Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… score a surf contest

Want to know how surfers get scored? International Surf Contest judge Joanne Hillman reveals what they look for.

It has taken most of the summer for you to learn how to stand up on a board, so what is it exactly that now separates you from those competing at this week’s Billabong Pro Tour event in Teahupoo, Tahiti?  Wideworld picks the brains of Joanne Hillman, an International Surfing Association approved competition judge to find out what to be on the lookout for when it comes to competition time.

Having judged for the past six years, including four World Championships, Hillman informs us that judging competition is far from a cut and dry process. “In terms of scoring competitive rides, the marking criteria is constantly evolving,” she says. “It is not as clear cut as other sports, therefore there can be a great deal of controversy that comes with the point scoring.”

Here’s Hillman’s breakdown of how the surfers are judged when riding the waves.


Perhaps the most important element is the commitment shown on a wave. Daring to perform the most radical manoeuvres or take the most risk in the critical section of the wave – the curl, when the wave is just breaking – is where the competitors are more likely to score the big points. Bold tricks done as the waves are breaking will score more points than manoeuvres on the shoulder of the wave.

Points are awarded in comparison to the risk taken. Commitment on the bigger waves is a good way to score points. There is a lot more risk if a competitor takes off on a bigger wave – for example if there was a big 8-ft wave just breaking – and they paddled into it fully committed. They are more likely to score points than if they took off on something that was breaking closer to shore – on the inside.

If a surfer takes off on a wave, does a nice bottom turn, comes up and does an aerial then there is more risk, if you do an aerial further down the wave then the risk element is lessened.

Level of the manoeuvres

Tied to the commitment shown, points are also awarded for the technical difficulty of the manoeuvres. The higher the level of difficulty, the more points scored. The judge takes into consideration the level of a trick, for example if a rider does a big air – like a superman, taking their feet off the board – or they do an air reverse, then those tricks are more critical than doing a little floater in the white water at the end of the wave.

It is also good to show a variety of manoeuvres on a wave. Whereas traditionally surfing used to be about pulling off standard moves such as cut-backs, re-entries, floaters and tuberides, now what we are seeing are more manoeuvres borrowed from other sports such as skateboarding. These new tricks are pushing the sport to the next level in terms of commitment, and just like in skateboarding the cleaner the tricks, the higher they score.

Number of waves

The criteria of surf comps have progressively changed. The criteria used to state that a surfer would be judged on the average of four waves ridden to the beach, but that has now changed to the average of a surfer’s best two waves caught within a twenty-minute heat.

The change came about to prompt the competitors to stop surfing safe. With four waves, because they had to catch so many it didn’t really encourage people to do more dramatic surfing, instead it focused more on being consistent and relied on who could catch more waves in the allotted time.

Having the average of only the best two waves means that the competitors are forced to ride harder and push the barriers further, which makes the sport infinitely more appealing to spectators.

Quality over quantity

Another aspect of the sport evolving is importance of quality surfing over quantity. In an attempt to encourage new surfing innovations, a competitor can score highly by merely performing one big trick rather than staying on his board the longest – but that trick has to be seriously good! This rule change has come about to make the sport more spectator friendly, at the sacrifice of rules such as the length of your ride.

Style doesn’t matter

A common myth is that your style – or flow – of surfing matter. The truth is that despite having an ugly flow, a competitor will not be punished if they are still a great surfer. Style is not really an area where you gain or lose points in a competition. It is far more important to be able to pull off risky moves that they are fully committed to in the critical part of the wave. Lack of grace or balance should not interfere with the overall result that a surfer gains.

The scoring

After considering all of the criteria above, the surfers’ ride is then scored out of 10. The break down for the score given is:

0–1.9 (Poor)

2.0–3.9 (Fair)

4.0–5.9 (Average)

6.0–7.9 (Good)

8.0–10.0 (Excellent)


Want to learn to surf? Check out WideWorld’s simple lessons here