How Surf Contests Work
The where, when, how, what and why of competitive surfing for the beginner.
To the untrained eye, the world of competitive surfing can seem quite confusing. Like most professional sports there are leagues and governing bodies, rules and regulations, foreign terms and phrases… the list goes on.
Once the terminology has been explained, however, it all seems to come together – and a solid base of understanding will let you enjoy the sport that much more.
In order to help you through this learning process we’ve decided to give background on the basic elements of competitive surfing. So...
What is the World Surf League and how does it work?
The original governing body of professional surfing was the International Professional Surfers (IPS) and it was founded in 1976. That was the birth of professional surfing. From there the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) was formed, founded in 1983. That was the beginning of the current professional surfing philosophy “the world’s best surfers, the world’s best waves”. In 2015, the ASP was dissolved, and a new league was formed – The World Surf League (WSL).
The World Surf League organises the annual tours of professional surfing competitions and broadcasts. The League breaks down in to five Tours:
- The Men’s and Women’s Championship Tour, which is the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves, is the most elite of the professional surfing Tours, and the place where the Men’s and Women’s World Surfing Champion is crowned
- The Men’s and Women’s Qualifying Series, which is the competitive pathway by which aspiring professional surfers can qualify for the elite Championship Tour
- The Men’s and Women’s Big Wave Tour, in which big wave surfers compete in the world’s biggest waves and the Men’s and Women’s Big Wave World Champion in crowned
- The Men’s and Women’s Longboard Tour, where the Men’s and Women’s Longboard World Champion is crowned
- The Men’s and Women’s Junior Tour, which is the competitive pathway by which young surfers can qualify to compete in the Qualifying Series, eventually striving to join the Championship Tour
Who gets to surf in Championship World Tour events?
The top 34 male surfers and the top 17 female surfers in the world compete on the WSL World Championship Tour each year. At the end of each year, surfers need to maintain their elite Championship Tour ranking or face dropping off Tour and being replaced with a WQS surfer.
There are also event wildcards on the Championship Tour. Wildcards are carefully selected surfers who are either local professionals at the wave, surfers who might excel in a certain location, or surfers who were not able to qualify for the Championship Tour the year prior due to an injury. These wildcards can be selected by the WSL and/or by the event sponsor.
Where are the different events?
Championship Tour events are held all over the world in the world’s best waves, and the schedule of events can potentially change each year. You can check out the full calendar of men’s and women’s events over here at the World Surf League.
Rip Curl has been the long-time presenting sponsor of the men’s and women’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in Australia, as well as the men’s and women’s Rip Curl Pro Peniche in Portugal.
The main break at Peniche, Portugal.
x3 World Champion Mick Fanning and x2 World Champion Tyler Wright on the steps of Bells Beach.
What is a waiting period?
Each stop on the Championship Tour is held during a waiting period. Because the sport of professional surfing deals with the unknown element of nature, each event needs to be able to work around when the best swells, waves, winds and tides come together to offer the best playing field for the world’s best surfers.
Waiting periods are usually about two weeks in length, which offers ample time to wait for the right conditions. A men’s and women’s combined Championship Tour event can be completed in five full days of surfing.
What is a surfing heat?
A heat is the format which competitive surfing is based around. Heats usually last 35 minutes and this is the time in which surfers compete against each other in the ocean.
The aim of a heat is to place the highest combined two-wave heat total by the end of those 35 minutes. This will place you above your competitors and push you through to the next round of surfing.
What is a surfing round?
Rounds are what make up a surfing competition. 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 in to 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.
The Round of 32 is comprised of 16 man-on-man heats. The winner of each heat will move on to the next Round, and the loser of each heat will be eliminated from competition.
Next up is the Round of 16, which features eight man-on-man heats. Again, the winner will move through to the Quarterfinals and the loser will be eliminated.
From there, we move on to the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and eventually the Final Heat. These are all man-on-man heats, and the winner of the Final Heat is crowned the Event Champion.
This video from the WSL explains the new CT format concisely.
What is priority?
Priority is essentially who has the right-of-way in the water. If a set of waves comes, the surfer with priority will have their pick of the waves. The surfer without priority cannot interfere with what wave the surfer with priority chooses.
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.
In order to establish priority, one surfer must make it to the lineup before the other surfer. Once the surfer with priority takes a wave, the surfer left in the lineup will then have priority.
What is an interference?
An interference is when a surfer without priority gets in the way of a surfer with priority. In most situations this is when a surfer without priority drops in on a surfer with priority, causing him to lose points, fall off the wave or be unable to complete the wave.
The surfer who causes the interference will be given a penalty, which means that their heat score will be calculated using only their best scoring wave.
Rip Curl Team Rider and WSL Commentator Rosy Hody
How does the judging work?
On the Championship Tour, a panel of five judges work on a 10-point scale when scoring waves.
For every scoring ride, the highest and lowest scores (of the five judges) are discounted and the surfer receives the average of the remaining three scores. There is no limit on the number of waves that will be scored, but the two best scoring waves (each out of a possible 10) are added together to become a surfer's heat total (out of a possible 20). The surfer with the highest combined two-wave heat total at the end of the heat will win that heat.
Judges analyse the following elements when scoring waves:
- Commitment and degree of difficulty
- Innovative and progressive manoeuvres
- Combination of major manoeuvres
- Variety of manoeuvres
- Speed, power and flow
The judging scale is as follows:
[0.0 — 1.9: Poor]
[2.0 — 3.9: Fair]
[4.0 — 5.9: Average]
[6.0 — 7.9: Good]
[8.0 — 10.0: Excellent]
How is a World Surfing Champion decided?
At the end of each event, surfers are awarded points based on where they placed in the event. The better they perform, the more points they get. For example, first place gets 10,000 points, second place gets 8,000 points, and down from there.
These points are added together to create the Championship Tour Rankings. At the end of the year, the male and female surfers with the highest ranking with become the World Surfing Champion.