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.

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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.

Surfing isn't regulated under the city's swimming and boating ordinances. But the sport could perhaps be viewed as "permissible common usage of a body of water," local administrative official Wilfried Blume-Beyerle explained last year. Blume-Beyerle, who oversees matters of health and environment for the city, now wants to present a model for permitting surfing in Munich. It will be necessary, however, to ensure that in cases of accidents, neither the city nor the state could be held liable.

The legal status of the Eisbach is complicated -- the state of Bavaria owns the land, but the city of Munich is responsible for the water. Politicians are, however, close to finding a solution.

Bavarian Finance Minister Georg Fahrenschon, who advocated for the surfers during the last election campaign for Bavaria's state parliament, has proposed a deal to Munich Mayor Christian Ude. Fahrenschon, whose administration sits just minutes away from the wave, wants to transfer ownership of the Eisbach to the city. Munich, as sole owner, could then implement a plan to allow surfing. Ude doesn't oppose the plan, either. He's "generally happy to accept" gifts of property, he says, and will consider the suggestion "favorably."

At the moment, the idea is stuck in the administrative pipeline, and the government says it may be winter before Munich's surf scene is officially sanctioned.

The surfers, of course, can't wait that long. The season has already begun and the Eisbach's water is getting warmer by the day. Competitions have already been planned for the summer.

Someone, in fact, has gone ahead and anticipated the city government's decision. A wooden sign hung on the bank by the wave now reads: "Swimming verboten! Surfing allowed!!!"