisbachwelle in Germany. (Photo by Michi Bloch)

“They don’t actually have permission to surf there [now] but the council says that it’s okay. It’s still about half dangerous though, so the guys who are trying to protect the wave will shut it down if there’s a kook who’s gotten himself badly hurt. It’s a bit of a grey area.”

Nowadays, the aggro which previously surrounded the Eisbach community has grown into an atmosphere of guardianship, where the older veteran surfers will regulate who takes a turn on the wave in order to avoid accidents and any subsequent bad press.

Going into more detail on this, Valeska revealed: “If there is someone who clearly doesn’t have a clue, then the locals will approach them and say that it’s dangerous and that they should go to one of the other waves in Munich which are more suited to beginners.

“It’s not a case of them not wanting that particular surfer there, it’s more because they want to protect the wave.”

That being said, these guardian surfers will abuse their power in small ways, jumping the queue to surf the ahead of kooks and tourists, who patiently line-up alongside the river.

Valeska continued: “They just jump in front. You usually have to line up in a queue, but there’s also a ledge next to the wave where you can sit. The locals usually sit there for a couple of minutes and then, once a couple of people have surfed, they just jump in the middle of the queue.

“They’re really good surfers as well and they can do a lot of tricks so, when they do jump in, people know that they’re the locals and they won’t say anything.”

When asked if Munich’s surfers make the most of the city’s nightlife, both Andreas and Valeska shattered my beautiful illusion by stating that the surfers never go out together after a session.

Andreas confessed: “We don’t really all go out to the same place. There’s no real after-hours place for surfers in Munich.”

Valeska continued by explaining: “The people who surf the Eisbach have surfing in common, but other than that everyone’s really different. One can be a surgeon, one can be a student, one can be a judge… it’s really random.”

Having lost this mirage of a tight-knit, almost student-life version, of a surfing community, where the local surfers might all meet up in a beer hall or a bar on an evening, I tried to recover some sense of awe by asking what made the Eisbach so special.

Valeska replied: “In general, I’d say that the best part of the entire Eisbach experience is the feeling of being at home. I think that this surfaces on cold days especially, when you put on your wetsuit and your other gear, your boots, gloves, and hood, and then you ride your bicycle through the city for a surfing session in the middle of winter.

“The water would be around two degrees, and the air maybe minus one, and there will be snow on the ground as well.

“I think it’s just an amazing feeling to be in the city and have the same feeling of being in the ocean and paddling. To have what’s almost a bubble in the middle of the city where you can surf is a feeling that I really love.”

Looking back on his own surfing sessions at the Eisbach, Andreas recalled: “Once there was a beaver swimming up close to us. I was so afraid.

“Another time, during Oktoberfest, there were a bunch of super drunk people and one was filming all the time with his smartphone. He slipped in the river and fell with his phone in-hand in front of my surfboard.

“I pulled him up and he was still filming with his phone, which still worked. It was ridiculous and super lucky. The guy he could have seriously injured himself.”

These anecdotes did sate my want for a unique surfing experience. The thought of winter surfing in the Englischer Garten, surrounded by the gothic towers of Munich’s museums and art galleries, sounded just as picturesque as gliding along Artic waves of the Lofoten Islands. And the prospect of visiting the Munich beer halls during Oktoberfest, to then relax by the Eisbach and watch the local surfers showing off at twilight, was equally appealing.

As the conversation with Valeska continued, I got more and more curious as what it was like to surf on the Eisbach. When I eventually asked, she replied: “It’s really tricky. When you stand on the wave for the first time, it’s like an overload because of how quickly the water’s rushing by.

“You don’t know where to look. You have to balance your weight between your front foot and back foot perfectly. I don’t think I did much during my first couple of attempts, but it’s a lot like the ocean in that you just get hooked.”

Watching Valeska’s surfing videos and casting an eye over her competition results, I began to wonder if the Eisbach was the secret to her success. Broaching the subject of her professional career, I asked Valeska how surfing on the Eisbach had affected her technique.

Valeska Schneider, clad in a full-length wetsuit, hood, and gloves, hacks her way through the choppy Eisbach river wave. (Photo by Markus Muhlbauer)
Valeska sends the river spraying behind her as she hacks her way through the whitewater. (Photo by Markus Muhlbauer)

She then went into great detail, saying: “If you add up the number of seconds that you’re standing on a wave in a two hour [ocean] session, it’ll maybe make up ten per cent of those two hours. That’s only if you’re lucky.

“However, in the river you’re on the board for a lot longer. You can get used to the board feeling, you can practice moves over and over again, and you can learn about how you’re supposed to turn your head, shoulders, and arms.

“Surfing on the river wave has made a real difference to my ocean surfing because you become so much more accustomed to the board feeling.

“In that sense, surfing the Eisbach helps you to cheat a little bit. You can do a turn with the wrong technique and still make it because all you really need to do is balance rather than ride the wave.

“There are a few surfers at the Eisbach who have never surfed in the ocean, or barely at all, and so they don’t really have a technique that would look good in the ocean.

“There, you have to move your arms to be able to make certain turns, but in the Eisbach locals don’t have to when they surf the river. That’s why the surfing sometimes looks a bit terrible if you compare them to ocean surfers.

“But, on the other hand, if you’re an ocean surfer who’s trying to transfer the ocean technique to the river, it’ll actually work very well. You’ll be able to practice carves, round-house cutbacks, snaps, and even laybacks.”

To provide an analogy for Valeska’s brilliant explanation, the Eisbachwelle serves as training wheels to ocean surfers, much like the wave house (‘the Wellenwerk’) in Berlin. On a wave which is perpetually the same, surfers can practice their tricks and manoeuvres until their heart’s content. Although, when it comes to actually catching a wave, there’s very little that you can learn from the Eisbach.

After all, the training wheels can’t stay on forever.

Ultimately, Valeska’s previous comparison of the Eisbach to a bubble seems to perfectly sum up what I’ve learned about the Munich surf scene. It turns out that the sociable surfing community, with group nights out, doesn’t exist, but what does exist instead is nevertheless special.

What initially seemed like an excuse to have an overload of experiences, to go mental by surfing all day and partying all night, is actually used by the local Münchners as more of a tranquil escape. Rather than overwhelm themselves by adding more to their already bustling city, they treat the Eisbach as though it is separate from Munich.

Shrewdly, they have recognised that the Eisbach works better when it’s treated as a momentary break from the teeming city streets. When work gets too much, or the noise of the metropolis gets too loud, an hour or two surfing the icy brook seems to wash all your troubles away.

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