A big part of the surfing world is the competitions. They’re fun to watch, they connect us to our surfing idols and it’s just cool to see people killing it at what they do best. But if you’re new to the world of surfing, understanding how the competition world works can be a bit confusing. Here, Salty Souls Surf Mama Marie-Christine breaks it down for us. That way, the next time you’re watching a competition and everyone around you is talking circuits, wildcards and interferences, you will actually know what the devil they are talking about. Let’s do it.

The WSL and the WCT

The main surf competitions are organized by the World Surf League (WSL). Surfers that are part of this organisation are competing for money prizes.

There are two circuits: the World Championship Tour (CT) which is the highest-level circuit; think competitors like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Coco Ho and Carissa Moore. Then there is the minor circuit, the World Qualifying Series (QS). Ultimately, the goal is to compete in the CT circuit. See current rankings for the CT and QS here. 

In the Championship Tour (CT), there are 34 surfers in the men’s division and 17 in the women’s, including the wildcards.

Wildcard: surfers who are chosen to compete alongside the CT surfers in a single CT event. Typically candidates for the event wildcard will come from the event sponsor’s team, the local area, or both. Not only do these surfers complete the seed list and/or fill in for injured surfers, but they also bring exciting new faces and challenges to the CT elite.

To enter the CT circuit the surfer must qualify by making points in the QS circuit. Each year, there’s a competition calendar (which is more or less the same every year) and so the competitors can decide which events to attempt depending which ones they can attend. Obviously injuries, commitments or financial restraints can play a part in which events an athlete can travel to, leaving athletes at a disadvantage, as Caitlin Creeper reported in July.

Courtney Conlogue, currently ranked #2, at Rio Girl’s Pro, Brazil. Source : ASP/Kirstin

The QS

At every QS competition, competitors gain points depending on their ranking.

The QS are divided in different point systems; some competitions give more points than others but are obviously more difficult to enter. Any surfer that pays his or her membership of the WSL and their inscription can compete to the QS 1000 and 1500.

Once you start making enough points in those events, you can compete in the QS 3000.

Then, if you have enough points, you can do the QS 6000 and finally if you’re doing good enough you can enter those prime events of 10 000.

You’ll have guessed that the numbers are due to the amount of points that the winner gets and so the more points you can gain, “the more level there is”.

So let’s say a surfer wins a QS 10 000, he’ll get a much better ranking than the one winning a QS 1000. You’ll also guess that the more QS competitions a surfer attempts, the more points he’s going to accumulate.

At the end of the year, the surfers are ranked based on the total of points they gained throughout the year.

In the men’s division:

The 22 highest-ranking surfers of the CT get to stay in the Championship Tour and the 10 highest-ranking surfers on the QS get to enter the WCT.

Current world no. 1. Matt Wilkinson taking the victory in Bells Beach earlier this year. Source: Stab Magazine

Current world no. 1. Matt Wilkinson taking the victory in Bells Beach earlier this year. Source: Stab Magazine

In the women’s division:

The 10 highest-ranked on the CT tour stay in the CT and the top 6 surfers of the QS get to enter the Championship Tour.

The International Surfing Association (ISA)

There are also competitions organized by the International Surfing Association (ISA) that aren’t for money prizes but for medals for the country. For example, the World Surfing games is a competition that take place every year in a different country (this year it is going to be in Playa Jaco, Costa Rica from August 6th to 14th). Each country that is part of the ISA association can send a team (4 men, 2 women) and the surfers are competing for their country. This is a good opportunity for surfers to get known and get sponsored.

In the Water: Heats, Judges and Scores: How does it work?!

Regardless if it’s a WQS, a WCT or a ISA competition, it works more or less the same way. Basically, there are heats that the surfer needs to pass in order to move on to the next round.

A heat consists of 2 to 4 surfers at the same time in a pre-determined competition zone. Surfers have between 20 to 30 minutes (the duration of the heat depends on the type of competition) to catch the best waves possible. Every wave they catch is rated on a ten-point scale by a panel of judges and only the two best waves of each surfer is counted, giving them a score on 20. So if a surfer gets a 20/20 it would mean that he had two perfect waves and he’s doing awesome 😉 But it’s not common!

The surfers that get the best results get to move on to the next round. And so on, until the finals. When it’s a heat of 4 surfers, the 2 first one get to go to the next round. When it’s a men to men heat (2 surfers), the first one moves on and the second gets eliminated.

Wave Scoring

The wave scoring is done with five quality levels in mind: 0-1.9 (Poor), 2-3.9 (Fair), 4-5.9 (Average), 6-7.9 (Good), 8–10 (Excellent). The judges analyze the following major elements when they are evaluating a surfer’s wave:

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

You’ll understand that the surfers need to choose their waves wisely because it’s not about the quantity of wave they catch but the quality.

An Example of a perfect 10: Kelly Slater in Fiji

Factors judges have to consider when scoring a contest:

– Level and category or surfers – Open professionals are scored much harsher than say under 12 mini-grommets
– Type of wave – A wave like Pipeline, Hawaii will score barrels higher then, say, an air-show wave like Trestles, California.
– Quality of waves that day – A scale has to be determined based on what is possible according to the waves that particular day.
– Individual heats – Since ocean conditions are constantly changing the scale has to be adjusted for each heat.
– Length of each heat – What can be achieved in a set limited time frame.

Dropping-in, Interference and Tactics

If ever a surfer drops in on someone (there’s an other surfer catching the wave on the inside or while having priority), the judges take away half of the points of its second best wave. We call that “interference”. Sometimes, the surfer that is losing the heat can try to make his rival do an interference in order to make him lose points. Surf contests are a dice game. The best surfer doesn’t always come out with the trophy because there are too many variables at stake. There’s a lot of heat tactics that surfers can use so it’s not just about being a good surfer, they also need to be super competitive!

With this fresh information in mind, you can now follow your favourite surfers as big league events are always being broadcasted live online !… only this time with some actual clue what the frick is going on. 🙂