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WSL Head Judge on “Miracle” Nine, Raining Tens!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

The fabulous Rich Porta explains everything.

Two weeks ago, if you’ll remember, there was a commotion regarding Jordy Smith’s “miracle nine-pointer” at Trestles. The consensus was, how can a few ordinary turns surrounding one full-blooded hack on a three-foot wave be an almost perfect ride?

The people asked, is the fix in? Is Jordy the world champ almost-elect?

Now I ain’t one for conspiracies.

The Saudis cooked the Towers and the Pentagon; man did indeed bounce on the moon. White lines in the sky isn’t the government gassing us. Fluoride, oowee, it makes teeth strong!

As for judging, once you’ve had a taste of life inside the tower (it’s very serious and from what I can tell unimpeachable), and you understand the concept of scaling heats and that you can’t just dive into one score from a day’s play and expect to get why it hit that number, there becomes very little to surprise.

But why listen to me?

Defending WSL judging feels like coming out as a conservative or discussing the divisiveness of identity politics. You want to get peanuts thrown at you by your pals? Tell ‘em you think the judges nail it.

Yesterday, I spent an instructive hour on the telephone talking to the WSL’s head judge, Rich Porta. I wanted to know, is it raining tens more than usual this year in the quest for more clicks? Should there be a “chicken-skin” score reserved for once-in-a-year waves like Filipe’s at J-Bay? Is Shane Beschen’s idea that backhand surfing have a scoring cap if the turns are good not excellent got merit? Is the “scale” a dumb idea that artificially inflates good surfing on bad waves? And Jordy’s wave, how’d it hit nine?

Rich, who has been the men’s head judge for seven years, is fifty-three years old, lives on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, rides either six-o Mayhem Sub-Drivers or thirty-one litre JS Monsta Boxes, and keeps a stash of guns at Sunset Beach. He loves to surf, loves to talk surf, and, more than anything, loves to light up on the nature, and structure, of surf contest judging.

BeachGrit: First, how should a punter approach lounge-room scoring? How can he up his success rate?

Rich: My advice is don’t get hung up on what you think the score should be. Judging is a comparison from one wave to the next. I say to my guys at the start of the day, you can get differences of opinion, it’s subjective. But whether you think that wave was a four or a seven, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the very next wave and the wave after that. Did the person in blue win the heat or did the person in read win the heat? It’s solely a comparison between red and blue’s best two waves. It amuses me when people say, surely that was an eight-five when they got a seven. Don’t worry about it, what matters is, in comparison to the five, was it two points and not three points better? And you’re judging the categories of the scale. That’s what goes through a judge’s mind. Good surfing in our scale is between six and eight. Low good, say, is six to six five. A lot of scores on those low end of each scale, good or excellent, a seven-eight, five-eight, on the screen, are waves the judges think are not-quite good or not-quite excellent surfing. So those point-eights, and point-twos and threes, you’ll hear the numbers and think ‘That’s a weird number to drop.’ But they’re crucial numbers. It’s demonstrating that it’s nearly there or not good or not excellent.

BeachGrit: How about the claim you’ll turn a heat on the final wave if you feel like the surfer got a bum steer earlier in the heat?

Rich: A lot of the time we’re in soundproof booths. We don’t know what’s required for a surfer to turn a heat. If the surfer needs a seven-three to win and he gets a seven-three it’s what the wave is worth. I get asked by other officials from other sports, if we get influenced. If you came into the tower you’d realise these guys don’t get influenced by… anything. That’s why they’re the best in the world. They can be watching tens going down in the best waves in the world and there’s no emotion, no smiles, no exclamation marks, no talking. You could see the best wave come through at Chopes, ten foot, a wave only a handful of guys in the world could paddle into, and it’d look like the guys were watching chess. You don’t get to sit in these chairs without having that capability of doing the job when all the shit goes down around you. There’s too much at stake.

BeachGrit: Do you get sad when readers are unkind?

Rich: When it gets thrown in my face, when it’s vicious, I think, if you’re that off it, just turn the dial to whatever you want to watch. I don’t get why people get so upset. It’s that sort of sport. A best mate of mine on the Goldie heard a world champ tell a kid that he should stop carrying on about losing heats. He said, you picked the wrong sport if you hate losing. You’re gonna lose. Every surfer in the world loses a lot of heats. And if you lose your mind about it, you might wanna choose a different sport. Sometimes we get splits with the judges and that’s the subjective nature of the sport. It’s not a race and it’s not a goal.

BeachGrit: There’s a lot of chatter that tens should be released only in exceptional cases. That we should remember a ten for years, like we remember 100-ponters from the X Games. Albee Layer said, “If one of the lowest-rated surfers on tour can catch not the best wave of the  day and do not his very best surfing and still get an excellent score, no one has any incentive to learn anything new.” How do you respond?

Rich: Tens are a cracker, right. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are exceptions, like Filipe’s wave at J-Bay, but even then… even then… people didn’t understand the wave because of what he did. There were people we spoke to he said, there’s no way that wave was a ten. He didn’t utilise every turn, didn’t do this, didn’t do that. At J-Bay there was nine, I think, tens. Then we turned up at Trestles, no tens, Tahiti, one ten, when it went onshore and Gabriel had a wave that, compared to everything else, was better. I don’t like to see that many tens. That’s just me. We joke among ourselves that we have guys who are ten spoilers, they’re the ones on the nine-eights. But when it’s that much better than anything else around, where do you go? Twelve? Filipe’s wave at J-Bay, versus the other tens then that’s a twelve. There was discussion after J-Bay that there was too many tens. But the surf was amazing. Go to Trestles, no tens.I’m not going to turn around to five guys and change a ten. The five best judges in the world. Everyone gets stuck into us ab out the scoring but this crew, currently, is superior to any judging panel I’ve seen in the history of me doing it. We’ll argue sometimes, we’ll analyse scores and a couple might argue over whether a wave was a seven or a nine, and we learn from it.

