Feb 21, 2014
Extra Miler: Surf’s Up.
POWER. ADRENALINE. EXHILARATION.
Talk to any big-wave surfers and you’ll notice that those are words they’ll use. It’s a sport that blends extreme athleticism with a comprehension of the beauty and supremacy of nature. It’s an art – the board a paintbrush, the wave a canvas, the surfer a painter – with each pattern carved on a wave’s crest different from the last. But while swells created by distant winds and weather systems form and dissipate, while ocean waves – as sure as the sunrise – build, break and peter out, there is one wave that surges all year long. And it’s not in Hawaii, Fiji or Tahiti. This wave is to be found where you’d least expect it: slap bang in the middle of Munich.
Carsten Kurmis has been surfing the Eisbach wave for much of his lifetime, learning to surf on this two-kilometre-long tributary of the Isar river that runs through the Englischer Garten (English Garden) in downtown Munich. The first time he jumped in the churning, icy water (the Eisbach, or Ice Brook, didn’t earn its name for nothing), a passion was ignited in him that, over the coming years, would lead him to establish his own successful surfing distribution company, expand his business into stand-up paddle boarding on the lakes and rivers of Bavaria and take him to ocean breaks across all four corners of the globe. But while one week he may be surfing the waves of New Zealand, the next Maui, Nicaragua or Peru, it’s Munich he always returns to, back to that one city wave that – as a surfer – was the making of him.
“What do I love about river surfing?” says Carsten, motoring from his home just outside the city towards the Eisbach wave in his new MINI John Cooper Works. “It’s that perfect balance of sport and nature, feeling the power of a body of water, knowing you have to work with it, never against it, because it’s so much stronger than you are.” After parking up and pulling on his wetsuit, Carsten jumps, nimble as an acrobat, onto the board and into the surging swell, riding the wave like a true pro, pulling off cutbacks, kickflips and aerials, making the impossible look easy. To balance as he does seems almost a miracle, with water rushing in front of and behind him, sped up and channelled into a powerful wave by slanted wooden boards beneath the surface and slabs of concrete to heighten the wave.
Today, more than 1500 locals surf this wave regularly, but back in the 1970s, when those first intrepid souls started riding it, the activity was strictly forbidden. “When I first started surfing here, over two decades ago, the sport was illegal,” says Carsten. “We’d surf like chameleons, in these thin, very basic wetsuits, three on top of each other, with one eye on the wave and the other on the banks, looking out for the police.” But as more and more surfers discovered the thrills of the Eisbach, local petitions were launched to legalise the sport.
After 10 years of tireless campaigning to local government, Munich’s surfers eventually saw their efforts rewarded. The ban was lifted in 2010, and surfing the Eisbach wave went from being an illicit, guerrilla activity to one of the city’s most distinctive draws, attracting international pro surfers such as Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Gabriel Medina, as well as hundreds of local residents and tourists who watch on, in awe, from the nearby bridge.
And what’s extraordinary is not just the wave itself, continually, incongruously roaring right in the middle of a city, but the community that has risen around it – a brotherhood of wave-seekers who emerge from office buildings, buses or subway stations with surfboards under their arms; who patiently wait on the banks for their turn to take the plunge; and who gather for post-surf drinks and debriefs in the Fräulein Grüneis kiosk in the Englischer Garten, or the Goldene Bar in the nearby Haus der Kunst. River surfing is not just a sport in Munich; it’s part of the social fabric of the city, proof of that natural sense of solidarity amongst surfers and their sheer determination to seek out, to share, good waves – despite their local surf break being an hours-long drive from the sea.
Carsten, who helped pioneer this surfing scene in Munich, has long been a part of it. He had been skiing in the Dolomites since the age of three and windsurfing in the Netherlands since the age of 10, but it was surfing that really stole his heart, enabling him to go thrill-seeking in the middle of his city, to feel that raw force of nature on the steps of his own front door. When he’s in town, Carsten returns time and time again to the Eisbach; drives between warehouses to pick up boards, clothing and accessories; makes deliveries to friends, clients and local stalwarts of the city’s surfing scene, such as SantoLoco surf shop; and champions local Munich labels such as the home-grown Buster Surfboards.
When he’s not in town, which is about half of the time, he drives the length of Germany to distribute gear to other surf shops, to surf or paddle-board in international championships or to just hit up some of the most famous surf breaks in the world. “I love nothing more than a spell of time at home in my city,” says Carsten, “but I definitely have wanderlust, too. After a while I get itchy feet, an urge to jump in my MINI, put my foot down and power off to someplace new.” Munich. Hamburg. Sydney. Cape Town. Like the Eisbach wave – raging 24/7 –Carsten is always on the move.
For Carsten, surfing is a sport, an art, a career and a lifestyle. But had he never made that first jump into the Eisbach as a kid, his path may have followed a very different route. For Munich, too, the impact of the Eisbach wave has been huge, proving that an extreme, adrenaline-filled sport need not be limited to oceans and mountains, that it can happen right in the middle of a downtown urban area. “Munich is a big city, with all this art, culture and industry,” says Carsten, “but with a small-town, Bavarian spirit. And the fact that there’s this raging ball of energy, right in the centre, makes for a brilliant juxtaposition.”
And it’s true. The wave – beyond being a unique attraction and drawing people from all over the world – is a wonderful reflection of the duality of the city: friendly, easy-going and surrounded by the stunning natural beauty of Bavaria, but with energy, bite and plenty of get-up-and-go.