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Surfin' Munich

The perfect wave

Munich, 08/09/2013

LMU student Marco Smolla is a professional snowboarder. When there’s no snow, he switches boards and indulges in his other passion – surfing. Indeed, in Munich students can slip off in search of the perfect wave between lectures. – Not so far away, there is an unsuspected surfing spot...

Marco Smolla

Marco Smolla stands in a neoprene suit in the car-park of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and calls to his friends nearby: “How cold is the Eisbach today?” He might have guessed: “Ice-cold,” comes the bland reply. Nevertheless, he dispenses with his headgear, waxes his surfboard, and sprints off to the Eisbach and its famous wave in Munich’s Englischer Garten. The overcast sky is not exactly inviting, but he still finds eight other surfers waiting on the banks of this artificial side-arm of the Isar.

When his turn comes, Marco sets off at a run, while some of his colleagues try to distract him by shouting out his name. He repays the compliment by showering them with icy river water. It is at once relaxing and absorbing to watch him – from a safe distance – ride the rapids. But this meditative mood is abruptly interrupted when the 23-year-old tries a 180° turn and loses his balance. But after a couple of determined strokes he clambers up the slippery bank, with a huge grin on his face.

No country for beginners
Marco discovered surfing as a byproduct of his love of snowboarding. Talent scouts for the Red Bull team recognized his exceptional snowboarding ability early on, and the firm agreed to sponsor him. He now heads their “Wings Academy” in Oberstdorf, coaching up-and-coming juniors, and giving them tips for a future professional career.

The most problematic aspect of the standing wave on the Eisbach is the water level in the stream. The tallest rocks lie only 80 cm below the surface. “The most difficult part is learning how to fall,” explains Smolla, a Munich native. “Otherwise one risks injury to the head or the legs.” So anyone interested should be prepared for a tough time in the beginning. So far, Marco has needed only a couple of stitches – in a toe.

Objections to surfing the Eisbach
Marco SmollaBut it is hardly surprising that safety on this stretch of the stream soon became a political issue. After years of wrangling between the local authorities over legal liabilities, and protests by 17,000 fans against a proposal to deny access to the famous wave, the city fathers simply decided to post signs informing surfers that they themselves would be held liable for any accidents. “Meanwhile, even the police sometimes come to watch us,” Marco chuckles.

Given Marco’s interest in the balance of forces, it is quite appropriate that he is now writing his Bachelor’s thesis in Physics, a task which he obviously takes seriously. “I haven’t been near the water for the last 10 days,” he avers. During the summer he normally surfs for 2 hours a day, 6 days a week – anticipating how the onrushing “breaker” will behave rather than laboriously calculating the solution to a problem in wave mechanics. Ocean waves may be higher, but surfing in the middle of a busy city is very special and every ride is different from the last. No wonder he keeps his surfboard at a friend’s house nearby, so that he can always take a quick time-out from working in the library and head for the Eisbach.

Fears of commercialization
The prehistory of surfing on the Eisbach goes back to the so-called Brettlrutschn of the 1960s, in which enthusiasts rode the wave on a log attached to the riverbank by a rubber cable. The real surfers discovered the Eisbach in 1978, but it took time for this “Alpine Coast” resort to become internationally known.

Meantime, its fame has reached Australia. In 2009, the film “Keep Surfing” was made here. Since then, competitions have been held, and a well-known North German brewery now uses the odd combination of urban waterway and surfing to advertise its alcohol-free beers. This in turn has raised fears of the wholesale commercialization of the stream. As long as the sport doesn’t suffer, Marco doesn’t mind. – On the contrary! “If I had charged a euro for every photo tourists have taken of me, I would have a tidy sum put away by now,” he says.

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