If you're a hardcore surf fan, you likely spent 80 percent of your hours Monday and Tuesday watching the 2018 Jaws Challenge while your boss wasn’t looking. The event was, for lack of a better term, absolutely messed up. If you watched it, you saw guys tackle building-sized waves, throwing themselves over and at ledges like it was five-foot Lowers (yep, there was at least one completed air). You also likely saw the final of the event—which sparked a bit of controversy as the heat drew to a close.
The event’s standout performers Billy Kemper and Kai Lenny traded maniacal rides throughout the hour-long final. Kemper back-doored two huge, throaty barrels, falling at the end of both, while Lenny completed an insane tube-ride and bagged a solid backup score. But as the clocked ticked towards zero, it was Kemper who got the nod from the judges, scoring a 7.70 and an 8.07 for his two almost-but-not-quite-completed barrels.
As gutsy and as deep as those two tube-rides were––and as much as fans everywhere respect Kemper as one of the best Jaws surfers, period––onlookers couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the judges’ decision. Did they just give the win to someone who fell on both of their top-scoring waves? Should they have? Or in the context of a Big-Wave Tour event, does finishing a ride really matter as much as pushing themselves as hard as possible in extreme conditions?
If you were to compare the event to a 'CT event—ignore the obvious size difference between the two for a sec—would something like that have ever happened? If Gabriel Medina bagged two crazy drainers at Teahupoo but didn't make it out of either of them, would he have been rewarded excellent-range scores?
According to Albee Layer, who finished 3rd in the Jaws Challenge behind Kemper and Lenny, the above Medina scenario would likely never happen—and it shouldn't have happened at this week at Jaws.
"Billy is one of my good friends and we all know he is an amazing surfer and he can win anyway,” says Layer. “It's just that on that day he fell on his waves and I believe he shouldn't have won it, especially for Kai to have a similar heat but finished his rides. [The judges] shouldn't give out high scores unless they are obviously earned. They should give a 5 for an amazing closeout, a 7 for a pretty good barrel made, and save the 8's and above for waves we won't forget for years to come."
To Layer and other fans who watched the event, it seemed apparent that the judges, in some cases, were rewarding surfers for going big more than completing their rides. If you look at Article 119 of the WSL's Rule Book, you'll see that the judging criteria is based on “commitment,” “degree of difficulty,” “intensity and size of the wave for each ride,” “control” and “maneuvers.” But the rulebook also allows for judges—on both the 'CT and BWT level—to place emphasis on certain aspects of the criteria depending on the day. "It's important to note that the emphasis of certain elements is contingent upon the location and the conditions on the day, as well as changes of conditions during the day," says the rulebook. So was it possible on Tuesday, during the final of the Jaws Challenge, the judges thought Kemper's commitment to backdooring mammoth-sized drainers and the skill and control it took to almost make it out were more important than actually making it out?
We’re left to assume the answer is “yes.” But Layer sees a danger in placing too much emphasis on just going big and not finishing waves. "When you know you can get an 8 or a 9 on a wave you don't need to make, you go on stupid waves," says Layer. "That is such a terrible mindset to have going into a big day—like 'I can fall and still make this heat.' I think that's bad all around."
Layer admits that he himself was overscored earlier in the contest. "During the semifinal, they gave me an 8 for falling out of a barrel––and I won the heat," he says. "I was just like, ‘What are you guys talking about? How did I win that heat?’ I fell on 4 waves and made one average one. I think there's way too much emphasis on commitment. Because commitment takes little to no skill, anyone can commit to a wave that's out of their league and go."
Just to play the devil's advocate, I asked Layer if he thought rewarding surfers for their attempts could actually be a good thing for the sport of big-wave surfing. That maybe rewarding deranged attempts, like paddling into the biggest barrel of the day, might push competitors to up their skill and fuel progression by extending their reach ever-so-slightly beyond their grasp–and that maybe rewarding guys for only completed rides might result in the type of “safety surfing” sometimes found on the ‘CT level.
“Yeah maybe, but rewarding safety on some level isn't exactly a bad thing when people's lives are on the line,” says Layer. “Nobody's going to die because they go for a crazy air with a minute left in a ‘CT heat. But on a day like Monday, someone might because they need an 8 and know they can get it for a closeout that might kill them. I think the judges already reward hail marys with the doubling of the higher score. That’s already enough there, so you don't have to go so far as to say you don't even have to make it to [to get a big score].”