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  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Jan 28, 2021

This article was originally published on November 6th, 2019.

Through the eyes of the uninitiated, the sport of competitive surfing can seem rather confusing.

Surfing is all about freedom of expression and being at one with the waves. Therefore, it is hard to quantify who is the best surfer.

Unlike most professional sports, like soccer or basketball, surfing is not decided through quantitative measures. A surfing event is less scientific and more objective, relying on human interpretation, to crown a winner.

Therefore, it is always good to understand the basics of how the scoring system works.

Professional Surfing

Just like most professional sports, there are leagues and governing bodies, rules, and regulations.

The birth of professional surfing dates back to the original governing body the International Professional Surfers (IPS), which was founded in 1976.

Between the years of 1976 and 1982, the IPS would bring together a loose affiliation of surfing competitions from around the world and create one world circuit. Which at the end of the season would crown a World Champion in both male and female divisions. The tour would go on to make modest but steady gains for the sport, managing to increase prize money and media coverage, as it increased the stature of the sport.

In 1983, the IPS would be taken over by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). This new change would see the beginning of the current professional surfing philosophy “the world’s best surfers, the world’s best waves”.

In 2015, the ASP would be dissolved and become the World Surf League (WSL). The organization is now responsible for running the annual tour of professional surf competitions.

This includes not only the popular Men's and Women's Championship Tour (CT), but also the Qualifying Series (QS), the Big Wave Tour (BWT), the Longboard Tour (LT), and the Junior Tour (JT).

Outwith professional surfing, there are also competitions organized by the International Surfing Association (ISA). Athletes at these events do not receive any prize money, as they are competing to represent their country. Each country that is part of the ISA can send a team and the surfers are competing for their country. Teams are made up of 3 men and 3 women. These events are a great way to start out and get noticed by sponsors, which is needed when moving into the WSL.

WSL Breakdown

There are two main circuits organized by the WSL each year. These are the World Qualifying Series (QS) and the World Championship Tour (CT).

The CT is the highest-level circuit in surfing. Therefore, the goal is to get the best-ranking position at the end of the year to win a spot into the CT or for a surfer that is already part of it, to make sure he stays in it.

For the QS circuit, there are a number of events scheduled each year. Competitors are not required to enter every event and have the ability to decide which events they wish to attend.

Injuries, prior commitments or financial restraints can play a part in which events an athlete can travel to. So sometimes it can leave surfers with fewer sponsors at a disadvantage.

Each QS offers competitors the ability to gain points depending on how good they did. The further they go in the competition, the more points they can accrue.

The QS is divided into different point systems; some competitions give more points than others but are obviously more difficult to enter. Any surfer that pays their membership of the WSL and their inscription could compete with the QS 1,000 and 1,500.

Once you start making enough points in those events, you can compete in the QS 3,000.

Then, if you have enough points, you can do the QS 6,000 and finally, if you’re doing good enough you can enter the prime events of 10,000.

The number assigned to the Qualifying Series events (i.e. 6,000 or 10,000) correlates to the number of points that are available to the winner.

At the end of each year, QS surfers get ranked based on their best 5 results throughout the year. The top 10 surfers in the men's division will go forward to compete in the following years CT. In the women's division on the top 6 surfers get the opportunity to compete at the CT level.

Just like in the QS, the goal of the Championship Tour surfer is to make enough points to keep their spot on the tour for the following year. All CT competitions are worth the same, with winners receiving 10,000 points. The second-place surfer receives 7800 points and third place receives 6085 points.

The men's division hosts 11 events throughout the season and the women's division hosts 10. The end of year results are calculated by tallying the surfers 9 best results in the men's division and the 8 best results in the women's division.

The men's CT events are made up of a total of 34 competitors. The 22 highest-ranking surfers from the previous year remain and are joined by the top 10 QS surfers. The additional 2 places are filled with wild card athletes, these are carefully selected surfers who are either local professionals who might excel in a certain location or surfers who were not able to qualify for the CT the year prior due to an injury. These wildcards can be selected by the WSL or by the event sponsor.

