© Fabian Weiss

Munich makes waves

Munich makes waves  Every city guide mentions the Eisbach river’s standing wave. That’s why Schmiddi, Pietzi, Mula and Marianne prefer surfing at night. Are they just playing at being boys again? The foursome vehemently disagree

Marian Heimann dances in the spotlight. He bends forward, straightens, crouches slightly and then jumps, landing gently, his back arched. Then he starts spinning, once, twice, three times: headfirst with the rest of his body following. “Yeah!” someone shouts from the sidelines, and Marian raises his arms abruptly and lets himself fall. What remains is the wave, rising half a meter, cresting, and continuing on its journey as if nothing had happened. Day and night, 20 tons of water per second, the weight of five large elephants. So far, all Heimann has suffered is one broken lumbar vertebra and a torn ligament in his knee.

On its homepage, the city of Munich describes the Eisbach as a “popular Munich attraction,” and tourists from around the world arrive in coaches every day. The bridge over the man-made stream is so crowded in the summer that you cannot even pass. Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez and Jack Johnson are among the professional surfers who have been here. A women’s magazine shrieks: “Girls, you’ll find the cutest guys!” Monday, shortly before midnight: Downtown Munich is fast asleep as Heimann climbs the bank to the bridge. He’s a big man, dressed in a black neoprene suit. Four battery driven spotlights are up on the bridge. He turns one off, another on, and the wave is illuminated more brightly. “Which is better?” he shouts down. “Yes,” someone shouts back. The sound of the rushing Eisbach is as loud as an expressway.

 Four friends, the river and the night. During the day, there are sometimes 20 surfers lining the shore, waiting for their turn for a couple of seconds on the wave. “That’s a real drag. At night, it’s only us and a few onlookers in the spotlight watching from above,” says Marian, who they call Marianne. “Because I’m blond. You know, like [the German folk duo] Marianne and Michael.” Heimann climbed onto his first surfboard at the age of 9. Today, 31, he looks like a model for a sports magazine with tousled, sun-bleached hair, his body fit, but not too muscular. “It may sound corny, but for me, surfing is the meaning of life. You can switch off in an entirely different way. After a session, I experience inner peace.”

For a surfer based in Munich, the sea is a whole day’s journey away. But the Eisbach, most of which flows underground, had this one spot in the English Garden by the Haus der Kunst museum where so much gravel sporadically collected that a small wave was formed. One day someone supposedly positioned a railroad tie there; nobody really remembers today, almost 30 years later. Since then, the stream has had a standing wave which, unlike waves in the ocean, doesn’t move horizontally. Heimann is originally from the Ruhr region of Germany but has lived in Brazil and the United States. The Eisbach wave helped him improve his ocean surfing and vice versa, too, he says. The difference being? “You have to read the ocean waves, you don’t know what they will do and you have to react fast. It’s much easier to stay on a board in a river.”

The surfing fab four: While posers line the Eisbach’s banks, real surfers come prepared

The surfing fab four: While posers line the Eisbach’s banks, real surfers come prepared

© Fabian Weiss
The dignified town hall is one side of Munich, but the wild stream is part of it, as well

The dignified town hall is one side of Munich, but the wild stream is part of it, as well

© Fabian Weiss
Alex Neumann, on his surfboard, performs a 180, a reverse move in the air

Alex Neumann, on his surfboard, performs
a 180, a reverse move in the air

© Fabian Weiss
Nothing a little wax won’t fix: Smolla’s board after a long night on the water