BeachGrit: Talk to me about Jordy’s “miracle nine-pointer” at Trestles. Was it a case of the television flattening the size of the wave. Live, was it vastly superior to any of Filipe’s?

Rich: We got a lot of grief for Jordy’s nine at Trestles. That was a really strong, well-surfed wave, and you know, a nine, in real life. It was true because it was such a good wave. On the first replay, they missed the first turn and everyone watching it live freaked out. Nine? What? For three turns? Well, there was…four…turns. That was interesting because out of that contest that’s what everyone jumped on. One score. You’re all talking about one score and there’s between 900 and 1000 waves scored in a men’s CT event. Yeah, it was a score in a final, everyone’s focussed on it, but don’t lose your shit over it because you think it was an eight and it was a nine. We only use the replay to check, say, the nuance of a bottom turn and we don’t get distracted by vision because the TV’s compress the wave. Waves tend to look the same size. That’s the thing. If someone’s ripping into me about a score, I’ll ask: where you there? On the beach? Well don’t worry about it. What you saw on TV was a distorted reality. The coverage is amazing but it still doesn’t give you the depth. It can’t. Cloudbreak and Chopes are a classic example of that. When you watch it on the TV it doesn’t show you the depth of the playing field. The camera’s so locked in on the guy, you miss what’s coming at him, you’re not seeing thirty metres down the wave, what’s wrapping down the reef, and that’s the difference.

BeachGrit: Has there been any talk about changing the way waves are scored? With a ten-point ceiling a guy could ride the greatest wave in history, his back up is, say, a three and he gets beaten by a couple of dull sixes and a bits. I was thinking about this with Filipe, is there any mood to add what the Hui called “a chicken skin” score?

Rich: Let’s say you’re sitting there, and Filipe’s wave is better than all the other tens and you drop an eleven on it, you change the game, you change the rules. What if the next wave is better? Where do you go then? You’re going down a path of greys in a sport that’s already got enough ambiguity. We’ve had that discussion with a lot of different people. About having a reset button and every score drops by a point. Other tens become nines, nines become eights. As a judge over the years, I wished that existed. But can you imagine the guy who had a ten and a nine and we suddenly reset it?

BeachGrit: Short-term pain for long-term gain, no? Your hand hovering the reset button would be terrifically exciting. Great tension on a live broadcast.

Rich: All sport has to have parameters. And we live by the point-one to ten-point scale. But I can feel goosebumps justing reliving Filipe’s wave in mu mind. I’d never seen a wave surfed like that at J-Bay. It never seen a wave surfed like that in my mind, that’s for sure. As a judge you enjoy those game-changing waves. If you’d been in that room, you would’ve seen five guys typing tens into their computers then…saying… ah… can we watch the replay because it was that good.

BeachGrit: Let’s talk about the scale. I know how it works, and as long as everyone is scored within the heat to that scale, no one loses. But what about when, within that scale, someone is scored a nine, say, for a couple of ordinary turns or an almost ten, Jordy, Trestles, Owen, Rio, doesn’t it render stats, scores, meaningless? Couldn’t, for example, in shitty waves, everyone gets threes, in a contest with great waves, nines and tens? Is that unrealistic?

Rich: We go from heaving slabs at Teahupoo to fluff and bunnies at Trestles. It’s a whole different sport that’s unfolding. When Chopes is on, guys have to paddle down the ledge at ten feet and then they fly to three-foot waves at the softest peak in them world. What happens at Tahiti has no relation to what happens at Trestles or Portugal or France. All that stays the same is the criteria. You compare red’s wave to blue’s wave and that’s it.

BeachGrit: Shane Beschen made a point yesterday saying, “To further push the level and excitement of surfing within the WSL there should be a points cap on ‘good’ surfing. A combination of  ‘good’ turns should never be rewarded an ‘excellent; score. If competitors know they can reach an excellent score with good surfing they will not take unnecessary risk.”

Rich: Well, that’s another thing. Shane’s got his own concepts. He’s a great surfer, a coach, and those parameters will come in time, especially with the Wave Ranch. We spoke to Kelly a lot about it. It was amazing to see the surfers improve after time in the pool. Then you can move into those parameters like a snowboard half-pipe contest, height, rotation, all that stuff. But the ocean doesn’t allow you to do that. If you nail the best five backhand turns you’ve ever seen, but they’re standard combos, then why shouldn’t it be an excellent score? It was amazing surfing even if he didn’t do an air or throw the fins. He still blew that wave to pieces. But because he didn’t do what is deemed an “excellent” manoeuvre he can’t get an excellent score? Shane’s method would box surfers into surfing a certain way. They’d go, here’s this manoeuvre, now give me an excellent score.

BeachGrit: What’s the dumbest criticism you’ve ever received?

Rich: That we can conspire a win over and over and create a world champion. That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. It’s unfathomable that five guys who don’t talk to each, who don’t know the score that is required, are going to make so and so the world champion. That gets me going. All we care about is putting down the right score for the right surfer. If you look at the Hurley Pro, for example, how many guys do they have on their team? Ten, eleven? Odds are a Hurley guy is going to win the contest. They’ve got a third of the field!