What Would You Say You Do Here? Head ASP judge Richard Porta

The 2010/2011 ASP season has been rife with controversy -- Adriano's floater in Rio, Parko over Julian at Trestles, Taj over Travis in France -- and the volume at which pundits are calling bullshit grows louder with each event. "Who's making these calls? That was no 9! Are the judges watching the same waves as us?" Even we, the venerable SURFING magazine, have joined the lynch mob from time to time. But we've decided to put down our pitchforks, at least for the moment, to meet ASP head judge Richard Porta and his staff, and allow them a chance to explain the method to their judgmental madness.
Interview by Nathan Myers

Judges Meeting Rip Curl Search San Fran
The judges reviewing a replay at the Rip Curl Search event in San Francisco. Photo: Taras

SURFING: What goes on up in that tower?
RICHARD PORTA: There are five guys, plus myself sitting there. They each have a booth with a partition so you can't see the guy next to you. Everyone sits there. Not much talking. We watch the guy surf. Then everyone writes down the number on a sheet, whatever it is, zero to 10. You write it down first, in case the electricity goes or whatever, you still have a copy. Then I check everyone's sheet. There's still no talking. If there's a slightly different score, we'll check the replay.

You're saying someone's score might be wrong? Everyone's opinion is valued. The other four guys might be wrong. But we watch the replay and usually the guy on the different score will say, "Yeah, that's a little better than I thought." So he'll rub out his score and write in the new one. And then we type them in, the highest and the lowest get taken out and the average of the three middle scores is what comes out. That's why it can take so much time. We have to get it right.

Do some judges have reputations for scoring harder than others? No. If you're constantly low or constantly high, it stands out. So anyone that would fall into that group wouldn't last long in this game.

So, to be successful as a judge, you just need to score the same as the other judges? It's a team effort. But if four guys say they're right and you believe you're right, that's OK. That happens. But at the top level they're experienced enough to know what they're calling. It may seem like we're all the same because we're that good at it. And we have the video replay as a back up.

How do you know you're a good judge? It just flows. You don't have to think about it too hard. It's a confidence thing. I don't sit there and go, "That's a 7-point ride." I say, "That's a good ride, but not an excellent ride." And then the numbers just come to me.

So, you're not crunching numbers into the criteria decoder? Those things all come into effect, but you try to keep it as basic as you can. Then you have to find the spaces in between. Whether it's an 8 or a 6 is irrelevant. If it's an 8, the next wave has to be compared to that. We try not to get too hung up on the numbers until we need to. We're dealing with the best in the world, so you have to be super critical. Otherwise, everything is an 8.

Do judges need to be able to surf well? You gotta know what it's like to get barreled off your face or take a heart-in-your-throat drop or get hammered over this shallow reef so you can be empathetic with the guys you're scoring. I've surfed for 40 years and truly understand surfing. We get criticized all the time, but if you came surfing with us you'd see that the boys can hold their own in any kind of waves.

Julian turn
Can you actually judge a maneuver if you have no idea how it feels to execute it? Julian Wilson doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, neither does Richard Porta. Julian making things harder in Australia. Photo: Matt O’Brien

Do you ever feel hated? You gotta have a thick skin in this job. If you don't have judges, all you have is freesurfing. That's fine, but most people love sport and competition. And to have that, there's got to be a winner and a loser.

Are you friends with the pros? Or are you the enemy? I tell my younger guys, "Get one thing straight: These guys are not your mates. That's not what you're here for." We're all civil to each other, but it's not our job to have a beer and be mates, because the next day you're going to drop a score that's going to make him lose a heat by 0.1 and he's going hate you until the next event.

Are you a fan at all? Do you have a favorite surfer? I'm a surfer that's doing a job. That job just happens to be scoring guys that surf better than me who are also doing their job. Where I come from, we never looked up to anyone. I've always admired the best surfers in the world out in the water, but there's no room for having favorites in this job.

How do you stay detached from the dramas of an event, or of the tour as a whole? I take interest in what's going on around me, but it doesn't mean that I care. All we care about is, at the end of the heat, which guy's coming out smiling and which guy isn't.

What about the drama of a heat itself? Do you know what score a guy needs at the end of a heat? You can't not know. But the most important thing for our job is that, first and foremost, the guy who surfs better wins the heat. So if a guy is needing a 4.5 and surfs a last-minute wave that could be a 4.4 or a 4.6, and his other score is an 8, if this guy surfed better than the other guy, that's what we do; we just compare it to the other guy.

Is that how you decided the Owen Wright vs. Adriano de Souza heat in Rio this year? That heat came down to critical turns versus turns on a noncritical part of the wave. To give you some insight into that heat - that left was a really shallow, draining wave. CJ went to the hospital on it. Michel Bourez went to the hospital on it. It was so shallow that they got hammered into the sand. So, Adriano does his floater on this heavy sandbar, lands it on a critical section, and then gets that other little wave and does two taps. Then Owen does his air-reverse on a softer part of the wave and gets his 6.5. Next wave, pretty much the same thing. Up until his turn at the end, it was a 2.5- or 3-point ride on the flat section. The air took him up to a 6, but it still wasn't as critical.

So, the scores were discussed in the tower and you gave Adriano the score he needed? We looked at the video and it was a 3 against 2 decision. The guys stuck to their opinions and the result is history. Then the whole world goes into "The sky is falling" mode because Adriano won a close heat in his home country. The same thing happened with Taj and Adriano at Snapper this year when they were trading high 9s. When Taj won, the Brazilian world was ready to get on boats and come over and take us on because Adriano didn't win.

