Surfing: judging tricks is a subjective assessment | Photo: Glaser/Quiksilver

How do you know who the best surfer is in the water? How do you rate a surfer's performance in the waves? Who decides who wins a surfing heat?

Judging surfing is never a scientific and objective formula; it can't be compared with football/soccer, tennis, rugby, baseball, volleyball, hockey, running, and basketball.

In all of these individual and team sports, the score is a quantitative measure that determines success.

In surfing, however, victory and defeat are decided by a panel of judges. Professional surfing contests put athletes in man-on-man, three-person, or four-person heats.

The winner of the heat (or the two best surfers in each heat) advances through to the next round in a ladder tournament format.

You don't need to read an extensive rulebook to quickly understand how surfers get scores for their tricks and maneuvers in the waves.

So, what should a surfer do to win his heat?

Competitive surfers should rely on their skills, but knowing what surf judges will look for when scoring waves is important.

This is where surf judging criteria and subjectivism come into play.

The Rules

According to the World Surf League (WSL), the organization behind professional surf contests, the game plays out according to the following rules:

  1. A panel of judges dissects the surfers' performances;
  2. Heat times may vary between 20 and 35 minutes;
  3. A wave is scored on a scale of one to ten, with two decimal places;
  4. Surfers lock in their two highest-scoring waves;
  5. For each ride, the highest and lowest scores are discounted, and the surfer is awarded the average of the remaining three scores;
  6. There are no limits to the number of waves that can be ridden;
  7. A perfect heat is when a surfer gets a total score of 20 points;

Judging surfers: always a subjective criteria | Photo: Kirstin/WSL

The Criteria

Judging surfing is always a subjective verdict.

Nevertheless, professional judges make their assessments and throw scores for waves ridden by surfers based on five major criteria.

Here's the recipe for winning a heat:

  1. Commitment and degree of difficulty;
  2. Innovative and progressive maneuvers;
  3. Combination of major maneuvers;
  4. Variety of maneuvers;
  5. Speed, power, and flow;

The Judging Panel

The composition of a judging panel varies depending on the type of contest.

  • Championship Tour (CT): One (1) international head judge, seven (7) international scoring judges, and one (1) international priority judge. The number of scoring judges from any regional area or country is limited to a maximum of three (3). There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;
  • Challenger Series (CS): One (1) international head judge, seven (7) international scoring judges, and one (1) international priority judge. The number of scoring judges from any regional area or country is limited to a maximum of three (3). There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;
  • World Junior Championships: One (1) international head judge, seven (7) international scoring judges, and one (1) international priority judge. The number of scoring judges from any regional area or country is limited to a maximum of three (3). There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;
  • Qualifying Series (QS) 5000: One (1) regional head judge, seven (7) regional scoring judges, and one (1) regional priority judge. There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;
  • Qualifying Series (QS) 3000: One (1) regional head judge, a minimum of six (6) regional scoring judges, and one (1) regional priority judge. There must be a minimum of four (4) judges scoring each heat;
  • Qualifying Series (QS) 1000, Regional Pro Junior, and Regional Longboard Events: One (1) regional head judge, a minimum of five (5) regional scoring judges, and one (1) regional priority judge. There must be a minimum of three (3) judges scoring each heat;
  • World Longboard Tour (WLT): One (1) international or regional head judge, seven (7) regional scoring judges, and one (1) regional priority judge. There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;
  • Big Wave Events: One (1) international head judge, two (2) international judges, and three (3) regional judges. There must be five (5) judges scoring each heat;

Surfing: here's all you need to know about surf judging criteria

The Judging Scale

The surf judging scale can be translated into qualitative terms:

  • From 0.00 to 1.90: Poor Wave Ride;
  • From 2.00 to 3.90: Fair Wave Ride;
  • From 4.00 to 5.90: Average Wave Ride;
  • From 6.00 to 7.90: Good Wave Ride;
  • From 8.00 to 10.00: Excellent Wave Ride;

A judging scoring decision, once made, is irrevocable no matter what proof is available to show otherwise unless the head judge feels that the majority of the judging panel did not see the situation or a wave completely.

Surf judges don't talk to each other and don't change scores. If a surfer needs to know the scores, they should raise their hand.

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