Munich is hundreds of kilometres away from the sea – and is still a world-renowned surfer metropolis. Our author wants to learn to river surf. Her goal: to stand up on the Eisbachwelle (river wave) once in her life.
It is nine years since I last touched a surfboard. I was 16 years old and a participant in a surfing camp in France. On the third day, I ran against a root and broke my toe. It hurt so much that I could not even run in the sand, let alone continue surfing.
Now I am going to have another go at surfing. Only this time it’s not on the sea, but on the river in the heart of Munich, the capital of river surfing. The sport was invented here more than forty years ago. Not many cities have standing waves for surfing. In Munich, there are several. The best known is the Eisbachwelle next to the Haus der Kunst – tourists from all over the world watch the surfers there.
People surf here in all weathers, day and night. The slightly smaller wave “E2” is also on the Eisbach, a little further into the Englischer Garten (park). And at the Flosslände (raft launch) in Thalkirchen, there is a wave that is perfect for beginners. Munich’s first river surfers started the sport here at the beginning of the 1970s. People have only been able to surf properly on the Eisbachwelle since the 1980s.
I am now used to seeing people carrying surfboards under their arms when I’m riding my bike. Whenever I watch the Eisbach surfers, I am fascinated by how easy it looks as they steer their boards through the wave. For a long time it didn’t occur to me that I could learn to surf on the river for myself. This surfer world in Munich seemed too exclusive. There was no point of contact, no course in which I could try it out. Perhaps the frustration of my 16-year-old self was also playing into this. There was no lack of fascination at any rate. Now I am wondering whether I can soon surf on the Eisbach myself.
Before my first attempt at the Flosslände, I am so excited that I can’t eat anything. I have arranged to meet Quirin Rohleder. He has been surfing for more than 30 years in Munich and is also well-known in the international surfing scene. At 13, he started on the Eisbach, with a bodyboard that he had cut from an expanded polystyrene sheet from a building site – and on which he soon managed to surf standing up.
Not many cities have standing waves for surfing. In Munich, there are several.
Together with Christian Bach, he founded the Rapid Surf League in Munich. Surfing on the sea will become an Olympic sport in 2020. Apart from marketing events organised by manufacturers from the surfing industry, there have not so far even been German championships organised for surfing on standing waves. Quirin and Christian wanted to change that and to make this kind of surfing into a separate sport, with a Europe-wide league. The competitions take place on all kinds of standing waves, including artificial waves. At the same time, Quirin says: “It is important to us to also do an event on a semi-natural wave every year. No power is consumed. Therefore, it is CO2-neutral and hopefully helps the many semi-natural wave projects.”
The wave at the Flosslände is such a semi-natural wave. When I get there, virtually the first thing I see is a man with a white plaster on his nose. I realise that he has broken his nose – here when surfing at the Flosslände – because the board hit him in the face. I become even more nervous.
I sit down at the edge of the bank and Quirin holds my board so that I only have to position myself on top of it. A major advantage of surfing on a river: I can stand from the beginning. I am saved the frustration of just lying on the board for days. For this reason, river surfing is more beginner-friendly than surfing on the sea as standing up is the most difficult part of this sport. Also, the wave is always relatively constant and you do not have to adjust to different conditions as you do on the sea.
First attempt: It is very wobbly. I would fall off straightaway if Quirin wasn’t holding me. The nose dips into the water – I fall.
Second attempt: It goes a little better. The nose dips into the water – I fall.
The man with the plaster shows me a root. It is like a handle that I can hold onto when I climb out of the water. A female surfer advises me to bend my knees more. That is what Quirin says too. And don’t forget to maintain the tension. Leave the back arm hanging loosely, don’t do too much, simply stand very still. It works. For a few seconds. Then the nose is in the water again.
“Now you need a surfboard rack for your bike,” says Quirin. On the first day, I ride home with the surfboard under my arm, which is pretty tiring. I am exhausted and delighted by the experience. When I buy a rack for my bike a few days later, I feel a bit like part of the scene, although I still can’t do anything. I have the impression that people help one another, at least at the Flosslände. Even so, I wonder how I am supposed to get onto the board next time without Quirin.
I decide to go to somewhere where people can try out surfing without connections and equipment – the Jochen Schweizer Arena. I only have my bikini with me. Wetsuits are available on-site. There are approximately ten of us. Michael, one of the two trainers at the hall, explains what we need to bear in mind. If we fall in the water, we should keep our arms in front of our face until we know where the board is. “When you emerge and think that nothing else can happen – that is the moment that the board has been waiting for,” says Michael.
We start with practising by a pole that leads across the pool. Stand on the board, hold firm, release the back hand, release both hands. After quarter of an hour, the pole is removed. Now we start alternately from either side. On each side, there is a trainer who helps us to get on.
I place my surfboard at the highest point of the wave and stand up as if I am getting up from a chair. “Don’t look at the water; look up at the stand,” says Michael. And then look at the other side, where I want to go. I ride to the other side without really knowing how. There, Luis, the second trainer, is already stretching out his hand. Now I am supposed to stretch out my left arm and look back. I move a little way, then fall.
