Quirin Rohleder sits opposite his business partner Christian Bach in the Goldene Bar of Munich‘s Haus der Kunst situated on Prinzregentenstraße. Both men are in their forties with fit, trim and athletic builds. They are Munich residents and surfers and in 2018 they founded The Rapid Surf League: ‘I used to live by the Ocean for a while. But here you can surf 24/7 and still live in a city which pretty much has everything.’ States Quirin referring to Munich as the capital of the cash rich German state of Bavaria and its Eisbach (ice brook). The Eisbach is landlocked Munich‘s two kilometre long man made river running through the beautiful public park Englischer Garten. It’s an offshoot of the Isar River and at the point where a bridge near the Haus der Kunst crosses over it produces a standing wave. Permanent, regular, unchanging – and it can be surfed.
The history of the Eisbachwelle (ice brook wave), has its roots of usage dating back to the early 1970’s. It‘s a product of engineers laying submerged concrete blocks at the bridge. Originally intended to slow the flow of water into the Englischer Garten park, it produced a rapid. Local surfers added some planks of wood beneath the water line to slightly alter the current and enhanced it to a more regular surfers flow. ‘In the early days it used to be body surfing (laying flat on a board). People would cannibalise the tables used in the annual Munich Beer Festival into surf boards and attach ropes to the bridge to hold on to and surf’, recalls Quirin, ’It was initially illegal to surf here and the city often threatened to remove the wave, but eventually it realised that it was actually an asset for Munich, and since 2010 it’s been officially permitted.’
Confirming the Eisbachwelle’s popularity the location is listed as the number two of tourist's ‘must see’ for visiting Munich on popular online guides to the city. ‘There‘s estimated to be about 2000 full time surfers in Munich now and the Eisbach surf scene has become more diverse over the years’, Christian states, ‘It’s no longer just a subculture, you have doctors and lawyers now surfing here, the young and the not so young. You’re as likely to see someone pull up in a Porsche with their surf boards on the back as someone arriving on bicycle or on foot. Bavarian culture usually keeps people in their different economic groups apart but here that’s all broken down, we‘re all just surfers.’ Local custom is that the last weekend in July usually hosts an informal annual Eisbach River Surfing competition. The event initiated by the Munich surf community itself and spread collectively by word of mouth will champion the best surfers the City has to offer – a spectacle for tourists and a showcase for the surfers who participate.
The Rapid Surf League is an attempt to more formalise River Surfing and take the surf experience to a broader land locked audience. They have already held a competition in Munich this year with a second and third scheduled for Bratislava in August followed by Cologne in September. However, The League being born from the river surfers of the Eisbach has moved on to utilise artificial commercial man made waves at fixed leisure centre locations. The intention is to take River Surfing along a path to the wider locational possibilities of Rapid Surfing: ’To have Rapid Surfing as a recognised sport with permanent locations not just around Germany but worldwide’, explains Christian. The competitions they have organised run on a league performance principle with male and female surfers competing in separate groups but with parity in prize money. ‘That was important to us – our sport to be equal at all levels. As surfers ourselves we feel a responsibility to the Surf community. We want to make surfing more accessible to people and yes, one day for it to become an Olympic Sport.’ Ocean Surfing will already be at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the advantage Rapid Surfing has, is that the wave is constant and the sport can be practised anywhere an artificial man made wave can be located. The wave is also a constant for each and every competitor to perform on. The act of Rapid Surfing itself has a closer resemblance to snow boarding or skate boarding in terms of its tricks and manoeuvres differing in style from its kissing cousin of surfing the Ocean.
Alex Neumann, a Munich based film and documentary maker, arrives at the Prinzregentenstraße with two surf boards firmly attached to the side of his bicycle. It‘s 10am on a bright and warm Sunday morning and he‘s eager to start his day surfing the Eisbachwelle. An experienced surfer of both Ocean and River he explains the tactical contrasts between the two: ‘River Surfing is different from Ocean surfing. The river wave is pulling you backwards as it‘s literally coming at you from the front, but the Ocean wave is pushing you along. It‘s more difficult to surf the River Wave in an effortless manner. However, the wave itself is predictable.’ Alex enters the Eisbach body surfing on his board, slowly bringing himself upright to a standing position while still navigating the flow of the river. On his board he moves with the wave from side to side of the narrow channel. Initiating some tricks, which are applauded by his fellow surfers and onlookers, he settles into the rhythm of the water. Eventually, when he feels his time is up, he allows the river to swallow him whole. The fast flowing current is depositing him some 30 to 40 meters down stream where he makes his way back to the bank and again awaits his turn alongside the other surfers to once again surf the river. While in line he gives some thoughts to the enchantment of Munich‘s Eisbach: ’This wave here has changed my life in terms of my friendships, love and work. It builds character in you as you learn you can’t give up. It takes time and effort if you want to learn how to surf here. To have this wave in the middle of this city, it’s a gift.’
Craig Stennett © 2019