WSL judges at work.
Is this really how it works? Have the internet commentators been right all along? That the process of judging surfing contests is just a debauched ritual controlled by Men of Power? | Photo: Derek Rielly

Confessions of a pro surfing judge!

Sex for scores! Cash for priority! Men of power and their cockmongers!

It should be just another bright summer morning in Huntington Beach, California. Golden parcels of light parachute through the roofs and there is no air pollution to clutter the molecules. It is perfect, if you believe in perfection.

But the scene that greets the reporter inside the judging tower resembles Fascist Italy circa 1944. Hello Republic of Salo! 

I have been instructed, if I wish to see the judging process, to appear at the bottom of the stairs leading to the great beachfront structure at seven am. No one is there to meet me. I hear laughing (older men), weeping (very young) and some kind of barking, but by humans. I climb the stairs

As I enter what I will later learn is called the “Circle of Overscore”, pro surfers wander naked serving food. Two of the four “studs” or “cockmongers” (a young pro chosen for his large penis) fondle each other in front of the judges, which arouses them greatly.

“I give each of these boys one nine-point-five for two turns and a shorebreak tap per heat,” shouts a judge to much approval.

During a search for the “cockmonger” with the firmest buttocks, the Brazilian Filipe Toledo is chosen and is gifted a win in the US Open, which will conclude the following afternoon.

Could it be true? Is this really how it works? Have the internet commentators been right all along? That the process of judging surfing contests is just a debauched ritual controlled by Men of Power?

Oh how I wish!

What I do find are the loveliest and keenest surf fans you could assemble anywhere. A collection of ultimate surf geeks, although all can surf very well, some at pro level, but ready and skilled enough to compute the difference between rides that may vary by 1/100th of a point. Hair splitting as a profession! It is a relentless job that gives no respite and, to the larger surf world, may seem entirely joyless. But these men love it!

There is Richie Porta, the ASP head judge (although he has two associate head judges, Pritamo Ahrendt and Dave Shipley, that rotate through the Head Judge position at World Tour events). He’s at the US Open more as an overseer and occasional judge than in any super serious role. That’ll come at the contest in Tahiti in a couple of weeks. Of the difference between the US Open qualifier and the World Tour event, he says, “It’s like going from club football to the AFL grand final. The pressure and the nuances at the very top is remarkable. It’s that much more intense it’s not even palpable… Like, last year at Pipe. You’ve gotta have nerves of steel when it’s a game of nines. All the boys are ripping and it’s you deciding, is that nine-two better than that nine-three. At the level of the World Tour it’s that crucial.”

Next is Jeff Klugel the silver-haired former pro surfer who is head judge of the men’s heats here. He roams up and down the panel of five judges, asking the video operator to cue up various rides and says things like, “I like it, I like it. But let’s watch yellow again for a reference, the sections aren’t as critical; blue’s attack looked a little more critical in my mind!”

Rich says, “The coolest thing is, we’re all dyed-in-the-wool surf fans. I love these comparisons.”

Jeff looks at me, bouncing on his feet, and says, “At the highest level, it’s gold! Pure gold!”

The surf is two feet and will shrink toward the shore as the tide comes in. I want to find out how hard, or easy, it is to judge at an ASP event. It ain’t World Tour, I know, but it’s close. And at home my scores reflect, generally, what the judges punch in.

First heat. Mitch Crews versus Charlie Martin. A split peak. Mitch does two little tags, but with style; Maxime Huscenot, three, but with slightly less zing. I give Max a four and Mitch a three-point-eight.

I’m horrified to see the scores come in at seven and five-point-one-seven. Ah, but then I learn. You judge according to the conditions. If you score too low, says Rich Porta, “You’ll compress everything under five. We talk about opening up the scale in bad surf. Say, the surf is good in the morning and the tide comes in and wrecks it in the afternoon, like in France, Portugal or here at HB. We still have to score it out of 10, no matter what. But what would’ve been a four in the morning is now a six.”

Anyway, it’s a game of comparisons, Rich explains, and that it doesn’t matter if your scores are different to the other judges so long as you’re consistent within the heat. The highest score and lowest score is always removed thereby creating a consistent result.

Mitch swings an air. It’s not necessarily that much more difficult than the two safe backhand taps Max has just completed but there is a greater margin for error. I give it a six. It’s a three-point-six-seven.

“Eight years ago that would’ve been an eight-five, now he gets a 3.67,” says Rich. “He didn’t rotate hard, there wasn’t the trajectory in the air. The tour surfers came to us and said judge us on technicality, height and landing. Before it was ‘jump’ and get a score.”

As we get deeper into the first heat, it becomes even more of a game of comparisons. We compare Mitch’s three-six-seven air to his first wave, the five-one-seven (two turns) and three-point left that consisted of one turn.

“It’s crucial to have those smaller waves in the right spaces,” says Rich. “The surfer will come in and say, ‘My air was better than my turn at the pier…were you watching? Surely you guys know that was harder to do!’ So we don’t get flippant with our scores.”

