Professional surfing is a complex organism that takes the efforts of many. While fans are inclined to root for their favorite personality in the water, many fail to recognize the talent on the beach.
Though it may sound like fun, judging a big surfing competition is a thankless job that doesn’t pay very well, requires months away from home, and is usually only recognized under times of controversy. For ASP tour head judge Richie Porta, the responsibility goes even further, ultimately acting as the final authority in a contest.
“We’re all surfers,” The 50 year old Australian bluntly states. “All us judges have competed in one form or another over the years, and that’s why we do it. If we aren’t in the judges booth, we are in the crowd or at home watching the heats on TV, just like any other fan of professional surfing.”
He has held this position for 9 years now—5 years with the women’s tour and 4 years with the men’s. But at the end of the day, it’s the love of the sport that keeps him in the role of first to show up and last to leave—hopefully with enough daylight to go for a surf of his own.
Writing numbers on a scorecard is only a small part of the job. “There’s a whole lot of stuff to it. The main thing is that you have to have a good memory. Judging is all about comparing, so you’ve gotta compare all the variables from heat to heat.”
For the head judge cap to fit, you have to juggle not only your memory, but also discretion for the safety of every athlete in the water. “I’ll be down at the beach at 6:15, watching the waves with the contest director, and we’ll make a decision by daybreak if we’re going to run for the day. If it’s on, then I coordinate with everyone involved share the safety aspects, the peak times, what everyone needs to know. Basically I’m directing traffic for what’s going to happen though out the day. Then once we start the comp, the head judge oversees the 5 judges rotating throughout the day. I’ll rotate with the two assistant judges throughout the event so that we just continue through.” But the work is not done when the final horn sounds.
“At the end of the day we’ll have a debriefing, and if there’s been any close heats or difference of opinions, we’ll go over the video replay, or talk to the surfers about anything, and then we’ll go home and watch the heat analyzer on the close heats, and see what happened. Do that 3-4 days per contest, and then the contest is wrapped, and we do it all again.”
By now he is used to the routine, a routine which involves unpredictability. Any time the playing field is a moving body of water at the behest of wind, tide, and swell, there is no textbook definition of how to score a particular rider on any particular wave. “That’s just part of the sport. One guy will say I think the guy in red won then another guy will say the guy in white won. And it’s subjective, so at times it’s not that easy. Sometimes we want to pick two winners–that’s the subjective nature of the sport. We have tie heats. We had a tie for 2nd place at Sunset but the guy with the most points got to move on. And that’s just part of the sport.”
He and the judging team are also crucial elements to the sport’s evolution by scoring new tricks, some higher than others, and having to justify each decision to the media, fans, and of course the competitors themselves. The sport of surfing is evolving at an astronomical pace, and the judges need to adapt their scores accordingly. “Judging used to be easy, whereas now there is a whole range of ways to surf a wave. At places like Pipe and Tahiti it’s easy, because it’s all about big barrels and commitment. But it’s our job to analyze who was slightly better than the other one, and when their style differs you just have to rely on your knowledge of the skill required in each particular style.”
When asked about the most difficult aspect of the job, he didn’t take any time to think about it, and he began answering before I could finish the question. “Parents are the worst thing in our sport at the moment. There are so many soccer moms out there. Right now every 10 year old is the next Kelly Slater.”
At the end of the day, Porta has one of the most difficult jobs on the ASP world tour. The entire world title can depend on one of their decisions, so they have to take their time to get it right. But he is in his position for a reason; he’s so good at what he does, it’s so easy to trust him with the responsibility. With the 2013 season wrapped, he can finally relax before doing it all over again in 2014.