This is How to Improve the Surf Ranch Event

Matt Rott

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Updated 16d ago

The Founders’ Cup has finished. Team World won despite arguably being the underdog in the final, Brazil took second, and the USA took third after Kelly Slater came up just short on the last wave of the event. (If he’d stuck his last turn, there would have been a tie and a surf-off).

Despite the ongoing debate over whether or not a contest in a wave pool is exciting enough to warrant a spot on tour, Sophie Goldschmidt has to be pretty damned happy right now.

A lot of people spent a lot of money on tickets, a lot more logged on to watch the webcast, and a major TV network even showed up to film the crew ripping apart the Surf Ranch, from barely teenaged Taina all the way up to elder statesman Kelly.

Team World ultimately took home the win.

Team World ultimately took home the win.

The event was more or less a success (who knows what metrics the WSL uses to measure ROI on things like this), and that’s all I am going to say about that. There has been enough hype around this event to last all year, but rather than add to the hoopla, I’m instead going to offer some constructive criticism. After all, the point of this team contest was to work out the kinks and prepare for the world tour event in September. So here are a handful of observations from the first wave pool surf comp that actually mattered—and a handful of suggestions on how to improve it.

The surfing was a bit repetitive:
A friend of mine in Hawaii was watching the event online, and his nine-year-old daughter wandered in this afternoon to check out the finals. After watching one wave for about 20 seconds, she asked, “Why does that girl keep doing the same thing?”

This was the most common critique of the event, and a problem that was pretty widely anticipated coming into the Founders’ Cup. Due to the nature of the wave (long, perfect, symmetrical, chest-high), it sort of lends itself toward formulaic surfing. That’s great for training, and I’m sure it’s a blast to surf, but for spectators, there was a noticeable lack of variety. As counterintuitive as it might seem, I think the solution is to make the ride shorter

As counterintuitive as it might seem, I think the solution is to make the ride shorter. Start the athletes halfway down the pool rather than up at the top, and let them do 8 turns instead of 17. We don’t need to see someone do the same snap half a dozen times—after three or four, they all start to blur together. Less maneuvers on a shorter wave would encourage more innovation and creativity, and less safety surfing.

I think that the event would be a lot more exciting if we started the competitors one turn above the first barrel section, let them rip through the middle portion of the wave, and then designated the second barrel section as an air ramp. Which brings me to my next observation.

The barrel may have been scored too high:

Kolohe Andino slotted but was it over scored?

Kolohe Andino slotted but was it over scored?

While it’s true that certain competitors had a bit more trouble navigating the barrel sections than others (we wont name any names), I’m pretty sure that had more to do with their actual prowess as tuberiders than it did with the difficulty of the tube on offer.

This is an almost perfectly predictable barrel we are talking about here, so threading it should not be considered cutting-edge for the world’s best surfers. Yes, deeper barrel rides and more dynamic, creative entries into the tube should be rewarded, but in general the portion of the score awarded for barrels should be no more than 25 per cent.

To make things more interesting, I’d suggest designating the shorter hollow section at the end of the wave as an air ramp. If you simply ride the barrel and don’t do an air, you don’t get scored. If you boost off the section and land it, you get scored based on how big and technical of an air it is, and how smoothly it is completed. If you combine a barrel ride with an air, you get scored higher yet. Pretty simple.

The right was scoring higher than the left:

More love for the regular foots than goofy?

More love for the regular foots than goofy?

This was largely due to the fact that the left has an onshore wind problem, and the engineers were reportedly using a less hollow setting on the left since the outside barrel would have been blown out anyway.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t exactly create the level playing field that the wave pool is supposed to furnish. After all, a wave that’s hollower and has more barrel sections is bound to elicit better performance and higher scores—especially when the barrels are being overscored.

In the preliminary rounds, when each competitor had to keep one score each from the right and left, this wasn’t an issue. In the final, when they only had to keep one score (either a right or a left), the keeper score was nearly always a right—unless the surfer failed to complete their ride on the right (in which case their left ended up factoring in). That isn’t really equitable, and it sort of makes the left feel irrelevant. Why not just do two runs on the right, and ignore the lower-scoring left completely?

There are two solutions here. The first is to score the left relative the left, and the right relative to the right. It doesn’t make sense to score them relative to each other when they aren’t equal waves (even though that is what appeared to happen today). The other solution is simpler: Make competitors in the final keep one left and one right score

The other solution is simpler: Make competitors in the final keep one left and one right score, just like in the preliminary rounds. Rather than giving them six runs in the prelims, give them only four—and then double the runs in the final to four as well.

That way the event doesn’t get any longer, and competitors still have throwaways in both rounds, so they can push the limits—but one wave direction isn’t favored over the other.

The scoring in general was too high:

Not only were the right and the barrel overscored, but the surfing in general was overscored at this event. Thus far this year on the world tour, the judges have done a good job of grounding the scale, and demanding better surfing for bigger scores.

That all fell apart at the Founders’ Cup, where 7s, 8s, 9s, and even a 10 were tossed about like it was Christmas. I know that high scores are attractive and add to the hype surrounding an event, but they don’t really lend themselves to credibility.

This is a perfect, predictable wave, and as such should demand a higher level of performance. Throwing a 9.0 at 15 standard turns and a 12-second semi-barrel on a perfect wave that is 15 turns and a 12-second barrel long isn’t rewarding good surfing, it’s rewarding KSC for making a great wave. The scale needs to be reset if we are going to see people pushing the limits of progression.

Felipe’s 10 was a big mistake:

This is actually the one issue that concerned me the most—and it could have been disastrous. Let’s forget for a moment that rewarding Felipe’s wave with a 10 was the same as saying “that’s the best that this wave can be surfed” (which is actually an insult to the athletes, because Felipe knows just as well as the rest of us that he can surf the wave better than that).

What is really troubling about this 10 was that it came in the middle of the preliminaries. This cannot happen, should not have happened, and needs to never happen again if events such as this are going to have any credibility.

This is not they type of contest that we are used to seeing. There is no “resetting the scale” after each heat, because all of the runs in all of the preliminary heats potentially count towards a surfer’s cumulative score, which means that all of the waves ridden in the preliminary heats have to be judged against each other.

This is the exact format that snowboarding follows, and the unspoken rule in snowboarding is that you can’t earn a perfect score unless you are the athlete taking the final run. Even if you do the biggest, baddest, smoothest thing ever seen in competitive history, if there are more guys left to run after you, you can’t get a 100, because what if the next guy does something better?

By awarding a 10 in the middle of the prelims, the judges created a situation wherein no one could earn a higher score than Felipe, even if they did a dozen Taylor Knox man-hacks, lofted a backflip, landed in the pit and spun around to pull into the barrel fakie, did a 540 inside, and then came out to stomp the first 720 air in competitive history—or, you know, simply turned a little harder and did a slightly bigger alley-oop than Toledo did.

The WSL got very lucky that no one else surfed a better wave than Felipe’s during the third round of runs. But what if someone had? What if someone had ridden a wave that appeared to be a point better than Felipe’s, but could only earn a 10—and then that surfer’s team failed to qualify for the finals by 0.5 points? The event would have lost all credibility.

If you want to run an event in the snowboard/skate “run” style, you have to follow the rules—and awarding 10s halfway through a cumulative round is not following the rules.

Otherwise, the event wasn’t half bad. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was historic. Pivotal. Game changing, even! Full of so much drama and intensity and progression. And I’m sure that future events will only get better and better.


Matt Rott

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