It works better with every attempt, and I am delighted. I am motived by the fact that I can sense progress immediately. The three quarters of an hour go past too quickly. I suspect that the progress is not directly due to my surfing skills, but rather to the fact that it is much easier in the Jochen Schweizer Arena than at the Flosslände. And Quirin also laughs when I tell him about my success at the Arena. “Of course, it’s much easier there.”
I go back to the Flosslände and am afraid that I won’t even be able to stand up on my own. No one there to hold me. I watch closely to see how the others get on their boards. It does not help that I am waiting in the queue – my nervousness has enough time to build up and intensify. But when it is my turn, I manage it without a problem.
"Anyone who can’t go across ten times at the Flosslände and who doesn’t start the whole thing with a drop-in, i.e. by jumping straight onto the board, has no business on the Eisbach.”
I try to remember all the tips. Bend the knees more, look where I want to go. Back foot back. Front foot at a 45° angle.
After a couple of attempts, I almost manage to get to the other side. I have a sense of achievement! I reflect that it helps to celebrate every little success when you are starting something from scratch. Then I think that it always helps to celebrate our own successes. We focus on the negatives much too often.
On a Sunday, my third day at the Flosslände, the temperature is 30°C. When I arrive, there are more than twenty people ahead of me in the queue – just on my side. I wait quarter of an hour – to then stand on my surfboard for five seconds.
River surfing used to be a niche sport in Munich, but it is now increasingly becoming a trend. The existence of the Jochen Schweizer Arena also contributes to the increasing numbers of people who are trying out surfing. And now there is a real run on the waves.
Later, I get to know Thilo Hartung from the Interessengemeinschaft Surfen in München (Surfing in Munich Interest Group – IGSM). He shows me a photo of a day on which the queue at the Flosslände was approximately twice as long. For years, the IGSM has advocated more waves, especially for beginners, and for the wave at the Flosslände to operate for longer.
The wave can currently be enjoyed from 2.15 pm until 7.30 pm, from May until the end of September. During this period, the public utilities allow more water through so that the wave is created. Robert Meier-Staude, Professor of Resource-conserving Design and Development at the University of Munich, has worked with the surfers to develop a construction that produces a standing wave in rivers. In 2015, it was installed at the Flosslände, after there had frequently been no wave in the previous years.
In order to teach the younger generation to show consideration for one another and to take pleasure in the community and the sport, the ISGM and the Rapid Surf League are supporting the next generation of surfers: they organised a competition event for children at the Flosslände for the second time this year.
In contrast to Quirin, Thilo is adamant that beginners should only surf at the Flosslände. “Anyone who can’t go across ten times at the Flosslände and who doesn’t start the whole thing with a drop-in, i.e. by jumping straight onto the board, has no business on the Eisbach,” he says.
At 13, Quirin Rohleder started on the Eisbach, with a bodyboard that he had cut from an expanded polystyrene sheet from a building site.
I see a few people who I have already seen on the first two days. The young female surfer in the turquoise wetsuit. The father and son who are going surfing together. The man with grey hair and a beard who always jumps straight onto the board instead of positioning himself on it. Sometimes, when someone does a trick, the others beat their surfboards. They also beat their boards for a beginner the first time they manage to stand on the board for a few seconds after several attempts.
On my fourth day at the Flosslände, I ask the surf Dad whether he has any tips for me. The wave always washes me away immediately. He advises me to stand a bit further forward and to bend the knees more. “It should burn;” he says. “It should hurt,” says someone else who is standing behind him in the queue. When it is my turn, I bend my knees and place my front foot further forward on the board. I ride to the other side. Someone beats their board. For me.
On my seventh day at the Flosslände I reach a low point. There are a lot of people around, I have to wait a long time and I fall fast. Where is the sense of achievement? It is no fun. Is that the point I've reached now with so many sports? The point at which I lack motivation because my progress has stagnated, because there is no sense of achievement to push me on?
I don't really want to give up that quickly.
On the eighth day at the Flosslände it is cloudy and cold. Perfect weather – finally there are not so many people on the wave anymore. That gives me new motivation. The curve doesn't work, but it's not bad. Once I am pressed down by the wave that I get scared and forget to put my arms in front of my head. The moment that the surfboard was waiting for, like Michael said. I feel a blow on my forehead. It really hurts. I will get a bruise, but it could have been worse. I again undertake to always keep my arms in front of my head.
Thilo from the IGSM says that it takes a few years before you can get back and forth easily. And he says that if I have been able to get there and back already after such a short time, it shows that I’m “not completely talentless”. Thilo is an ironic guy; I’ll take that as a compliment.
Even so, I will still have to be patient for a while before I can surf on the Eisbach. And practise, practise, practise. I will continue next season. And at least I have achieved more than my 16-year-old self would ever dreamed possible.
Also interesting: Newbie, celebrity, professional: a typology of the Eisbach Surfer