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How Does a Surf Contest Work?
I'm not big on screen time, but when a surf comp is running? Yeah, we can watch that!
Surfing competition is seriously radical, and it's an absolute joy to see the best in the business throwing buckets out the back. There are many variations of surf contests, from amateur to professional, and they typically maintain the same general rulebook and scoring system.
Whether a future competitor, a surf fan, or if you're hoping to see your grom ripping their kids' surfboard during a heat, these competitions become far more engaging when you understand the system.
So, how does surfing competition work? Let's get right into it, my salty people!
Surfing Competition: The General Rundown
Starting with the basics before we drop into the details, what's the general idea/flow of a surf contest? How does it work, how is surfing scored, and what does it all mean?
What are Heats?
To make it to the finals and to surf for the title of 'first place', surfers first triumph through multiple rounds of 'heats'.
Heats generally run anywhere from 20-30 minutes (sometimes 45 minutes for a final), and typically feature 2-4 surfers in the lineup. During the heats, surfers will compete to achieve the highest score and move on to the next round.
(The heat score is the combined point total of a surfer's best 2 waves- we'll talk about that more below).
Some heats are non-elimination heats, whereas others are elimination heats. During a non-elimination heat, the winner (or sometimes top 2 surfers of 4) will immediately secure a position two rounds ahead. The losing surfers, however, are not entirely out of the contest yet.
Following a non-elimination heat, the losing surfers will have to surf in a much higher stakes elimination heat. That's why it's so important for surfers to do well in non-elimination heats, as they can rest easy knowing they won't have to surf in an elimination heat so early on in the competition and immediately secure a higher placement in the contest.
During an elimination heat, a set number of surfers will move on depending on how many are in the heat. If there are two surfers in the heat, then the winner will move on, and with four surfers, the top two generally advance. And if you don't score well enough? You're out for good, and that's why elimination heats are such a big deal.
The number of heats for a competition depends on the number of surfers involved, but the World Surf League (WSL), the home of professional surfing, typically features six rounds (half are elimination) followed by a quarterfinal, a semi-final, and then a final (all elimination heats). These heats are initially set by placing the highest ranked surfers against the lowest.
If you want to learn more about this specific construct, this blog really explains the heat logic in depth.
How is Surfing Scored?
Colored Jerseys are Used to Identify Surfers in a Heat!
So the goal is to make it through your heats until landing yourself a place in the final. Simple enough concept, but hard as heck to do!
In order to move through your heats, you'll have to score higher than your competitors. It's the judges' job to score waves as fairly and accurately as possible, and they do so by using several factors. I'll hit on how individual waves are scored in a bit, but first, let's go over the basics.
1. A Two-Wave Total
The final heat score of a surfer is calculated by adding their best two single-wave scores together.
In the WSL, surfers can catch as many waves as possible during their heat timeframe. Other contests sometimes put a wave limit for each heat.
2. 10 Maximum Points
There is the potential to score a maximum of 10 points on a wave, a perfect score. Therefore 20 points is the maximum potential heat score, a perfect heat.
Using a 1-10 point scale, the World Surf League defines individual scores as:
[0.0 — 1.9: Poor]
[2.0 — 4.9: Fair]
[5.0 — 6.4: Good]
[6.5 — 7.9: Very Good]
[8.0 — 10.0: Excellent]
3. Tie Breakers
If there is a tie, the surfer who received the highest individual wave score will move on.
How they Score Surfing: Calculating Individual Wave Scores with Judging Criteria
Filipe Toledo Putting His Rail to Work and Scoring Big.
The goal is to attain the highest two individual wave scores possible and, therefore, the highest heat score. How exactly are waves scored, then?
Judges, typically 5, score waves using a set list of criteria. Taking all of these criteria into mind, each judge will present their score, the final number the average of all judges.
To score a wave, the criteria that judges look at include:
1. Commitment and degree of difficulty
Did the surfer commit to a challenging section of a wave, commit to a crazy barrel, or go all in on a difficult maneuver? And how difficult was this maneuver in comparison to the average abilities of others in the competition and what the wave presented? The more committed and harder the approach, the better the score.
2. Innovative and progressive maneuvers
Some maneuvers are simply more creative, difficult, and rare to come by. The surfers who showcase innovation in how they surf a wave and who perform the most progressive maneuvers (those that take surfing to the next level) will score higher. For example, a progressive aerial will score higher than a standard cutback.