Jeff, meanwhile, is like a conductor, spinning past the judges mounted on their pedestal chairs and punching scores into their electronic boxes that may or may not be replaced by computer tablets soon.

“Let’s go to the replays!”

The replays on a smallish television controlled by a full-time video guy are brutal. What looked rad in the water is compressed on the screen. It explains a lot about why so many people lose it at home. Rich says that most judges have their scores already in their heads and they generally don’t tweak it too much after any replays on the small television screen.

The heat finishes. “Alright!” hollers Jeff. “One done!

“You’re always comparing it to that first score,” says Dylan Feindt, an American judge.

I’m sweating. It’s tough, even one heat, so much concentration my brain aches. As the day move on my scores close in to the paid judges, but occasionally I’ll be blown away by equal scores being given to three re-entries (Brett Simpson) and Felipe Toledo (two airs, including a genuine how-the-hell-did-he-do-that-rote in the shore break).

“When we started everyone surfed the same, you were comparing apples with apples,” says Rich. “Now you’re comparing  apples to oranges to bananas and watermelons. If the surfers were to say, all we want you to score is airs, then that’s what we’d score. But it’s all kinds of surfing and the scores reflect it. If you’re not across the concept it doesn’t make sense.”

As for corruption and being blinded by a personal fav, Rich says: “I don’t care who is out there. My focus is on whether or not it’s a six or a seven or whatever and if the surf is good enough to compete.”

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared on the opening day of BeachGrit in 2014. Given the heat surrounding judges, more noise than a football coach, I figured it deserved a little re-run.)


WSL judges issue mea culpa.
WSL judges censured over poor judging performance.

Racism furore engulfs World Surf League after body issues mea culpa following judging controversy

"Brazilian surfers when we complain we get letters with threats of punishment. The others get public apologies."

Yesterday, the WSL issued a rare mea culpa over what was deemed a poor judging decision at the surf major at Snapper Rocks, begging forgiveness from the sporting body’s dozens of fans. 

“The Head Judge and Nat met for a heat review and watched all of the waves from Nat, Mikey and Charly. It was recognized and acknowledged that Nat’s 4.03 was in fact underscored and the wave should have been in the 5 or 6-point-range,” wrote the WSL. “Even though it was not the 7.21 that Nat needed to get into an advancing position, we still wanted to acknowledge the error.”

The sport’s judging has long been an issue, as it always will, although the noise made by Brazilian world champs Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo and Italo Ferreira, and various death threats from Brazilian surf fans, has brought the issue into relief. 

After a controversial loss at Bells in May Gabriel Medina described it as “the worst judging I’ve ever seen.” 

His outburst followed a long proud line of Brazilians complaining about losing, notably in El Salvador and at Surf Ranch.

Still, despite the apparent bias, Filipe Toledo’s two world titles were gifted in two-foot waves tailor-made for his small-wave hijinks and Brazilians have won every world title since 2018.

What is interesting is why the WSL has now made a point of examining a largely pointless moment in a reasonably pointless heat, at least in comparison to a CT event, instead of, say, reviewing Bells, El Salvador and Surf Ranch. 

Which is, for the Brazilian surf fan, further proof the WSL exists only to advance the cause of the two-percenters, white Californians etc. 


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Cue cries of an anti-Brazil bias.

“Amazing how WSL chatted to the surfer and posed publicly, in a CS battery. And with the countless controversial batteries with Medina, Italy, Toledo, among other Brazilians? Does Nat Young’s being from the United States weigh any weight? Will it be????”

“I’m sorry but it’s not a mistake it’s bad influence and @wsl only did it because the athlete is American. This kind os “mistakes“ have been happening over the years with the Brazilian athletes in a large scale and @wsl never review a heat or came up with apologies. This institution don’t have my respect and clearly don’t have respect from the athletes neither. @wsl needs to be reformed with better professionalism.”

“Brazillians Surfers when we complain we get letters with threats of punishment. The others get public apologies.”

And, then, Gabriel Medina swings into the spotlight.

“I’m here for the comments,” he writes, prompting 2000 likes and 100 replies.

The highlight of the latest imbroglio, howevs, has been memes from @pauly_matt_war_shore.

Heady days.

Michael Dunphy making art.
Michael Dunphy making art.

Surf journeyman Michael Dunphy topples longboarder in what is being called “best leash pull ever”

"He's a savage. Classy, bougie, ratchet."

Now, there are many ways to savage kooks including, but not limited to, lowering double barrels on a podcast and firing grosse pointe blank. Then, of course, there are more traditional ways such as slapping the water, barking like a dog, mumbling under breath, staring, thinking bad thoughts or, the greatest, pulling a leash.

World Qualifying Series journeyman, and Floridian, Michael Dunphy put on an absolute clinic with regards to the latter. The perpetually young fellow happens to be on Australia’s Gold Coast with the Deivid Silva etc. when the masterwork occurred. Dunphy can be seen speeding up in order to grab the leash of a lightly overweight longboarder, tugging hard and sending the portly man tumbling.

