Surfing In Downtown Munich
On any given day in Munich, Germany – sun or snow – you can find people dressed in neoprene wet suits flinging themselves and a board of fiberglass into the icy waters of The Eisbach. The Eisbach, which translates to “ice brook,” is a man-made tributary of the Isar River which flows through the city of Munich and the English Garden. At the Southernmost point of the English Garden where the stream rushes underneath the street and enters the park is a constant wave in the water.
The wave is about 1 meter tall and the water is extremely shallow with a fast current. These unique attributes make it both an exciting and potentially dangerous place to surf. The wave itself is naturally occurring, however it wasn’t always so consistent. Since 2000, local stream-surfers have worked to create a wave that is more predictable and better to ride.
Everyone obeys a social order of allowing one person to ride the wave at any given time. That person rides until they fall off of their board and then the next person jumps in. Staying on the board as long as possible isn’t always the objective. More experienced surfers try tricks that would usually be associated with surfing in the ocean.
Since people have lived by the ocean there has been some form of riding waves – the roots of surfing cannot be isolated to any one place. Modern day surfing spread from Hawaii and reached the continental US in the early 1900s. In the 1960s it became a pop-culture sensation. Surfing was very popular in Hawaii and Australia at the time, but the southern Californian culture surrounding surfing during that time was popularized by American media and spread around the world.
The first surfers to ride the everlasting wave in the Eisbach were in the 1970s. Despite less than ideal conditions, it didn’t take long for thrifty, land-locked Germans to surf their own “wave.”
Nestled behind the Bavarian Alps, Munich is over 500 Kilometers away from from the nearest ocean. Excluding the Isar River, it is a land-locked city. It’s incredible that such a phenomenon exists. As Munich surfer Carsten Kurmis said, “You’re only 10 meters (33 feet) away from a major freeway, but you’re in nature and in this completely different setting.”
The English Garden is Germany’s largest urban park and has gone through many different phases and uses since its creation in 1789. Its use of informal landscape design is meant to evoke the feeling of “authentic” nature. There is nothing more natural or wild than the park users’ adaptation of a stream into surf destination.
After more than 30 years of illegally using the park to surf, urban surfers can now enjoy the wave without suffering harassment from the police. In 2010 Munich lifted the ban on surfing. A sign now reads, “Surf at your own risk.”
Since then, it’s become quite crowded. More than 100 surfers visit the wave in a day, and even more spectators watch along the banks of the river. Because only one person can ride at once, the wait can be very long. Swimming in the streams is still technically illegal, though the local Eisbach Surfers hope to get the surfing ban lifted on two other locations where there are similar man-made waves.
What may have seemed like a novelty three decades ago is no longer so. Local Eisbach Surfers have created a community that is as vibrant and nuanced as any other. It can been seen as the effect of American mass media and popular culture seeping into other countries around the world. It can also be seen as people creating something new and fun out of less than ideal conditions. It would not exist had the stream not been built. In no way was this use of the park intended for when the English Garden was built. However, it is a prime example of what adaptations may occur when creating a “natural” space in a highly dense and urban area.