Here's How Munich's Illegal River Surfing Scene Went From City Secret to Global Sensation
Twenty years ago, they would've thrown your cameras in the river. Now, the Eisbach river wave is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Munich...
It’s just past 6.30am on a sunny Saturday morning in Munich. We’re on our way from the Metro station to the Englischer Garten, or English Garden, one of the largest public urban parks in the world, bigger even than Central Park.
The city is quiet at this time of morning. Barring a few dog walkers and the odd jogger and worker here and there, the streets are largely empty. But as we approach the entrance to the gardens and the start of the 2km Eisbach River which flows through it, we spot a crowd of tourists.
Heading over to the bridge where the tourists are gathered, we hear the roaring of white water and look down to see a surfer riding against the ferocious wave below, with seven surfers waiting on the banks either side. Four on the right, three on the left. Let us remind you, it’s just past 6.30 in the morning.
The surfer goes back and forth across the river. After a few neat turns, he falls backwards and is swept away down the river. The next rider in queue jumps on from the side and takes their turn on the wave. The loop goes on. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.
The Eisbach has hosted surfers for over 40 years now. It’s one of the most unique communities in the world – where people can surf 24 hours a day and can live and die by the surfboard without having ever even been to the ocean.
“People used to throw cameras into the water to protect the place. At that time it was really local..."
If you had gone to the wave as recently as the early 2000s though, you would have found a very different atmosphere. The secret spot was illegal to ride back then, and fiercely protected by the local crew. Try to watch and you would’ve been eyeballed. Try to take a photo and you would’ve been lucky to escape with your camera.
As we watch on now, the circle of surfers continues to surge below us. Tourists snap away from on the bridge and from either side of the river. A rider nails an impressive air and takes the applause from the bridge that comes with it. The crowd begins to grow.
The Eisbach was once the heart of the most surreptitious underground surfing scene in Europe, but now, it’s the centre of the most famous city river surfing site on the entire globe; the subject of films, articles, Instagram pictures and Twitter hashtags. It's literally one of the stops on the segway tour of Munich.
The surfing community is thriving still, stunning to watch and it is undoubtedly one of the most unique and distinctive scenes, sporting or otherwise, the world over. But it’s transformed a hell of a lot since the days when it could be considered a secret.
The Good Old Days
We’ve made our way to the Eisbach to meet Quirin Stamminger, a man who has been surfing the wave for the past 20 years, long before it became the surfer-heavy tourist attraction it is today.
The 36-year-old gets to the wave for 5am three times a week to surf before the queue gets too big. He’s been riding the wave since before he was 16 years old, and as you may imagine, he didn’t always have to set such an early alarm clock.
“It didn’t used to be so busy," he tells us. “I’d say it really changed a little more than 10 years ago, when there was more and more videos coming out because of everything that happened with mobiles.
“The small surf crowd got slightly bigger, and then all of a sudden we weren’t that little core anymore.
“Before that happened, we were having to escape and run away from the police when they showed up. They were chasing us. And anyone who would come to take pictures or videos or to get an interview back then would have been chased away. Really.
“People used to throw cameras into the water to protect the place. At that time it was a really local, small community and there would be times when you could surf on your own. That just doesn’t happen anymore."
Looking around, it’s easy to believe him. His early morning surf session was shared with seven others. By the time we begin to talk to him at 7am, there’s even more arriving to join the queue.
We ask what the busiest time of the day is for surfing the wave and get a smirk along with the answer: “during daylight."
"Even an ocean surfer we would have to send away, because legally, if they die or hurt themselves drastically we would all be fucked..."
Quirin continues: “I normally come at 5am on weekends or at nighttimes and just stay until it gets too busy. We bring LED battery lamps at night and hang them on the bridge. It works perfectly but it’s still damn busy.
“I’ve been here at probably every time of day, and sometimes you are lucky and you’ll have an hour or so, but sometimes it gets packed much quicker now. Then the sport is over. It just becomes queuing.
“In summer in the past it was always crowded, but that would be when everybody would meet up, and nowadays it’s just pure luck if you get that time window when it’s not that crowded and you really can surf and get the feeling.
“There are surfers who just come here because of the crowds now; too many of those unfortunately. When you’re used to a spot and it’s quite local... well [it’s frustrating]."
Legends of Localism
The once seldom-seen waters may be somewhat of a global landmark in the surf world at this point, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that you can just rock up with your board and give it a go.
The Eisbach river wave is infamous for the localism rife in the area, and the rumours only grow from those, even accomplished surfers, who have turned up for a go in the past and been turned away, often in no polite manner.
