How to watch a surf contest

How to watch a surf contest

It’s no secret that I love to watch surf contests.

I didn’t become fascinated by surf contests until about two years. Frankly, I don’t think that I knew they existed and I sure didn’t understand what to look for. But once I understood how they worked, they became so much more interesting. There’s so much that goes into competing – both mental and physical.

With the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach waiting period starting now, here’s your primer on how to watch a surf contest. I’m not claiming to be an expert in any way shape or form but here are some basic things to look for to help you enjoy professional surfing.

Kelly Slater Quiksilver Pro New York

Kelly Slater in Round 5 of the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011

Waiting Period

The arena for each contest is the ocean, which can be fickle and unpredictable. It’s not like you are holding a contest in a stadium  or even a mechanical wave pool where you can serve up perfect waves on demand. That’s why each contest is held within a window of time called the Waiting Period.

This is the allotted time during which event organizers can run their event. The time period is based on historical and current surf forecasts and storm forecasts for the contest location and is when the location is most likely to have good waves. The length of the waiting period is generally longer than the time needed to finish the competition (typically 3-4 days) to allow contest organizers to choose the best days and best possible conditions to run the event.

Structure of the contest and heats

Each event consists of a series of 3-person or 1-on-1 heats to determine who advances. It’s a little confusing but it breaks down like this:

  • Round 1: 12 3-person heats. The winner moves to Round 3 while the remaining two surfers advance to Round 2.
  • Round 2: 12 1-on-1 heats. The winner advances to Round 3 while the loser is eliminated.
  • Round 3: 12 1-on-1 heats. The winner advances to Round 4 while the loser is eliminated.
  • Round 4: 4 3-person heats. The winner advances to the Quarterfinals while the remaining two surfers move to Round 5.
  • Round 5: 4 1-on-1 heats. The winner advances to the Quarterfinals.
  • Quarterfinals: 4 1-on-1 heats. The winner advances to the Semifinals.
  • Semifinals: 2 1-on-1 heats. The winner advances to the Finals.
  • Final: 1 1-on-1 heat to determine the contest winner and runner-up.

Each heat typically runs for 30 minutes.

Rip Curl Pro Search San Francisco draw

Rip Curl Pro Search San Francisco 2011 draw


I like to think of priority as the organizing principle for each heat. It determines which surfer has the unconditional right of way to ride a wave and the other surfer cannot take off on the same wave or interfere with the scoring potential of the surfer with priority. If a surfer is called for interference, their highest scoring wave is cut in half – a huge penalty.

Basically, priority is passed back and forth between surfers during the duration of the heat. If Surfer A has priority and rides a wave, priority passes to Surfer B and vice versa. In the case that both surfers catch waves to the inside, the first surfer back to the line-up gets priority.

Judging Criteria

Similar to gymnastics and figure skating, surfing is an expressive sport and judging can be very subjective and there are always differences of opinion. Judging criteria is basically boiled down to this:

“The surfer who performs the most committed maneuver with the most speed, power and flow, in the most critical part of the wave gets the most points.”

  • Committed maneuver = Degree of difficulty, innovation and progressiveness of the maneuver
  • Speed, Power and Flow = Are the maneuvers connected and flow together? How powerful are the maneuver(s)? The spray off the wave is one indicator of the surfer’s power.
  • Critical part of the wave = Where the maneuver is performed on the wave? Does the surfer perform the move at the steepest section of the wave where the wave is breaking? Or does the surfer perform the move as the wave is loosing steam and rolling to shore?
Joel Parkinson Quiksilver Pro New York

Joel Parkinson in Round 5 of the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011

How are waves scored

Waves are scored on a scale of 1 (lowest) – 10 (perfect ride). Surfer’s heat scores are a total of their two highest scoring waves so the maximum score that can be achieved is 20 points. A maximum of 15 waves are scored during each heat. Generally, waves scored between 8.0-10.0 are considered in the excellent range.

Sometimes, when watching a contest, you’ll hear the announcers say that a surfer is in a “combo situation.” This means that the surfer needs two new scoring waves in order to move into first place. For example, if Surfer A has a total score of 7 and Surfer B has a total score of 19, Surfer A would need a score of 12.01 points in order to overtake Surfer B.  However, this exceed the maximum scoring potential of any one wave which is 10 points. So, Surfer A is “combo-ed.”

Quiksilver Pro New York 2011

Quiksilver Pro New York 2011

Those are the basics of how to watch a surf contest. Go check out the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach contest. The contest is streamed live but since it takes place in Australia, it’s often the middle of the night here on the East Coast. You can also watch heats on-demand.

Have you ever watch a surf contest before? Would you?


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    • admin says

      It’s pretty fun to watch, right? I think that once you’re out there, you don’t even think about things like sharks :-)

    • admin says

      I know, right? It’s pretty fascinating especially how much strategy goes into each heat. My husband thinks I’m crazy when I start yelling at the computer screen. hee hee.

    • admin says

      You should! The Rip Curl Pro contest at Bells Beach in Australia should be running later this week and you can watch it online. Even worth is just to check out a few heats. You don’t have to watch it live as they have heats-on-demand, basically replays of everything that happened and you can fast forward to see the high scoring waves.

  1. says

    No, and maybe. Thanks for explaining it so well! It’s still as complicated as I thought – and I guess my fear would be that as a spectator I wouldn’t see much. Is watching it on TV/online better? I do love surf movies!
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    • admin says

      You can definitely see better when watching online plus you get the commentators remarks on what’s going on, replays, etc. You don’t get to hear that when you’re actually spectating on the beach. But being on the beach itself for a big contest is pretty incredible and fun. So much energy and a fun day to spend the day.

    • admin says

      They held a contest just outside NYC in 2011 (where a few of the pictures in the post were taken) – the first pro contest to be held in New York and maybe the East Coast and it was so much fun being out there to watch. We took the boys but they were much more interested in digging in the sand than watching the surfing. haha. At least they were occupied so that Ed and I could watch the competition!


  1. […] I love watching surf contests. I love teaching my kids how to watch a surf contest and what they’re all about. I loved sharing that here on the blog since I know that most people don’t watch surf contests or know how to watch a surf contests. […]

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