How Surf Competitions Work: Rules & Scores Explained

Surfing is a cool hobby and a fun sport to watch. But not knowing enough about how surf competitions work may take the fun out of your viewing experience. Also, you'll be underprepared for standard contests as an upcoming surfer.

The rules of the game are complex and may be too difficult to figure out compared to sports like swimming. So, this guide was deemed necessary for the fresh and curious enthusiast or rookie.

You’re about to dive deep into the world of surfing as a sport to learn about its international regulatory organization, competition types, basic rules, and more.

World Surf League (WSL): Background

The World Surf League is an international controlling body for surfing with its headquarters in California, United States. There are regional offices to cover Asia Pacific, Latin America, North America, and EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa).

This organization involves the best professional surfers around the world in a system of Tours and Events. It handles over 180 competitions across the globe and produces the world champions in every division. The Tours and Events coordinated by this body for men and women include the following:

  • Championship Tours (CT)
  • Qualifying Series (QS)
  • Big Wave Tour (BWT)
  • Longboard Championships
  • Junior Championships
  • XXL Big Wave Awards

It’s worth noting that the WSL has undergone a few name changes in the past. For example, it was referred to as International Professional Surfing (IPS) between 1976 and 1982. Then, it became the Association of Surfing Professionals from 1983 till the name was replaced in 2015 with the present one. It was ISP that conducted the first global Tour of professional surfing events.

Basic Rules and Regulations for Surf Competitions

Just like any other sports governing body, the World Surf League has formulated a great number of rules and regulations to cater to its various contests. They've been created to keep participants safe, uphold fairness, and enhance the quality of the games.

There are many complex rules in the WSL Rule Book. So it was considered essential to explain the fundamentals in this section. You'll find information about heats, priority, judges, scoring, rankings, and drug use here.

Composition of Events

Surfing Events consist of rounds that contain heats in which 2-4 contenders try to ride as many waves as they can. Each wave offers a total of 10 points. The number and duration of heats vary based on Event type and other factors.

The Panel of Judges and How They Score Surfers

The panel that scores contestants will have five judges (one head judge) who individually score each athlete’s wave. They eventually disregard their lowest and highest ratings (two out of the five judges) for each wave. This is so that the athlete will be assessed based on the average of the three scores left.

The two best-scoring waves of every surfer with a total of 20 points will be used for the heat's final scores. Thankfully, there’s no specified total of the waves that can be rated. See the scoring scale below.

  • Excellent (8.0 to 10.0)
  • Very Good (6.5 to 7.9)
  • Good (5.0 to 6.4)
  • Fair (2.0 to 4.9)
  • Poor (0.0 to 1.9)

The following are the parameters utilized in judging waves, except in Big Wave Tours and Longboard Championships:

  • Flow
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Commitment
  • Difficulty level
  • Maneuver types and combinations


Competitors are allocated points at the end of every event according to their respective positions. These points will be used to determine their spots on the Tour’s ranking table.


The contender who’s first in the lineup or who catches the first wave has priority over other participant(s). This means that the priority surfer can claim any desired wave or the first one to form. Nonetheless, another athlete is allowed to ride a wave that was paddled for and missed by the one with priority.

A contestant will lose priority once they catch a wave or miss one. And he or she would have to wait for their next priority turn behind other contenders in the lineup. The lost priority will be forfeited to the next athlete behind him or her in the lineup.

Other surfers can target and ride on the same wave that was caught by the priority surfer as long as they don’t impede the athlete's progress or performance. When more than one athlete is riding the same wave, the first person who caught it will have the right of priority.

Interference Penalty

This penalty is issued to a contestant who hampers the scoring potential of another contender who has wave priority. In nearly all circumstances, an interference call will result in the calculation of the erring athlete's heat score based on only the highest-scoring wave and not the two best-scoring waves. That's a possible total of 10 points instead of 20.

A participant who gets two interference penalties in the course of a heat will be disqualified from that heat. But BWT tournaments don’t have this kind of rule.

Restarting Heats

The head judge will decide to start the heat again if none of the athletes can catch a wave within the initial 10 minutes. However, this rule isn’t applied in BWT games.

Regulations on Drug Use

Everything you need to read about this is contained in the free downloadable WSL Anti-Doping Policy ebook. Its alternate title is “World Surf League Policy and Program on Performance-enhancing Substances”.


Keep in mind that the rules described in this post aren’t considered for the XXL Big Wave Awards. Also, you’d have to check the WSL Rule Book (free and downloadable ebook) for more information on them.

The World Surf League Rule Book is a comprehensive compilation of over 120 pages of all you need to know about how surf competitions work. This is in addition to what you’ll find in the WSL Anti-Doping Policy ebook.

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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