Nothing a little wax won’t fix: Smolla’s board after a long night on the water

© Fabian Weiss
Marian Heimann, surfer by night, engineer by day

Marian Heimann, surfer by night, engineer by day

© Fabian Weiss
Munich’s other favorite sport at Victualienmarkt: drinking beer

Munich’s other favorite sport at Victualienmarkt: drinking beer

© Fabian Weiss
The Eisbach is famous, a standard part of every Munich tour

The Eisbach is famous, a standard part of every Munich tour

© Fabian Weiss
Sink or float? That goes for snowboarding pro Marco Smolla, too

Sink or float? That goes for snowboarding pro Marco Smolla, too

© Fabian Weiss
Icy meltwater from the mountains fills the Eisbach in late May

Icy meltwater from the mountains fills the Eisbach in late May

© Fabian Weiss

 Down below, the others gesture uncertainly to each other across the stream: Is it my turn? Are you going?  Before you know it, Pietzi is on his board, shooting from side to side, stopping, turning, jumping, landing – then the water swallows him. That’s the great thing, they say. It throws you down the moment your attention wavers. The early Eisbach surfers tied themselves to a rope hanging from the bridge. A couple of meters away, invisible beneath the water, are four rows of seven concrete slabs – 28 reasons not to surf here if you’re a beginner. Two-and-a-half years ago there was an accident here at night. Slapped on the head by his board, the surfer lost consciousness, suffering a concussion, a broken cheekbone, and a cut over his left eye. If two friends hadn’t pulled him out, he would have been dead, the doctor said.

The young man had been surfing with a bicycle lamp on his head. After the accident, swimming and surfing were forbidden for many years, although no one paid much attention to the ban. It’s legal now, and there are evidently more than 2000 surfers in the city. The local government has even suggested building a facility with a second standing wave for “Munich, city of surfing.” It’s not a bad idea.

Enter Schmiddi: He lands on the board in the air, his turns wider, not as nimble as Pietzi’s, but powerful. Schmiddi jumps higher, too, landing and dropping into the water on his side. It’s important not to go under too far. He allows himself to drift, then grabs hold of a branch and pulls himself out of the water. The guys ride the wave five times a week, always at night, even in the winter, their heads, feet and hands also covered in neoprene. The Eisbach never freezes because the water flows too fast.

It’s a real drag with so many people. At night it’s just us

Marian Heimann, Eisbach surfer

Heimann came to Munich to study but his apartment was the near the Eisbach, his boards were in the basement… and more often than not, temptation overrode reason. Today, in his free time, he’s an environmental engineer, but his mind is always elsewhere. Now a pro in the surf scene, he is even sponsored by an outfitter.

Are they a bunch of men out playing like young boys? Nonsense, says Heimann, that’s just a cliché. It’s time to get back in the water. He jumps, grabs his board and nimbly turns it and then his body while still in the air. He is the most elegant of them all, his movements flowing, not jerky in the least.

“Hell, the rain really cooled it down!” cries Marco Smolla, aka Mula, pulling on his jacket. Born in Munich, raised on the Eisbach, the 26-year-old has just determined the water temperature: 10° Celcius. He has a cold, so he only went in once. Short, with a three-day beard and his hood pulled low, he looks a little like a hobbit. But Smolla is a very well-known German snowboarder. He earns a living selling photos and videos of himself hurtling down the world’s highest slopes as if he were flying. In 2013 and 2014 he toured the world, his sponsor paying for a  year of snowboarding or surfing, depending where he was. When he tell people he is from Munich, other surfers always ask: “Did you ever surf the Eisbach?” He then has to explain how you surf a wave that’s coming from the front.

Icy meltwater from the mountains fills the Eisbach in late May

Icy meltwater from the mountains fills the Eisbach in late May

© Fabian Weiss

 Each year, for cleaning, the stream stops flowing for three weeks, and Munich’s surfers almost literally paw their hoofs impatiently. Wandering across the bridge, they glance down anxiously, as if by chance. What, still dry? Smolla has started studying physics in order to make better use of the water’s force, he says. Shortly before 2 a.m., Heimann changes into street clothes and climbs onto the bridge to wait for his girlfriend. The spotlights are still on. Hands buried in his pockets, he looks down at the illuminated wave, shifting his weight from one foot to another as if trying to find his balance on dry land.