No matter who wins, someone is going to blame you for who lost. Exactly. In Brazil, the site crashed and there was so much traffic that they asked me to release a statement. As I'm writing it, I'm thinking, "Oh, this is gonna make things worse." Which it did. The actual heat got lost and it turned into a racial slurring match.

People love controversy. And that's why when Travis [Logie] lost his close one to Taj in France, a South African magazine wanted to do an article and I was like, "If we're gonna turn it into a racial debate, I'm not interested." It's a subjective sport. The guys who do the airs want more, and the guys who do the carves want more. For me, I think we've found a good balance. We score everything according to who's ripping.

Is style important to a score? Not really. If you've got kind of a weird style, it's OK. The criteria says, "speed, power and flow," so the only time we'll detract from it is if your style is hindering your ability to surf; like, your rail gets stuck or your turns bog. That's not surfing with speed, power and flow.

How could style not be included? It comes in subconsciously. The quality surfing stands out. You don't have to analyze it too much. All we're replicating on our scoring criteria is what it feels like for a competent surfer to surf. It's a simple formula that is sometimes hard to understand.

So, scoring is basically just a gut reaction by an experienced judge? That's why we have surfers as judges. You know what that wave was, and what the next guy's wave was. So, was that wave better or worse? That's all we're doing. You go with your gut, drop your scores and there's your result. Sometimes the judging panel splits 3/2. And if the judges are 3/2 you can bet the competitor's area is 3/2 or 50/50. And you can be sure the Internet audience is 50/50. It's not a level playing field. Every wave is different. And people see what they want to see.

Are the first scores of an event necessarily lower, to keep from throwing off the scale? We all arrive early, so we're assessing the conditions a half-hour or an hour before the event. We've got an idea what's available out there. And you'll find on the world tour events, you might see two or three or four waves ridden before the first score comes in. 'Cause we're just holding to see if we need to move. Everyone's got a score written, but we'll watch and see what the other guy does to compare it.

So, you actually hold back scores? They'll be written down, but the guys get a chance to move if they think it should be different. Once we have the score, whether it's a 6 or an 8 or a 10, everything else is based around it for that heat. We can adjust that scale as the conditions change. So, if the wind goes onshore and crappy, what's now a 7 might have been a 4 in the morning.

Is there sometimes an 11? For sure. That happens. Kelly's no-grab backhand barrel at Peniche was probably the hardest one of the day. But the 10s before it were all pretty worthy, too.

How do you know a 10? You feel them, mainly. They don't come very often. But you know it when you see something that can't be anything other than a 10.

How much dialogue do you have with the surfers about the scoring? They know how to access us. We're not coaches, but we have to be able to explain how we score and why we score. We have to let them know what we score big and what we don't score big. And then it's their job to go and do it.

Are there times when you learn from them? Some of the aerial guys have told us what's more difficult and what's less difficult in terms of grabs and stuff. I have to learn from what those guys are telling me, 'cause they're the guys inventing the moves.

Do you know all your grabs? They're developing them every day. Slobs and mutes, and we dropped a high-score on Josh's varial, so everyone's trying to do varials now. That's where the replay comes in handy because we can see where they're grabbing and how inverted it is. We have a video we show to all the judges before we head into a beachbreak situation, just to refresh everyone on what's going and what's not.

Chippa. Photo: Carey
What would this air-reverse score in a heat? Would they notice how high Chippa’s tail is? Or that he held the grab a tad too long? If they don’t now, they will soon. Photo: Carey

Like a "know your grabs" instructional video? Basically. We got some grief a few years ago for not knowing what's what, but the guys are all well versed now. They all know what it is and how hard it is. It's a growing part of the sport, but you still have to balance it out with every other part of surfing so it's not just an air show. You don't have to do an air-reverse to win a heat. Power surfing is still alive.
[Editor's note: following this interview, Porta took an impromptu photo grab test, scoring 9 out of 10.]

How about when a guy's flipping off the tower as feedback? It starts at a thousand bucks and goes up from there.

Can you really not hold a grudge in future heats? Not in the slightest. I understand that guys get upset, but they have to learn to control their emotions. If they come and see us right, we'll sit there and show 'em the video and explain why. But if they come storming into the tower dripping wet and swearing at me, well, better bring your checkbook.

What in the ASP system needs fixing the most right now? We can't seem to get enough women's events. We finished the women's World Tour in Huntington in July. Ideally, we'd have another four events for the girls and some more events in the tropics for the boys. But at $3 million a pop, who's paying? Hand it over and we'll go there.

Do you ever feel like the commentators are working against you? You see my eyes rolling? Every time they say, "I'm no judge, but..." they're undermining the event from within. The easiest job in the world is to say, "That's not a 7, it's an 8." But the hardest job is to find the 8 on your own. The fans want to know about the athletes. They don't care about the judges.

Does it sometimes feel like the best surfer doesn't win? All the time. A guy's been ripping through all the rounds then falls over in the semi or even the final. This happens in all sports. It takes so much energy and passion to get to the final,

Do the judges stick around for the awards ceremony? Depends on the traffic. Usually we'll watch a bit and talk about where we're going surfing. I like to surf after an event to wash it off and clear my mind. Then it's like, "OK, where's the next one?"