Praise was near universal.

Scion of positivity Chris Cote declared, “Hey Burkhart, wanna buy some photos?”

Surf photography legend Jimmy “Cane” Wilson added, “This might be my favorite clip ever on instagram.”

Style master Devon Howard found the tow technique “on point.”

And Joel Tudor brought it all home with, “That’s what ya get for wearing a dork strap on longboard / 2 ft wave.”


Minnie Driver (insert) letting it fly at "giant kook" Diplo.
Minnie Driver (insert) letting it fly at "giant kook" Diplo.

Minnie Driver savages Diplo for being giant kook in wild surf slam

“Diplo dropped in on me last summer so many times on his stupid foam board..."

Minnie Driver, the actress famous for playing Debbi Newberry in Grosse Pointe Blank, firmly established herself as no. 1 grumpy local after publicly destroying famed DJ Diplo in a wide-ranging interview on the well-loved Table Manners podcast. Driver, 54 and a surfer of some note, pulled zero punches whatsoever, “naming and shaming” Kelly Slater’s friend for being a massive kook.

“First of all, I need to tell you what dropping in on someone is,” Driver opened her salvo. “In the water, there is an etiquette when you surf that people follow, and it is largely for safety, and it’s also because of respect. It’s just how (expletive deleted) works.”

Just warming up, the sprightly brunette continued, “What happens when you paddle out, first of all, you don’t take the first wave that comes because you’ve just paddled out, you let it cycle through the people that are already there. So here’s the deal.” And if you don’t? Well, “it’s a really (expletive deleted) thing to do as bad things happen in the water when people do that.”

Stage set, it was go time.

“Diplo dropped in on me last summer so many times on his stupid foam board. He was out with a mate of mine so I wasn’t allowed to say, ‘Would you stop it and have some respect? Also, you can’t surf.’ I was so annoyed. It’s also like, if you’re gonna come to Malibu and like, buy your big house, and suddenly consider yourself a surfer, and paddle out, and piss off the people that have lived there for years, you’re gonna get outed on a podcast. I’d rather shame him than go and do what he did.”


Just wow.

Congratulations to Minnie Driver for establishing herself as our queen. To be honest, I did not see that coming this morning.

All hail, etc.

Teahupoo judging tower
"I am neither pro nor anti-tower. But if people want to have a professional surfing event at Teahupoo in the future a judging tower is needed to properly assess the tube riding performances."

Paris 2024 organisers reveal state-of-the-art collapsible $5 million judging tower at Teahupoo, Tahiti

"If Teahupoo does not want the Olympic Games we will have flat surf with heavy rain and maramuu winds for the event."

You’ll remember a year or so back the vaguely humorous story of Olympic organisers tearing down the old WSL wooden judging tower at Teahupoo and replacing it with a magnificent aluminium structure for the three-day event at a cost of five mill US.

A little rich, given Paris 2024 has positioned itself as the “sustainable” Games. 

Protests followed and the tower was subsequently toned down, less shitters, less room for for various officials and so on. 

And, now, the Tahiti-based French photographer Tim McKenna has delivered a marvellously balanced explanation of the build complete with photos.

“After my last post on the Teahupoo Tower I realised there was a lot of misinformation in the comments,” writes McKenna. “Here’s some info that might give people a better understanding of the situation.”

Thanks to the pressure of the local population, nature conservation association and all the people around the world who signed the SaveTeahupoo petition, the tower project was reduced to the bare minimum in order to have the least impact possible on the environment.

As you can see on Photo 1 ,2,3 the area where the tower is built has very little coral. It’s a flat shelf with small spread out corals heads and a few bigger rocks covered with coral. Over the years corals has even covered the previous concrete tower base structure as you can see on the video.

– The new tower was never only for the Olympic Games. It’s a collapsable tower that will be assembled every year for the duration of the event. The aluminum structure designed and built exclusively in Tahiti can finally be certified for insurance and safety reasons. It ’s an investment the Tahitian government has made for the the next 20 years of surfing events at Teahupoo.

– I am neither pro nor anti-tower. But if people want to have a professional surfing event at Teahupoo in the future a judging tower is needed to properly assess the tube riding performances.
I personally don’t make a living shooting contest and prefer shooting free surf. I couldn’t care less if there are no more pro events at Teahupoo. However I am pretty sure a large majority of the locals welcome the exposure and business WSL events and the Olympic Games bring. Surf events are also a great way to spark the passion within the new generation of Tahitian surfers and are an opportunity for them to shine and try and make a living out of their passion.

Interestingly, McKenna says the Gods will choose whether or not the tower lives or dies.

No need for all this #olympicbashing. Teahupoo will protect itself. Teahupoo is the birth place of Mana. If Teahupoo does not want the Olympic Games we will have flat surf with heavy rain and maramuu winds for the event. If Teahupoo does not want the tower an XXL swell will take it down.

If Teahupoo wants the Olympics it will put on the greatest show on earth.