First Session: The Eisbach and the Birth of River Surfing in Downtown Munich

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 579d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay and Huntington Beach. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

Long before Waco and the Surf Ranch—even before Typhoon Lagoon and Flowriders—novelty surfing meant riding waves in rivers. And while most of us ocean-dwellers might still think of standing waves as little more than novelties, the reality is that river surfing has been around for far longer than you might think. In fact, the first river surfing dates back nearly 50 years, to a city better known for brewskis than boards.

Most people think of Munich as the home of Oktoberfest, but the German city (and capital of Bavaria) also happens to have a thriving river surf scene. That scene is centred around a short, 2-kilometer-long, manmade river called the Eisbach, which is widely considered to be the location of the first river surfing.

Yes! There are waves in Germany. See here

Local legend maintains that the Eisbach was surfed as early as the late 1960s, although most people agree on 1972 as the confirmed start of the sport in Munich. Back then, it was illegal to swim in the river, so surfing was not only counter-culture, but also technically illegal. Early river surfers, such as Dieter “The Eater” (one of the stars of the 2009 documentary Keep Surfing), had to keep one eye on the local cops and the other on the river while riding their standing wave, often with the aid of a rope tied to an adjacent bridge, which they used to help keep their balance and not get swept downstream.

Today, the rope is gone, but the Munich locals are still very much surfing—more than ever, in fact. After decades of local authorities largely ignoring the water-logged lawbreakers in the Eisbach, the government finally lifted the ban on swimming in 2010 and made surfing legal.

It has since become an integral part of the local culture, with hundreds of surfers lining the river bank each day, waiting their turn to hop into the frigid water that rushes by at nearly 20 tons per second. Sponsored river surfers adorn local billboards, an annual contest has been organised, and a couple of mellower, more user-friendly “waves” have been developed farther along the Eisbach for beginning river surfers.

Munich regularly shows up in novelty-wave edits, and pros such as Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater, Taylor Knox, and Ross Clark-Jones have all ridden the wave. Meanwhile, river surfing has become a full-blown thing, with standing waves being ridden all over the world. I was recently on a mountain bike trip in Salida, California, and was flabbergasted when a teenager in a neon rashguard and booties went walking by with a bodyboard under his arm.

Even though they were inspired by ocean surfing, Munich’s first wave riders started the sport in a country that is all but landlocked

The next day, I was in Buena Vista and saw two wetsuit-clad kids walking down the road carrying hybrid fish/quads. As it turns out, there are a more than a dozen standing waves in Colorado that are “surfed” on a regular basis, with established surf scenes springing up everywhere—miniature versions of Munich, except without schnitzel and biergartens.

Spot guide: Germany

On Oahu, half the North Shore shows up to surf the river mouth at Waimea Bay after major rainstorms. Bend, Oregon, has a popular river wave, as does the Snake River in Wyoming. And for those willing to make the trek to Africa, there’s a standing wave on the Zambezi where you can get legitimately barrelled.

At the same time, river surfing has grown beyond standing waves and expanded to include bore tides, which are their own kind of crazy. From the Pororoca in the Amazon and Quintang River in China to Turnagain Arm in Alaska and the Mascaret in France, people are riding waves up rivers all over the world, many of them having never set foot in the ocean or even tasted salt water.

Much like skateboarding and SUPing , river “surfing” has grown beyond its oceanic roots to become its own thriving sport, pursued by tens of thousands of inland surfers in hundreds of different rivers all over the world—very few of them anywhere near the actual ocean.

And maybe that’s exactly how it should be. After all, even though they were inspired by ocean surfing, Munich’s first wave riders started the sport in a country that is all but landlocked, in a city located about as far from the sea as it’s possible to be in Germany.

There’s something radical about being able to look beyond your geographical limitations, step outside the box, and find a way to tap into the source—even if it’s a totally different source than Gerry Lopez and his contemporaries were tapping into on the North Shore in 1972.

The irony of it all? Gerry Lopez has spent the past 30 years living in Bend, Oregon, where the nearest wave looks a lot more like the Eisbach than it does the Pipeline. Maybe river surfing is a little less novelty than we’d like to think.

Cover shot by The Endless Winter II