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How Do Surfing Competitions Work

Updated: Apr 2

Surfing competitions are a very unique and entertaining thing. They will typically follow a structured format, consisting of several elements that keep it flowing. There are numerous levels and stages of surf contests that people will participate in. Many will compete for their school in surf contests and others compete at a much higher level as they try to make a career out of it. Every contest has a set of rules that are generally the same throughout, with some tweaks here and there.

How Do Surfing Competitions Work

Photo Courtesy of Stab Mag

How Do Surfing Competitions Work

The world of professional surfing is overseen by the World Surf League (WSL). They host a diverse array of competitions, all over the globe. From the most known, Championship Tour (CT) to the Big Wave Tour, the events showcase the pinnacle of surfing talent while following the standard guidelines designed to ensure fairness and safety for all involved.

Rules and Regulations

In professional surfing, while the rules may not be overly complex, they play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the sport and fostering an environment that is fair to everyone. Here are some of the key regulations that are involved in the world of professional surfing competitions:

Judging and Points

Events are structured into rounds, with heats comprising two to four surfers trying to secure their highest-scoring waves. Each wave is evaluated by a panel of five judges on a scale of one to ten. The highest and lowest scores from the judges on each wave ridden are discarded, and the surfer receives the average of the remaining three scores. The two best scoring waves are then combined to determine the surfer's heat total, with a maximum potential score of 20 points.

Judges assess various elements when scoring waves, including commitment, degree of difficulty, innovation, combination of maneuvers, and the classic "speed, power, and flow" of the ride. This is how most professional contests are formatted, but can be different at a lower level. For example, in a college contest, there are usually 6 surfers in the water and it is essentially every man for themselves for a short 15-20 minute heat.


Surfers on the championship tour will accrue points based on their performance in each event, with higher finishes translating to more points. For example, on the Championship Tour, first place earns 10,000 points, while subsequent placements receive progressively fewer points. These points are tallied to establish the CT Rankings, reflecting the surfers' standings throughout the season.


Priority grants a surfer the exclusive right to catch any wave of their choosing. This is a very important part of pro surfing contests and can often test whether someone is smart with their wave selection. While other surfers in the heat can attempt to catch the same wave, they must not ruins the scoring potential of the surfer with priority. Priority is lost once a surfer catches a wave or misses an opportunity to catch one. In the event of multiple surfers vying for the same wave, priority is awarded to the first surfer to reach the take-off zone. Things can get dicey and we will often see a "paddle battle" between surfers trying to get to priority first.


Interference occurs when a surfer obstructs the scoring potential of another surfer with priority. In such cases, the offending surfer may incur an interference penalty, resulting in a deduction from their heat score. For most competitions, causing two interferences leads to disqualification from the heat, highlighting the importance of respectful and strategic surfing.

In the realm of professional surfing, following these pretty standard regulations ensures the integrity and competitiveness of each event, while showcasing the very talented athletes. As spectators, understanding these rules might help your appreciation of the sport and understand what is going on at the next event you come across!

For more, be sure to explore our posts on What To Wear Surfing.

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