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Surfing Competition Rules & How It’s Scored

   May 2nd, 2022   Posted In: Articles   Tags:

Surfing Competition Rules & How They’re Scored 

Surfing competitions can be some of the most thrilling sporting events of our time. Watching big-name pros disappear into a deep barrel and come charging out is one of the most exhilarating things to watch. But surfing competitions are not as easy to follow as say, a soccer match. Surfing competition rules are complex. This makes understanding how surfing competitions work or how surfing is scored a little more difficult. We lay it all out for you so the next time you watch one you’ll be totally in the know.

Competitions Are Plentiful

There are numerous different surfing competitions out there but a solid majority of them are part of the World Surf League. Sure, there are others that are not affiliated. But the main ones you hear about or that you are able to watch live are part of the WSL which has a certain set of surfing competition rules that determine how surfing is scored. Even when a contest is not sanctioned by the WSL, they still often adhere to the same guidelines.

The WSL has two circuits: the World Qualifying Series(WQS) and the World Championship Tour (WCT). The WQS is where most surfers compete. Their goal is to make it into the WCT which is comprised of the world’s most elite surfers. Both circuits are congruent when it comes to how surfing competitions work.


The early portions of a surfing competition are called Heats. They typically consist of 2 to 4 competitors trying to catch the best waves they can in a specific competition zone that is usually marked out by highly-visible markers or buoys. A heat usually runs 20 to 30 minutes depending on the specific competition. The goal for the surfers during a heat is to catch the best waves they can and to perform their best maneuvers on those waves.

Judges & Scoring

Each competition has a panel of judges, usually five of them, who determine a score for each individual wave a surfer catches. Each wave is scored by each judge on a scale from 0 to 10. Ten being the best. The highest and lowest scores from the five judges are thrown out leaving three remaining scores. Those scores are averaged out which determines the score of that one particular wave. 

During a heat, a surfer is allowed to catch as many waves as they want but only the two highest scored waves will be counted and added together which determines each surfer’s heat total. For example, if a surfer catches 10 waves during a heat and his highest two scores out of those 10 waves are a 5 and a 6, their heat total would be an 11.

The Factors of Scoring

According to the WSL’s surfing competition rules, each judge looks at five key factors when determining how a competitor’s surfing is scored on each wave:

  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

Once the five factors are considered by each judge, the judge puts forth their score. The scores will fall into one of five different quality-level categories: 

  1. 0.0 to 1.9 = Poor
  2. 2.0 to 3.9 = Fair
  3. 4.0 to 5.9 = Average
  4. 6.0 to 7.9 = Good
  5. 8.0 to 10 = Excellent

Based on those factors and categories, it is easy to see why competitive surfers aren’t paddling for every wave. How surfing is scored is clearly based on the quality of each ride not the quantity.

Other Circumstances For Judges to Consider

To further understand how surfing competitions work, we must note some other factors that judges have to consider when they give their individual wave scores. One of the biggest aspects that determine how surfing is scored is the quality of the waves which we all know changes from day-to-day. The judges will determine a scale before the competition based on what actual scores are even possible. 

For instance, on a perfect day at the Tahiti Pro Teahupoo where the waves are big and barrelling, the scale is brought up to 10 possible points per wave. On the other hand, on a windy, mushy day during the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach in Southern California where the waves are much smaller, the scale may be lowered down to a 7.5. These conditions can change throughout the day if the waves get better or worse.

Judges also consider the skill level and age of the surfers in a certain competition. If it is a WCT event, judges will be much more critical than an event featuring juniors ranging in age from 13 to 15 years old where the judges may be much more generous with their scores to help add more stoke and competition to the contest.


Surfing competition rules also consider what is called priority. This allows each surfer to have the right of way to catch any wave they choose without the hindrance of other surfers. During the start of a competition, no one has priority. Once someone catches a wave that person essentially moves to the back of the line. They would hold second priority in a two-person competition or fourth priority in a four-person competition.

This allows the competitors the freedom to wait for the wave they want without the chance of someone else taking their wave. If the surfer with priority does not go for a wave, another surfer is free to catch it. 

Once the priority is established, it is added to the scoreboard for the surfers and fans to see. Each surfer wears one of four different colored shirts. In a four-person competition, you will see a 1,2,3, or 4 next to the four different colors which determine the lineup for priority.


A surfer who gets in the way of the surfer who has priority will be charged with an interference penalty. An interference penalty can be devastating for a surfer’s score. Typically, an interference charge will mean that the surfer who picked up the penalty will only have one of their best wave scores calculated into their overall heat score. Instead of the normal two scores which are added together.

Moving On From Heats

Once you understand heats, scoring, and judging, it is easy to understand how surfing competitions work. They’re just like any typical tournament in sports. Winners move on and losers are eliminated until the competition is whittled down into two finalists. In the early stages of some competitions, the two top scorers of opening round heats will move on until the heats reach an elimination round where only the top rider moves on. Eventually, the winners are funneled into a quarterfinal, a semifinal, and a final.

Now you know all of the main surfing competition rules and how surfing is scored. So the next time someone has questions to ask, you can be the one to answer them! Surfing competitions are always a blast to watch, and now you can enjoy them, too!

Wes Severson is a fitness enthusiast and bodyboarder from San Francisco, CA who is always at Ocean Beach hitting the waves. He is also an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news writer and producer and a recording artist who goes by the name Wes Magic.

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