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].”