Whether it's in between sets or on a ride back to the train station, oftentimes I end up explaining the history and nature of professional surfing to my students. It's definitely an earful. I also have it marked out on my "surf prescription" sheets to "watch pro contests". I want to write a little more here about why I think watching pro contests can be good for your surfing.
Surfing is a young professional sport and its structure, like its playing field — the ocean — is nowhere near as stable as that of other professional sports. The first surf contest was held in Manly Beach, Australia in 1964, and was held by what was then known as the International Surfing Association (ISA). The ISA is still around, but it is not surfing's governing professional body any longer. You can read a great history of professional surfing on their site: https://www.isasurf.org/isa-info/history-of-the-isa/. The ISA does hold competitions and crowns world champions but these are not the recognized world champs of what is now known as the governing body of professional surfing, the World Surf League (WSL, @WSL), formerly the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals). The goal of the ISA is to "develop surfing globally", including surf school accreditation (shaky at best) and lobbying to get surfing into the olympics (not worthwhile if you ask me). Thus they have their hands in a number of pies that the WSL does not concern itself with.
The WSL currently consists of an elite mens tour (known as the 'CT or 'Championship Tour'), an elite womens tour (also called the 'CT), a big wave world tour, and a qualification series for the mens and womens tours (both known as the 'QS or 'World Qualifying Series'). The WSL is funded by a gazillionaire named Dirk Ziff and has strong corporate backing from Samsung (read: when you watch pro surfing events live on the internet you will see a lot of Samsung commercials). Formerly the big named surf lifestyle brands — Quik, Billabong, Ripcurl, et. al. — were asked to pony up to provide the infrastructure and prize money for all events. This kind of backing has not gone away entirely, e.g., the Hurley Pro at Lower Trestles, Ripcurl Pro at Bells, Quik Pro at Snapper Rocks. The difference now, however, is that the tour is not 100% reliant on endemic brands.
I could go on and on about the crazy history of pro surfing and could even explore the sustainability (or lack thereof) of the way it is structured, but for now I am going to leave it at that and say a bit more about watching pro events. First of all, the gateway to watching all pro surfing events is through the WSL's website and social media outlets. This is a blatant plug for following @WSL and getting the app for your phone, signing up to receive alerts via text and email, and playing both the WSL (tab is on their site) and Surfer Magazine's versions of Fantasy Surfing. You can even join our club (same on both sites): search "clubs" and find 'Conatussurfclub' and ask to join (password is: morewavesmorejoy)!!!
There are about 12 contests a year. The men start the year with three contests Australia, travel to various other global locales, and end it in Hawaii, with the always (well mostly always) exciting Pipe Masters held at the world famous Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. The women's year resembles the mens but is not identical to it — they start the year with the same three events in Australia, and follow it up by going to Rio and Fiji with the guys, but by July the tours depart from one another, with the women also finishing up in Hawaii except at the famed righthand point break of Honolua Bay in Maui. (The inequality in between the mens and womens tours in prize money, attention, and overall infrastructure is something that is currently being debated and addressed on a variety of fronts — it is necessarily connected to the ways in which men and women are differently marketed and understood as participating in surfing culture).
Each event, whether for men or for women, has a "waiting period" of around two weeks. The events are held at places during a time of year when there is normally a good chance for great waves. Part of the fun, drama, and pedagogy of following pro surfing is to pay attention to the event forecasts. Will they get swell? Will the swell coincide with clean winds? Are the tides cooperating? You can check the forecasts for those surf spots the same way that you can check them for our spots here in NY/NJ — they're all readily available on Swell.info, Surfline.com, and Magicseaweed.com (and if you don't have these apps on your phone you need to get them now).
Let's use the current event, the JBay Open (July 7-19), as a prime example of why it's beneficial to watch world tour events. First of all, JBay is one of the best righthand point breaks on the planet. I have not surfed there myself but I have consumed so much iconic surf media from there that I can practically see the long offshore lines, aloe plants, Occy's filthy backhand hacks throwing sheets of spray to the horizon, and Curren's fluid speed arcs etched on the backs of my eyelids. The forecast for this two week window is super dicey. Two whole weeks and not a ton of significant swell forecasted. But the show must go on. Commissioner Kieren Perrow (former world tour competitor and Pipe Masters champ) must assess the forecasts and conditions each morning and "make the call" of whether to run it or not. He meets with the surfer reps and they make a decision, which is broadcast on the Dawn Patrol morning show by a motley crew of "professional" surf broadcasters: Ross Williams, Martin Potter, Peter Mel, Strider Wasilewski, Todd Kline, Roseanne Hodge, Ronny Blakey, and Joe Turpel. For side entertainment you can always read the Twittersphere commentary on the commentary. Watching the morning show is a good way to catch up on action you missed and to hear what these surf nerds have to say about it. Or you can just go to the 'heat analyzer', an awesome feature that rolled out a few years ago that allows you to watch any previously surfed heat unfold as if it were live, or, if you get impatient (like me), you can just skip to the highest scoring rides by clicking on them in the timeline.
