Surfing Comes To the Streets of Munich

Two cyclists in shorts and flip-flops weave their way through the rush-hour traffic along Prinzregenten Street in Munich, with surfboards under their arms. A woman in a convertible whistles at them. At the same time, a group of surfers makes its way across the Hofgarten behind the Bavarian governor's office, and more young surfers are just emerging from the Lehel subway station, one already wearing a wetsuit.

It's 9 a.m. and the temperature in downtown Munich is about 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit). The sky is a brilliant blue. "It's a perfect day," comments the man in the wetsuit, who is walking barefoot.

Germany has coastline along both the North and Baltic Seas, and yet its best surfing is found in southern, landlocked Munich. The Eisbach, a small canal, flows through the city's famous English Garden (Englischen Garten), directly behind the Haus der Kunst art museum. Just beyond the Himmelreich Bridge, the canal surges over a bulge in the streambed, creating a standing wave a good meter (three feet) high.

On warm days, surfers from all over the city make their way to the Eisbach. They jump onto their boards from the concrete bank of the canal and the Eisbach's flow rate -- about one meter per second -- provides enough boost to let the surfboards glide on the surface.

The Eisbach, of course, is missing many elements of traditional surfing -- paddling out into the ocean, quickly standing up, the thrust of an approaching breaker. Instead, this is known as river surfing.

A Booming Sport in Bavaria's Capital

Thanks to the Eisbach, surfing is a booming sport in the Bavarian capital. The city boasts surf shops, and local clubs host surfer parties. Weekends see up to 50 surfers waiting in line for their next turn along the banks of the Eisbach. Professional surfers from Hawaii and California have had a go on Munich's wave -- and most have failed to ride it particularly well. Those adept at the sport can keep their boards on the narrow chute of water for several minutes, flitting back and forth as they show off their tricks. A surfer who loses his or her balance is immediately swept away by the current, and has to get back in line again.

The first surfers discovered the Eisbach in the 1970's. Safety issues -- whether the canal, with its rapid current, is too dangerous for the sport -- has persisted for as long as people have surfed here. A small canal connect to the Isar River, the Eisbach can be treacherous. Three people drowned in the canal in 2007, and swimming is strictly forbidden throughout the English Garden.

But the temptation of Eisbach's wave has always been enough to make even the most law-abiding surfer flout the rules -- and the phenomenon has been a nuisance for the city government for years. Politicians in the past have called for a surfing ban, and one plan even suggested reworking the bed of the canal to eliminate the wave entirely.

A Major Tourist Attraction

But opinions have changed with the times. Eisbach surfers have become known as a Munich tourist attraction, just like the Chinese Tower or Oktoberfest. Tour buses now include the Himmelreich Bridge on their routes, and on the weekends hundreds of tourists stop to watch on their way to the Haus der Kunst. Instead of destroying the surfers' playground, politicians are now looking for a way to legalize the spectacle. But it's proving difficult.

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