Doing something that no one has ever done before is a very attractive proposition for lots of people. That drive to be the first or only is how we get people to walk across Niagara Falls on a tight rope, or eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Extreme examples aside, though, us regular folk are rarely presented with the opportunity to do something truly original. When Ira Mowen was in Berlin, he seized the opportunity to surf the only wave that breaks in the area. Here he talks about that wave and what it took for him to conquer it. And lucky for us, he’s a filmmaker so his quest is documented. Though his tips apply directly to his efforts on this strange wave, the process can be applied to any seemingly insurmountable task you’re hoping to accomplish.
How to Catch the Last German Wave
by Ira Mowen
I grew up four blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz, California, yet after college drifted over to Berlin, Germany, unaware that it was void of a coastline. After about six years of not living within a few minutes of the endless surf, I discovered what I had only dreamt about before: a seemingly perfect wave outside of the city of Berlin. Yes, it sounds crazy, but there’s a huge catch: it’s almost impossible to surf.
This later fact I didn’t learn until well into my lone quest to surf it. To compare the wave I was trying to catch to the ones I was used to at home, I’d say it’s a bit like a head-high swell hitting 38th, in Capitola: fat, fast, and with the right wind can hold the perfect curl. Yet unlike the friendly ocean, and probably the main reason there’s no existing footage of the wave being surfed, this wave only breaks once a day, at best. The reason for this is because it’s not actually a wave, but the wake from a giant ship.
When I first saw this wave it would be an understatement to say I was excited. Yet my happiness soon shifted course. While researching online, I sadly learned that the ship that produced the wave would be replaced in the coming months by a new ship, one that probably wouldn’t be as poorly designed as the old one, and would most likely not form a surfable wave. This is where my quest, and film, began.
The following six steps describe in detail what I did to catch the last German wave.
Step 1: RESEARCH
With no existing pictures or video to learn from, it was up to me alone to figure out this very unusual wave. My first few trips to the spot involved just watching the wave. I would travel light, just bringing my cameras, wetsuit, and surfmat. Sometimes I wouldn’t even get in the water. My goal in the beginning was to understand how the different speeds of the ship affected the size of the wave, and its placement in the water. Understanding this was key to my success, because not being in the right spot at the right time often meant waiting a day, or sometimes even a week, until the next wave. Once I thought I knew where to wait, I began to paddle out. To this day I am still trying to figure it out.
Step 2: TAKE RISKS, DREAM BIG & DON’T GIVE UP
I was all alone, on a race against the clock, trying to be the first surfer to document a ride on the only German wave before it was gone forever. The hardest thing for me to realize was the fact that I might never catch the thing. When I began this project, I thought that after a couple weeks I’d have the makings of a nice short film. Soon my little adventure turned into a difficult six month, winter-long quest that completely consumed my life. It’s not easy to fail over and over again, yet my dream was strong, and I knew I wasn’t giving up without a fight. I dreaded the day I would paddle out, still not having caught the wave, as the ship passed me by for the very last time.
Step 3: MAKE BELIEVE
It was hard to stay excited after so many failed attempts. Yet before each new attempt I would try to clear my mind, get pumped up, and tell myself: “This is the one!” I knew the chances were slim, but like a person who faithfully plays the lottery, I made myself believed that each new paddle out would be THE one.
Step 4: FIND A ROUTINE
The ship was on a timetable, and I quickly turned my attempt at surfing its wake into something very mechanical. When I knew a ship was about 35 minutes away I would do the following: Put my wetsuit on, walk a half mile to the end of the harbor, wait for the ship, judge the speed of the ship, decide to jump in or not, jump in, paddle over to the sweet spot, try to catch the wave, not catch the wave, watch the wave pass me by, make a mental note of what I could do better next time, paddle back to shore, walk the half mile back to camp, warm up, review the footage, contemplate the failed attempt, and rest until the next ship came. I did 150 versions of this same routine before actually catching the wave.
Step 5: PRACTICE IN REAL SURF
The board I had custom-made for the spot was a seven foot Simmons-inspired twin fin. I thought such a hull would give me the speed and gliding ability that I needed to catch this exceptionally fast moving ship wake. Yet four months into my quest I still didn’t really know the board. Luckily the time came for that to change. I probably wouldn’t have taken a break from the project but my dad was turning a big 7-0. Four days before his birthday, and three weeks after some of the most intense non-surfing I’ve ever done in my life, I stood up on my first waist-high wave. Though not really big enough to break like the head high wave I was aiming for, it would satisfy me for the moment. A couple hours after this first ride I booked a flight to Santa Cruz, California, with wetsuit and twin fin by my side. For one month I rode the board; found its quirks, learned its moods, and fine-tuned the art of coexisting on its shape. I truly believe that if my dad hadn’t turned 70 when he did, I would’ve never taken the time off, and thus probably never would’ve succeeded in my quest.
Step 6: BE CALM
After a month of countless California waves, I returned to the once seemingly impossible task of catching one single German wave. Yet this time it was different; I was calm, and I was confident. Two weeks after arriving back in Berlin, I went out to the spot, jumped off the rocks, casually paddled into position, and on my first attempt in more than 50 days, I found myself at the peak of one of the biggest waves I’d ever seen at the spot; a place, up until then, I had only been in dreams. It felt effortless for the first time. All I remember thinking is: ok, this is it, now I’ll just stand up and surf.