|SURFING THE EISBACH in Munich's English Garden|
Steffen Dittrich is a short, happy guy with bad teeth and thinning red hair. On the rolling wave, he looks a bit like a madman—coarse, short beard, bulging eyes—but he has grace as well as aggression. He kicks and carves, bashes the churning water, pulls a 360, slides a bit, carves, and cuts back again. He stays up for five minutes, trimming back and forth in place—longer than any surfer that day. Then he falls, and the current carries him downstream in the Eisbach, a canal that flows through Munich’s English Garden.
Slideshow: Surfing in Munich
Images of the city's surf scene, narrated by the author
The Travel Advisory
Where to stay and what to do during the Munich Surf Open
The Eisbach, or “Ice Creek,” a tributary of the Isar River, starts where two underground canals in Munich meet and emerge under the 19th-century Prinzregentenstrasse bridge, next to the city’s modern-art museum. In the 1970s, civic engineers laid three rows of concrete blocks along the canal bottom to weaken the flow of water surging up from underground. The shape of the bottom— along with wooden boards wedged into the canal by local surfers—creates a fast but surfable standing wave that has become the most popular “river-surfing” spot in Europe.
“German surfing” might sound about as plausible as “Nebraskan seafood,” but the sport has been thriving here for years. The first native to surf a German swell is said to have been Uwe Drath, a lifeguard on Sylt, in 1952. Sylt has been a chic island resort since the turn of the century—a kind of North Sea Martha’s Vineyard—but in the postwar years it was still relatively undeveloped; the island’s first “surf club,” founded in the 1960s, held meetings in a converted cattle stall. Good waves break on Sylt only in the autumn, though; during high summer, the sea is generally flat. So the discovery of a year-round wave in Munich has created an enclave of borrowed California culture in the heart of Bavaria. Another canal in the city has a rideable wave as well, and is home to an annual competition that draws surfers from across the country, if not the world.
I grew up in California but live in Berlin, so it was partly homesickness, partly curiosity, that brought me to Munich for the Surf Open last July. Before the contest, I had a look at the Eisbach wave, which is faster, more dangerous, and more famous than its rival across town. I rented a comfortable but uncool Dutch-style bike and pedaled with my board to the English Garden. The river boiled up from under two stone bridge arches, and spectators lined the bridge and the banks of the canal. Willows and chestnuts hung over the water. From the bank, I could hear the thrilling rush of white water and catch whiffs of neoprene wet suits and surf wax—smells that would have reminded me of home if they hadn’t been mixed, incongruously, with cool riverine air instead of salt.
The Eisbach is about 50 feet wide, too narrow for more than one person at a time to ride the rough, waist-high wave. Surfers wait their turn in lines along each bank. In the water, they face the bridge and surf in place on the curl of the wave. It isn’t easy. When my turn came, I positioned my board on the churning crest with my feet and pushed off. But I wasn’t used to the perpetual-motion wave. Instead of building speed and running forward along a swell of moving water, as in the ocean—where I would have all the wave’s energy at my back—I had to balance and steer into a powerful oncoming current. The idea was not to move forward but to resist going backward, ideally while performing lots of fancy tricks. I was like a bird in a wind tunnel. I fell several times, nearly cracking my head on the underwater concrete and floating down to a meadow where sunbathing women giggled each time I climbed out with my board.
The first surfers in Munich started cautiously, using ropes tied to bridges or trees to help them keep their balance. This was in the 1970s, and river surfing was illegal and could bring heavy fines. Dittrich spent the summer of 1983 in the English Garden as a student surf bum, living in his VW bus. Whenever the cops came, he says, “I just let go of my rope and floated away. The canal down there splits three ways, so it was hard for them to find you.”