3. Combination of major maneuvers
The better and more naturally a surfer can combine maneuvers on a wave, the higher they will score.
4. Variety of maneuvers
Surfers don't want to do the same trick over and over again on a wave. Showcasing a variety of different maneuvers will score far better, as it's critical to showcase this variety in your surfing. For example, getting barreled, doing a hack followed by a floater, and ending the wave with an air would score excellent due to the wild variety of maneuvers.
5. Speed, Power, and Flow
Check Out Some of the Latest WSL Action in Tahiti!
This one is really the most prominent judging factor for scoring surfing, and you'll often hear commentators speaking on these three qualities of a high-scoring wave. The faster a surfer can approach critical sections/keep up with speeding barrels, the more power they can produce through their turns, and the better they can connect these turns with elegant flow; the more they'll score!
Other Factors to Consider when Scoring Surfing Competition
With all of these criteria in mind, the thing about surfing is that it's always changing. One wave is never the same as another, and every location on the Championship Tour has different, unique features to the wave. So how is surfing scored when one-stop features a ten-foot barrel and the other a two-foot air section?
It's all about adjustments. When a surf contest is held at a break known for big barrels, and the conditions are conducive, judges will inevitably score barrel rides far higher than turns and maneuvers on the face. Some spots, like Teahupo'o won't see a single turn, as it's literally all about barrels.
Judges will begin by setting a scale of what is possible on a given day of conditions and will constantly adjust this scale during each heat, as the conditions can change in a flash. If there are plenty of barrels on tap, and the contest is held at a barreling spot, like Pipeline, then getting tubed is where the score will come from. They'll use the same criteria, such as difficulty and speed of the barrel, to create the score.
At a spot like Trestles, where it's all about progressive, on-rail surfing and aerials, the most impressive tricks receive the scores, like a massive air reverse or (talking to you, Gabriel Medina) backflips!
Surfers are also scored on the overall quality of the wave. If they manage to position themselves and play priority right to secure the best wave of the set, not only will that wave provide more room to impress with surfing, but the wave itself will grant a higher score.
Judges also consider the level of competition, as pro circuits are always judged more intensely than amateur. And last on the list of scoring considerations: Priority!!
Priority is a way of determining who has a right to a wave. It's a big part of surfing etiquette for your everyday surfer, and it's a huge deal in terms of competition.
I just did a big ol' write-up about surfing priority, so check it out, but to give you a quick rundown:
- Priority is set when a surfer catches the first wave of a heat. This surfer will then drop to the last priority.
- When a surfer has first priority, they have a right to any wave of their choosing. The surfer in second/last priority can still catch waves, but they must not interfere with the other surfer in any way.
- If a surfer breaks priority by dropping into the same wave or hindering them, they will be penalized with an 'interference call'.
An Interference Call
Receiving an interference penalty is one of the most unfortunate circumstances in a surfing competition. When the priority judges call interference, the penalized surfer will only be scored on their single best scoring wave.
This means that the highest possible heat score they can achieve would be a 10. So if the other surfer scores just a 5.0 and a 5.01, they will advance with the higher heat total.
The World Title
The primary goal of a surfer is to win the elusive World Title. It's the greatest honor a competitive surfer can achieve, and for a good reason.
First, surfers have to qualify for the Championship Tour, also known as the CT, by performing in the Challenger Series, or the CS.
The top 15 surfers on the CT, at the end of the competitive year, stay on the CT, while the bottom 15 are replaced by the top 15 on the CS.
During the World Title Race, surfers will compete in individual competitions worldwide at the best, most intense surf locations known to humans. Their final result at each contest is scored based on placement, and these scores are added to create the leaderboard for the World Title Race.
At the end of the year, the top 5 ranking surfers will compete in one last competition, the Rip Curl Final Five, and the winner wins the World Title!
Now Go Watch!
Is your Surf Grom the a Future World Title Winner?!
How does surfing competition work? It's really just a battle of the best in the water, 30-45 minutes to surf your heart out and advance to the next round.
Now you know the details, go watch a local competition or throw on the World Surf League the next time a contest is running! You can even play fantasy surfer to test your competition knowledge. It's fun to do with your groms, too!
It becomes such a joy when you understand these dynamics, and watching the best in the business do what they do is a great way to advance your own surfing.
And if you're interested in teaching your kids how to surf, ride on over to the linked blog to start their salty journey. Who knows, maybe they'll have a World Title in their hands one day!
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Live rad, stay salty.
- Ash, Dev & The Salty Shreds Fam.