You may not have your camera thrown in the water anymore if you turn up to snap, but turn up to surf and it’d be no surprise to end up in conflict with one of the locals.
We ask Quirin if we would be turned away should we choose to turn up in a wetsuit, having only been out on the waves a couple of times before.
“We would have to," he candidly replies. “It’s actually forbidden for people who aren’t extremely experienced riding river waves to surf here. Even an ocean surfer we would send away, because legally, if they die or hurt themselves drastically we would all be fucked. They would close down the wave."
It sounds harsh, but the more Quirin explains, the easier it is to digest. When the wave was illegal, as recently as 2009, those who couldn’t have ridden the wave simply wouldn’t have come. Now that it’s legal, anyone can technically turn up and have a go – but it’s a treacherous experience.
The fact that you can ride waves perfectly on the ocean simply doesn’t mean that you can master the river wave in one session. You’re surfing against the wave rather than with it, and as such, everything you’ve learned about surfing from the ocean needs near enough reversed for the river.
Quirin continues: “In front of the wave the water is only 40cm deep at times and behind the wave it’s still only like 130 or 150cm.
“There are three rows of rocks where the white water keeps you. It’s a painful thing. Anything else doesn’t matter too much, but all the energy of the river can take you, press you through the rocks and just go clack-clack-clack with your bones. There’s no way to avoid it.
“You don’t learn how to surf here. You could, but it’s painful and dangerous and really not allowed. We all learned to surf somewhere else, on smaller river waves that don’t have rocks underneath."
The truth of the matter is that the local chip so many people speak of seems to have spawned from fear for the wave and its existence. That said, we learn some of the locals deal with beginners in a rather more courteous way than others, enlightening them about the nearby beginner's river wave rather than reaching for the curse words.
The wave is legal now, but it was almost completely shut down before government intervention in 2010, campaigned and fought for through the “hard, hard work of about 10 surfers and activists" who have surfed the wave all of their lives.
The community pushed hard to protect the wave from closure, and finally succeeded – under the requirement that only experienced surfers were allowed to use it. Hence the endless signs that state exactly that set up on the banks of the river.
“The wave was always a grey area," Quirin explains, clearly speaking with a passion on the subject. “When it nearly got closed down, there were too many things happening, and that part of the English Garden did not belong to the city, but to the state of Barvaria. They have different legal requirements, so the guy responsible for the area would’ve been liable himself if anyone got hurt. So he thought ‘I’ll close that shit down’, and I completely understand why.
“The surfers founded a group of interest and talked to politicians and used media to help us. Obviously that was exactly the opposite way we always wanted it though – back then we avoided media completely, but since the wave got more and more famous and visitors put videos online, it was not too big a step for us to use media to help protect it.
“The city and state changed property eventually within the English Garden and then the city got this piece with the wave. The legal situation has become a little more comfortable since then."
The Secrets of the River Wave
If it feels like all the romantic rebellion of the famous Munich river wave has been lost to legislation and virality though, you’ve not been paying attention. At the Eisbach, there’s always something more.
When the city renovated the surface of the bottom of the river above the wave, back before 2010, the water flow of the Eisbach changed. It destroyed the wave, making it pure white water, far too strong for surfing or anything close. The wave simply couldn’t stand up.
For months, the surfers, members of one of the most exclusive, seductive scenes in the world were left unable to ride. Until one of them came up with an idea; to attach ropes to the bridge, attached to submerged planks which make the wave break perfectly. There’s just one problem. They’re illegal.
“That’s a secret," laughs Quirin. “We’re not allowed to talk about it. That’s the prohibited part, but it’s needed to keep the wave open. Or else there would be no wave. We do not talk about it at all!"
The forbidden ropes aren’t quite secret enough to be kept off Wikipedia of course, so we’re guessing that we won’t be shutting down the Eisbach by mentioning them on Mpora either.
Handily enough, the ropes also solved a long-standing problem of the river wave, meaning that the surfers can now ride in winter, when previously there would be long flat spells of purely white water.
We thank Quirin as he heads home to return to his family, and stand and watch for a while as the crowd continues to grow at the thriving river wave, snapping, cheering and murmuring away from every angle. It’s a sight that’s hard to turn away from. It’s almost hypnotic.
While the tourists watch on and the endless circle of surfers continue, we consider how the rope that holds the Eisbach together perfectly represents the scene that it has spawned. Forbidden, yet ever-present. Simple yet essential. Hidden in plain sight, for everyone to see.
The illegal rope system only adds further to the romance of the river wave, and it’s nice to know that even in the legalised era of the spectacle, the now-famous spot has still got its secrets. We’re sure there are many more that remain untold.