Surfers are a perilous bunch. We are driven by a desire to ride walls of moving water, in search of mother nature’s next greatest thrill. We’ll risk broken bones, slashed skulls, lack of oxygen – literally life and limb – for the chance at the ride of a lifetime. It’s a sport full of hazards, played out on a moving, shifting, powerful field. Currents change, pollution levels rise and fall, and always, swimming slowly through the back of your mind, are the sharks.
As populations grow, as the far-flung reaches of the globe become more accessible and surf spots become more crowded, surfing has been pushed to new arenas. Surfers are constantly searching for new waves all around the globe, and finding them occasionally in the most unexpected places. Who could imagine Kelly Slater’s wave pool in the middle of California’s central valley, or NLand surf park in Texas? But outside of the coastal cluster and the man-made wave boom, what else is there?
Well, there’s Germany.
As a rock band rolling through Europe on a tour bus, we rarely have the opportunity to “throw in a couple boards” on the off chance that we’ll happen upon a swell when we reach the coast. Guitars and drums, amps and gear take up too much real estate in the bus to allow recreational vehicles like surfboards. It’s even more rare for us to find surfable waves anywhere in the landlocked heart of mainland Europe. So what do you do if the stars suddenly align in the middle of Germany for a surf session unlike any other? Of course, you surf.
As I explored a mid-city plaza in Munich, I happened upon a sign that read “Surf shop”. My interest was piqued, considering we were 300 miles from the nearest ocean. Taking my curiosity inside, I stumbled into some locals with the knowledge and generosity to welcome an outsider. As a surfer who grew up on Southern California beaches my cold water tolerance is light, and my understanding of riding a river wave was less than zero. I explained to my new friends that I was familiar with surfing ocean waves but puzzled by the sport of river surfing.
The Eisbach is a tributary of the Isar River that runs through the middle of Munich, Germany. Surfers line up almost around the clock to ride the constant flow of this cold, freshwater river in the middle of a landlocked city that happens to be Bavaria’s capital.
But instead of just explaining, our new friends offered to let us experience it for ourselves. These generous locals lent us Californian musicians some real surfboards and warm wetsuits to brave the conditions. “How hard can it be?”, I thought to myself… “Not as difficult as real surfing, you just stand there!” It wasn’t until I was suited up, standing at the river’s edge that the thought occurred to me, “What happens if you wipeout?” The term ‘swept away’ seemed appropriate as I watched more than one more experienced river surfer fail in their attempts to conquer the Eisbach. Each time they ate it, it was over the falls and down the river! It seemed a rite of passage to experience that cold spin cycle through this washing machine.
The river walls were lined with contenders, surfers waiting for their turn. As an English-speaking outsider I was both literally and figuratively last in line. Wishing I could ask for some more tips from the locals I began to regret not taking that Intro to German class in high school. After watching so many failed attempts my confidence was waxing thin.
My first attempt was as laughable as you might expect. Stepping onto my board I instantly slipped head over heels into the icy drink. The second spin was even worse, and the river wasn’t getting any warmer. The walk of shame along the river’s edge back to the wave felt longer each time. Humiliated, I considered calling it quits. This was not the bunny slope I had anticipated, but I couldn’t bear the thought of traveling so far and not getting one decent ride. I somehow, after what felt like an excruciatingly long time, navigated the jump-off into the pulsing river current, and this time with my feet actually on the board. It’s a tricky beast. The Eisbach has a much faster flow than the Pacific and the concrete walls on either sides are far less forgiving than the sandy beaches back home. The limited space to ride creates a sense of urgency, and the stakes are high if you don’t make the turn. We saw boards break against the walls, and worse when bodies collided with the cold concrete.
Finally on that third wave I grabbed my rail and held on, victorious, for about a 30-second ride, which felt so much longer under the circumstances. After hearing the cheers of my bandmates I got cocky and tried a sharp turn. This sent me over the handlebars and careening backwards into the river… humbled once again by the German Dragon.
Feeling thankful to get wet in the midst of an otherwise landlocked urban environment, I said “danke shoen” to the locals who allowed a California kid the chance to sample Bavaria’s finest. Lesson learned – river surfing is REAL surfing. I’ve heard it said that “Life is a long lesson in humility”, and this chapter is one I won’t soon forget. I’ll be back to this river someday, and next time with the humble respect that only experience can give.