Women's CT events see 17 competitors compete at each event. The 10 highest-ranked on the CT tour will compete with the top 6 surfers of the QS. The women's division also sees 1 wildcard entrant per competition.

At the end of the CT season points are added together to create the Championship Tour Rankings. The male and female surfers with the highest-ranking are crowned World Champion.

Surfing Event Basics

Surf competitions essentially work the same way, whether it is a big WSL CT event or a local competition.

The first thing that a surfer would come across in competition is heats. A surfer needs to pass these in order to move on to the next round.

Heats generally consist of between 2 and 4 surfers, each wearing different color jerseys, competing at the same time. The heats will last between 20 to 35 minutes, depending on the type of competition. During this time surfers have the chance to try and catch as many waves as possible.

In the WSL, 35-minute long heats make up the rounds of the event. The competition begins with a Seeding Round of 12 heats, three surfers in each heat. The surfer ranked first in this round will be propelled through to the Round of 32, while the other two surfers will go into an Elimination Round.

The Elimination Round is only four heats, three surfers per heat. The surfer who places last in this round will be eliminated from the event. The other two surfers will then go on to the Round of 32.

When the event reaches the round of 32 and progresses through the quarterfinals, semifinals and eventually the final, these are all one-on-one knockout heats. The winner of the Final Heat is crowned the Event Champion.

During the Heat

During a heat surfers are not set out to complete a set routine. This gives surfers free rein to perform whichever maneuvers they consider will score them the most points on any given wave.

At the start, there is no priority for any specific surfer, which means the competitors can catch any wave with the same system of priority as a freestyle session.

However, when one surfer takes his first wave, their priority (right-of-way in the water) drops to the bottom, depending on how many competitors. This means that even if after coming back from the first wave, the surfer finds themself in the inside for the next wave and another competitor chooses to attempt the same wave, the surfer without priority has to exit the wave.

The surfer with priority also has the ability to stand up and surf on a wave that the other surfer has already taken, therefore forcing the surfer without priority to exit the wave.

If the surfer chooses to go anyway, they will receive an interference penalty. This most often will see judges take away half of the points of surfer's second-best wave. If a surfer is caught twice interfering in a heat, they could receive a fine of up to $1000.

An interesting interference call happened recently between World Championship hopefuls Gabriel Medina (@gabriel1medina) and Caio Ibelli (@CaioIbelli).

Scoring System

Each wave that a surfer catches is scored on a 0-10 scale, by a panel of judges. At CT event this panel consists of 5 judges, at smaller events this may vary.

To gain a score from a wave, the 5 judges cast their score, the highest and lowest scores are discounted and the surfer receives the average of the remaining three scores.

There is no limit on the number of waves that a surfer can be scored on. However, only the surfer's two best scores will count towards their final score, which is rated out of 20. Therefore, if a surfer gets a score of 20 it would mean that he had two perfect waves.

The surfer with the highest combined two-wave heat total at the end of the heat will win that heat.

In actually score a completed wave, judges cannot rely on set scores for specific maneuvers.

Instead, Judges have to consider a number of environmental factors before the heat takes place. These could include the type of wave available at the location; quality of waves available that particular day; what can be achieved within the set time frame of the heat and level and category of surfer.

Furthermore, judges also analyze five separate elements of a completed wave. These are commitment and degree of difficulty; innovative and progressive maneuvers; the combination of major maneuvers; the variety of maneuvers and speed, power and flow.

Once this has all been factored in judges work on the scale of five quality levels, which can be translated into the following terms:

  • 0.0 - 1.9 = Poor Wave Ride

  • 2.0 - 3.9 = Fair Wave Ride

  • 4.0 - 5.9 = Average Wave Ride

  • 6.0 - 7.9 = Good Wave Ride

  • 8.0 - 10.0 = Excellent Wave Ride

Therefore, it is important that surfers choose their waves wisely as the aim of the game is quality over quantity.

Ultimately, judging in surfing comes down to individual interpretation, albeit the interpretation of highly briefed and experienced judges. But judges are still human beings trying to quantify an art form. So, it is hard to say whether a massive gouge would outscore a perfect re-entry, or whether a mediocre aerial would beat an average tube ride.


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