Nobody knows the Eisbach river quite as well as Tao Schirrmacher; the triple European surfing champion has been riding the river’s standing wave for 15 years and is now among the best in the city.
Hobby, passion, escaping the everyday – for Tao Schirrmacher, the Eisbach represents all of these things. The three-time European waveriding champion has been surfing the Eisbach river wave for fifteen years; whenever the world gets on top of him, he quite literally jumps into Munich’s most famous river. We spoke to him about community in the Munich surf scene, the Eisbach as a lively place where people come together, and the special freedom that can be found there.
What makes the Eisbach special?
The energy that comes out of the tunnel here is unique. The Eisbach has one of the best river waves in the world, and you can surf it every day, any time and for free. Other surfing spots in Munich, like the Floßlände raft landing stage or the E2 are also beautiful, and probably quieter – but the Eisbach just casts a spell on you.
“The energy that comes out of the tunnel here is unique. The Eisbach has one of the best river waves in the world, and you can surf it every day, any time and for free.“
The E2 is the second Eisbach river wave in the Englischer Garten – why is it not as famous?
The wave is smaller and weaker, so it is better suited to beginners. The water there is also deeper than it is at the larger Eisbachwelle, which makes the E2 less dangerous. Even the small wave attracts its fair share of spectators these days, though it is a bit more hidden away.
Don’t you find it annoying to always have people watching you surf?
Well, it’s always great to get there at one of the rare times when the wave is empty. Blocking out the spectators is not doable anymore, unfortunately, but it has got to the point where they sort of belong there. The spectators and the wave are as closely interlinked as Munich’s U-Bahn is with its platforms. The Eisbach is a place where tourists meet locals, and surfing pros from all over the world meet complete beginners. And that is also the beauty of this place: there’s such an incredibly colourful mix in such an accessible location.
“If I see another surfer on their bike, we’ll always say hello – like how bus drivers wave as they pass each other.“
How do you find the surf scene in Munich?
The scene everywhere is well known for its sense of community, but I feel that even more strongly in Munich. It’s like the sea: there are different groupings and some people are closer than others – but generally, surfers all tend to pull together. If I see another surfer on their bike, we’ll always say hello – like how bus drivers wave as they pass each other. There is a lot of solidarity among surfers, and also, let’s not forget: Munich is small. So it’s always special when you meet someone local who also surfs.
Where else can people find you when you’re not here?
Currently, at home with the baby or somewhere in the Westend district – in Schwanthalerhöhe, in the Westpark or on the Theresienwiese – it’s one of the few places in Munich where you can enjoy an open view.
Have you always lived in Munich?
I have always lived here, apart from the two years I spent in Portugal. On the one hand, I would obviously like to live by the sea, but on the other, Munich is a great city. It’s such a nice size: I can walk home any time or easily travel by bike. Then, of course, there are the mountains and the Eisbach. The overall plan and situation of Munich is really fantastic.
You are a three-time European surfing champion and you have surfed waves in many different places. What’s different about the Eisbach?
There is one major difference: in the sea, the wave pushes you from behind, but when you’re river surfing, the water flows underneath you, so you’re surfing on the spot. There are fundamental differences between the two types of surfing, but at the end of the day they are very similar. You get used to the difference quickly, and you can also use the same surfboard on the Eisbach as in the sea.
“Other surfing spots in Munich are also beautiful, and probably quieter – but the Eisbach just casts a spell on you.“
How dangerous is the Eisbach?
It is not completely without risk. There are stones beneath the wave – surfers very often end up with a standard cut to the head. That’s why a helmet is a good idea; you should at least use your arms to protect your head if you go under.
What are the rules for surfing the wave?
If the other surfers are banging on their boards, it’s either because you’ve done well or because you’ve been on the wave too long and should move on. You’ll know which one it is (laughs). Apart from that, everybody makes sure that they queue on alternate sides.
How has the Eisbach changed in recent years?
I have been surfing here for almost 15 years, so I have seen some changes. We used to have Walter here before, the “Hausmeister”, or caretaker. He not only helped to shape the Eisbach river wave, but also always made sure there was peace and order, to protect the spot. He was able to do that then, but the wave has since become renowned worldwide. If you start telling someone in Australia about the Eisbach, they will say “Of course, I know it – I’ve been there!”. The wave is the birthplace of river surfing and has become famous through social media. Many people say that the hype really began after the film “Keep Surfing” was released in the cinemas. I think it’s like any sport that is growing.
“The Eisbach is a place where tourists meet locals, and surfing pros from all over the world meet complete beginners. And that is also the beauty of this place: there’s such an incredibly colourful mix in such an accessible location.“
What does the Eisbach mean to you?
For me, the Eisbach is a cultural asset. Just like at the Theresienwiese and the Friedensengel (Angel of Peace), there’s a special feeling of freedom here. It is also one of the most important city attractions – a Munich landmark. It is more frequently photographed than the Olympiapark or the statue of Bavaria. Of course, the Eisbach defines much of my life. Not only do I come here to surf several times a week, I dive here too – which is how my Lost’n’drowned project came into being. For me, the Eisbach has become the place where I can make art for myself, such as my videos. I find diving to be like meditation, an escape to another world – the underwater world.
Where exactly do you go diving?
As with any passion, it’s getting bigger all the time. I now scour the whole of the Eisbach river. There are a lot of things underwater that you discover immediately, but others need a bit of digging. I also know a few spots where things are constantly getting caught – it’s a bit like picking mushrooms. But some things are washed away forever; the water acts like a seal.
How often do you find out the true history of your finds?
Very rarely, unfortunately, though that is exactly what makes it great! If you find a brooch, you might imagine a woman lost it while swimming. The photographer thinks it might be that a child wanted to show their mother’s brooch to their friends, and then accidentally let it fall into the water. Everyone has their own story about it in their head. Of course, the puzzle is only really solved if you find out the real story – but unfortunately, that is sometimes extremely boring!
“I find diving to be like meditation, an escape to another world – the underwater world.“
What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever found in the Eisbach?
One time I spent ages feeling around in the mud and then suddenly I saw the flash of a swastika. They were probably old door plaques and must have been lying down there for ages – probably from the Haus der Kunst art gallery.
Is that how your exhibition in the Haus der Kunst came about?
That was part of the Festival of Independents. My dream was always to exhibit my finds here in the city. The Haus der Kunst seemed perfect because of its proximity to the Englischer Garden and especially to the Eisbachwelle. Similar collecting happens in other cities, like the mudlarking on the banks of the Thames when the tide is out. But the Eisbach is particularly special because of its location and the wave.