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How to Judge a Contest Heat


How to Judge a Contest Heat
2010_mavericks_competition.jpg: Shalom Jacobovitz/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0
How to Judge a Heat

Surfing is an art form, an expression of one’s creative and athletic impulses slashed across the fluid, unpredictable canvas of the ocean surface. So how the hell can a judge be expected to give a numerical score evaluating a rider’s performance when good surfing is so subjective? Many sports have this problem. Skateboarding, figure skating, and any freestyle sports, for instance, are difficult to judge because each athlete's performance seems incomparable. Each offers unique elements of speed, style, and power. All these categories must be considered. Therefore, as a judge, one must somehow form a way to evaluate all these elements in an objective, mathematical process.

A surfing judge follows the basic principle that the surfer who rides a wave with the most speed, control, and power in the most critical section should receive the highest score. This principle is to be the basis for your judging criteria. Note: a surfer’s style should not be an issue unless that style interferes with his/her control, speed, or power.

Assigning a Score

Each wave is assigned a score from .5 to 10. A .5 basically means that the surfer got to his/her feet but made no motion down the line. Simply standing up and straightening out usually warrants a .5; however, if the conditions are heavy, and the drop is particularly fierce, then there is some leverage here. If you have ever made a nasty late drop at Sunset, you know that’s worth a heck of a lot more than a .5.

Initially, a judge must create a numerical base. For instance, a wave with two complete maneuvers should be about a 5. However, the type of wave or conditions can dictate how maneuvers are scored. For example, a wave like Pipeline is all about the tube, so the tube should be scored much higher than anything else. In addition, point breaks offer much longer rides, and the possibility for more maneuvers is greater; therefore, your score must be adjusted. In this case, a wave with five or six maneuvers might receive a 5 or 6. All conditions hold different scoring criteria for maneuvers.

Remember, for a maneuver to be scored, it must be completed. No matter how radical the attempt, if he/she doesn’t emerge with both feet on the board and still being pushed by the force of the wave, it doesn’t count.

Your Scoring Scale

An easy way to set your scale is by judging all the waves in a heat based on the first complete ride. If the first surfer up completes three solid moves, and you give that ride a 7.5, then all waves should be scored according to that ride. Always remember that first wave, and think whether later waves are better of worse. This sounds simple, but that’s the beauty of it. This technique eliminates any concerns when conditions change. You don’t base your scoring on previous heats. Remember, it all comes down to that first wave.


Surfers in contests cannot catch any wave they want since that would be a free-for-all. A heat has specific rules about who has priority .The surfer who takes off closest to the peak has priority. At a beach break with more than one peak, you have to pay attention to which surfer gets to his/her feet first. If a competitor should interfere (e.g. drop in, bump boards, push over the lip of the wave, etc.) then that surfer loses his/her highest scoring wave.


Always remember to score only what you see. Don’t guess. The averaging process will take care of one mistaken score if the other judges are correct. If any part of the contest area is difficult to see due to rocks, sun, or angle, be sure to let the surfers know that you cannot see certain areas.

You are now ready to assess your fellow surfers...If that's even possible.

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