KP (Kieren Perrow) and the crew have managed to eke out the first three rounds of competition in marginal (by JBay standards) surf. The first day was kind of onshore and junky. The second day was the best day by far, with clean 4 foot waves (still not as big as we like to see it) and offshore winds, and the third day was lully with bad winds in the morning heats and cleaner winds but dying swell for the last throes of Round 3. I caught a little of the Rd 1 action, almost all of the Rd 2 action, and just watched the highlights of Rd 3 on heat analyzer. JBay is 6 hours ahead of us, so you either have to not go to bed to watch the whole thing or you can do what I do and go to bed early and wake up reasonably at 3 or 4a to catch the action. If you're in tune with the swell forecast you'll know which days to write off and sleep in.
There's something to be learned in every condition that an event is held. For us jaded veterans, we don't really like to watch the junky stuff unless we really have to, but sometimes just seeing how hard those conditions can be for an elite level surfer is heartening. It's not like the glossy surf videos where the conditions and edits are always perfect and the pros never fall. And besides the forecasting this is the bottom line of why watching pro surfing is so good for your own surfing: it makes surfing more human. You see the rhythms of a place and the rhythms of surfers rise and fall. You get to watch Kelly Slater dig rail. You might even find yourself asking yourself why one fellow looks so inferior to the other fellows. Well, why? Try to break it down. What are the in rhythm surfers doing right? Why are they getting scores in the excellent range? Being able to answer these questions will not only up your surf IQ but it will be secretly working on your own wave judgment and surfing habitus.
The heat of the contest (for me) so far was the Rd 2 heat of Joel Parkinson (Aus) v. Ricardo Christie (NZ). Besides the fact that the waves were on fire, these two went toe to toe with some brilliant, smooth, on-rail power surfing, which is the stuff I can relate to and therefore really like to watch. Parko ended up winning the affair 18.84 to Christie's 18.13. Had Ricardo been in any other heat, his total would have smoked the whole field. As it is, he got a dreaded 25th place. Parkinson, however, did not survive the junk surf of the next day, and was defeated by a hot rookie goofy footed Brazilian named Wiggolly Dantas. Parko, by all means one of, if not the most, stylish surfers on the tour, has drawn a 13th place. So there you go, in rhythm one heat, and off the next.
Another great thing about a spot like Jbay is that you can see a marked difference between when there are sets coming and when there are not. This also helps wave judging abilities. You can see the lines bending in around the back and even hear the whistles and hoots from the fans and competitors watching live. Which wave will the surfer with priority take? Will he risk giving the first wave away or will he wait for the second or even third wave of the set? These are the kinds of things that you are doing every time you go surfing. How many times do you paddle for the first wave, miss it, and turn around to see two beauties about to come and land on your head? Watching the pros play the patience game is a great way to up yours. On the flip side, what do good surfers do in slow heats when the sets do not come that often? How do they find those gems that just line up just enough? A good example of this are Mick Fanning and Gabriel Medina's Rd 3 clashes against CJ Hobgood and Matt Wilkinson respectively. Mick and Gabriel not only found the sneaky "growers" but they also used their super powers — lightning fast whips for Mick and lofty impossible airs for Gabe — to maximize what little the wave had to offer. As many journalists and commentators mentioned, Mick and Gabe made the waves look better than they were. And that's a big part of why they're world champs.
Lastly, and I've touched on this already, but you get to see the surfers actually paddle for waves and stand up on them. Granted their pop-ups are faster than 99% of the surfing population, but nevertheless, you get to see this crucial part of wave riding that, aside from going surfing, you just do not have that much access to. You will see them paddle for waves that they miss as well, and also waves that are too heavy to be makable (and ooh la la you get to see a wipeout!).
If I haven't convinced you yet, you'll just have to see for yourself. There are 5 more rounds to run at the JBay Open (Rds, 4, 5, Qtrs, Semis, Final), which will probably take almost two days of competition. There could be a bump there tomorrow, but the waves look to be be biggest on the very last day of the waiting period. It's high anxiety to wait that long. What will KP do? Who will end up the master of all conditions at Jbay? Who will have a shocker? And most of all what will you learn or notice that you had never noticed before tuning into this event? (Also important to be critical — how do you think these events could be organized better? There's still a lot of talk about this and pro surfing definitely does not seem to be 'settled' just yet.)