About a year ago, I interviewed Ira Mowen. Ira is on a quest to catch the only German wave, before the ship that produces it is gone forever. He’s been documenting his journey, in a film named Surf Berlin. That film now has a kickstarter campaign.
Ira and I met on Facebook early in 2012. Someone shared a link to the trailer for Surf Berlin on my timeline. I watched it once, and needed to connect. I shot Ira an introductory message and have been bugging him for updates ever since. During his recent trip home to the states, we were able to do an interview.
Meet Ira Mowen; foxhound of balloons & boat wakes.
Where did you grow up?
Santa Cruz, California
When did you start surfing?
I grew up a few blocks from the beach. It wasn’t until I was probably 8 years old, on a family vacation to Hawaii, that I first felt at home in the surf. I would spend hours upon hours just getting pounded in the shore break at Makaha, with my brother and dad. It was the most fun I had on those trips. Our family friend Betty Winstedt, lived right on the beach. Up until 1995 we’d go back every winter to visit. We later found out she was the ‘1959 Women’s Surfing World Champion.’ I think those trips solidified my love for being in the surf. Later on.. around ’93, I got into Nirvana, and skateboarding. The latter of the two is what lead me to try a surfboard in the summer of ’95.
(“All the good surfers have a big truck” a page from my Hawaii journal circa 1994)
Tell us a bit about your artistic endeavors…
Since I was old enough to hold a pencil, I’ve known that I wanted to be an artist. Lucky for me, my parents have always supported me as an artist. At the age of 6, they enrolled me in an art class that I continued all the way through high school. I studied illustration in college… but after graduating, somehow became more attracted to video art. As a kid I would borrow my dad’s camcorder when ever I could, to make stop-motion films and what not. I guess my interest in video never left. Almost all of my work is autobiographical. My YouTube channel; citizenstand, is a perfect example of that. It started as my response to video bloggers in the early days of YouTube. Lately it’s been all about intense moments where I’m chasing something that’s seemingly impossible to achieve. In 2006 I was traveling the globe chasing video cameras attached to helium balloons, that recorded random aerial video. No strings attached. Just the wind controlling where they went. The Balloon Project got a lot of critical acclaim, and kept me busy for the following 5 years. The project also lead me to my first job making video for Vice Magazine, in Berlin. After three years I realized that working full time, and for someone else… wasn’t for me. I had too many other interests. I quit, got a dog, built a tiny house on a lake with my girlfriend, and began waiting for the next good idea.
(Ira and his dog (she also likes to surf))
What can you tell us about Surf Berlin?
Surf Berlin is a documentary film I’m directing about my lone quest to be the first in history to surf the only wave in Germany. The spot is very unusual because the head-high barreling wave is actually the wake from a giant ship.
How did you discover the wave?
In 2010 I began paddling around the river Spree in Berlin, which connects to the lake in front of my tiny home. My hope was for a sandbar that could catch the wake from one of the cargo ships passing by every half hour or so. No such luck. In 2011, I heard some talk of a surf spot just outside the city. I was directed to said spot, and saw a couple knee high waves popping up every time a certain ship passed by. Although small, you have no idea how excited I was. Still, something inside me wished it was bigger. A few months later when the wind was offshore, I went back to investigate. The spot I checked the first time was about a mile away from the ship. My hunch was that If i got closer to the ship the wave would be bigger. Later that evening I witnessed one of the most incredible waves I’ve ever seen; a head high, barreling wave, and in Germany of all places!
(still from Surf Berlin. One of the very first big wave Ira witnessed at the spot)
What inspired you to make the film?
After watching the wave roll in, I started talking with a guy who grew up near the spot. He told me that the ship that makes the wave was getting old, and would be replaced in the coming months. I didn’t think much of it at the time… just that it was unfortunate, and I wanted to try and surf it before it was gone. That was when deciding moment came. After returning home to my studio in Berlin, I went online to check and see if this wave had been surfed before. I couldn’t find a single picture or video.
My thought process went something like this:
A perfect wave exists in Germany + it’s never been surfed + it will soon be extinct = I have to make a film.
Have you had any interactions with the locals?
It’s been pretty lonely out there. I’ve never seen another surfer. Occasionally people walking along the shore will stop and watch. Once in a while they ask me what I’m doing. The most common question is “Isn’t it too cold?!” One old German guy told me that 5 years ago the ship made bigger waves. Apparently one day a giant wave knocked over some people on the shore, and the captain was told to take it easy from then on. That’s about as close as you’ll get to the typical “should have been here yesterday” story for this spot. As part of the project, and to pay homage to the place… I plan to research, and talk to locals, along with anyone else who knows the place. I want to find out if indeed this spot has some undocumented history to be told. The ship is old, so I’m guessing the wave has been rolling in since the Berlin Wall came down, maybe longer.
What are you chasing the wave with?
When I first saw the wave I didn’t have anything in Berlin that I could ride it with. I had my super warm wool-lined wetsuit for paddling in the lake, but I just never expected to be surfing here. After discovering the wave, I called up my dad in California and asked him to send over the surf mat that Paul Gross made for me. The mat was the perfect tool for studying the wave because it made accessing the spot a lot easier. I could fit all my surf gear and cameras on my back, and drive out there on my old moped when the weather was good. When I’m not riding the mat, I’m using a hand-plane I carved out of an old 80’s skateboard that my girlfriend found on the street. I also have a 7’2” Simmons twin fin surfboard… that I had made in Biarritz, France.
What’s the wave like?
It’s a lot bigger than I originally expected, and it’s very very hard to catch. Trying to catch this wave has probably been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’d say the most difficult part was paddling out at a spot I’d never surfed, on a surfboard I’d never ridden… knowing I wasn’t in the pocket, and there wasn’t another wave coming. A day or two might pass before the next wave. Sometimes it would be a week. Because the summer traffic slows the ship down too much, waves only breaking in the winter months. There were days where I was paddling through what looked like a giant 7-Eleven Slushy. I tend to feed off of challenges. Trying to catch this wave quickly turned into an obsession. I paddled out over 150 times before I finally caught the wave.
(Ira about to take a pounding by one of the biggest waves the ship made during filming)
Yep. That probably explains why nobody else is out there trying to catch it. The thing is… once I accumulated around 50 failed attempts, I just couldn’t stop. When I’m passionate about something I’ll do it no matter what. It was quite a struggle… that’s for sure. Between freezing water, cold air, wind, and slipping into a wet wetsuit… I really wasn’t kind to my body. My biggest mistake was not dressing warm enough. It took me a few times of getting really sick to realize that I should really be dressed like I’m going snowboarding. Once I figured out how to stay warm It was all good. I’d wear my snow gear up to the edge of the water, take it off at the last minute, paddle out, try to catch the wave, then paddle back in, and quickly put my snow gear back on over the wetsuit. It was pretty insane what I went through to catch just one wave. I guess you could say the dream was strong. I also wasn’t too keen on making a surf movie about not catching a wave.. although that would have been pretty funny. I definitely have a very strong love-hate relationship with the place.
(Ira watching one of many waves that just wasn’t big enough)
What do hope people will walk away with, from Surf Berlin?
It’s been quite an adventure. I hope I can share my quest through the film, and the upcoming book. My dream would be to give people something they will want to watch over and over again. This won’t be your average surf movie, or documentary. I envision it being more like a film about a lone man who’s trying over and over again to climb a mountain nobody knew existed. Nobody knows he’s doing it… and all the while he’s running out of time, because the mountain will soon fall into the sea. Something like that. I see the film being very dreamy, like an hour long music video, with bits of narrative taken from my trip journal to build up the story.
What’s on the menu for 2013?
Finish the movie. I’m currently working with an awesome team of very talented artists who support me with everything. I’ve got help with an original soundtrack, poster, book design, an animated a dream sequence and much much more. From what I’ve seen so far, I can tell you without a doubt that it’s going to be a magical film. I plan to finish it later in the year, and have it available on my website surfberlin.com. While the old ship is still afloat, I plan to go out as much as possible to try to catch it one last time. A farewell surf on my mat, would be a nice way to end the story.