Nine events that shaped modern competitive surfing
Forget what you know about the modern World Championship Tour for a moment and picture this: an international surf contest with no bracket formats, no elimination rounds, no priority rules, and no big prize purse—just 24 surfers thrown into a single heat to scramble for scores. While it sounds barbaric compared to the glossy new ASP, this is how international surfing competition was born back in 1954. To celebrate 60 years of progress, we dusted off the yearbooks to figure out how competitive surfing went from pure pandemonium to a globally webcast tour.
01 MAKAHA, HAWAII, 1954: UNITING NATIONS
For the first time in history, contest promoters attempted to unite surfers worldwide to determine the sport’s top talent. Although only Hawaiians and a handful of Californians registered for the inaugural event, Australian and Peruvian surfers competed in later incarnations. It became the biggest surfing event of the time, but despite organizers’ lofty ambitions, the Makaha International was a complete shit show. Welcoming more than 500 entrants in certain years, the unseasoned Makaha administrators were somehow able to determine a winner through a series of anarchic 24-surfer heats. The heats weren’t governed by priority or interference rules, and judges scored competitors on a scale from 1 to 30 based on length of ride, height of wave, and execution of maneuvers. This was claimed to be surfing’s “ultimate test,” but many critics protested the crowded heats, disorganized structure, and partial judges who favored Hawaiians.
02 MANLY BEACH, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA, 1964: ENFORCING ETIQUETTE
After 10 years of Makaha mayhem, contest administrators finally started tinkering with the competitive format. For the 1964 World Surfing Championships at Manly Beach, Sydney, event directors made the contest an invitational in order to cut down on entrants and streamline competition. They also wanted to eliminate rampant snaking—which was actually scored favorably at the Makaha contest—so they devised the “sportsmanship rule.” Interferences were now penalized, wholly to the dismay of Hawaii’s Joey Cabell, who schooled the rest of the competitors during the final but ultimately placed third for his dubious tactics.
03 VENTURA, CALIFORNIA, 1965: SURFING’S FIRST PAYDAY
A year following the birth of the official World Championships, event directors began sweetening the deal for competitors by dangling the almighty dollar. Monetary prizes were first introduced at the 1965 Tom Morey Invitational, but it was a far cry from the massive cardboard checks we see today. “In that event, $1,200 of the total $1,500 prize money was made up of entry fees,” says historian Matt Warshaw, “so the ‘pros’ were essentially paying themselves.” Mickey Munoz, the winner of this event, earned a $750 paycheck for his victory—which comes out to more than $5,000 when adjusted for inflation. It wasn’t exactly peanuts, but competitive surfing was still far from becoming a lucrative career.
04 NORTH SHORE, OAHU, HAWAII, 1971: MASTERING PIPELINE
Six years after the first prize purse, competitive surfing found its Coliseum on the North Shore of Oahu. But the inaugural Pipeline Masters was a relatively small affair, with only six invitees and a $1,000 prize purse provided by Continental Airlines. Much to the advantage of those competing in the event, Gerry Lopez missed his heat because Corky Carroll (allegedly) told Lopez that it had been rescheduled. With Mr. Pipeline out of the equation, Jeff Hakman took top honors and pocketed $500.
05 BURLEIGH HEADS, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA, 1977: BECOMING A SPECTATOR SPORT
Under the visionary guidance of Peter Drouyn, man-on-man heats made their debut at the 1977 Stubbies Surf Classic. Before this contest, as many as six surfers shared a chaotic lineup in World Championship heats, leaving all but the most knowledgeable spectators lost at sea. Drouyn’s new structure created true face-offs, more drama for the crowds, and more scoring opportunities for the surfers. “This was the single most important rule change to the sport of surfing,” says former world champion Shaun Tomson. “Peter Drouyn aimed to gladiate the sport. It had a tremendous impact on both surfer and spectator. In contests past, it was common for two surfers to gang up on another surfer during a heat. With the mano-a-mano structure, that couldn’t happen anymore.”
06 HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA, 1982: THE PRIORITY RULE
Introduced first at the Op Pro in 1982, the goal of the priority rule was to prevent heats from becoming paddle and hassle wars, which many had been up until that time. It was instituted then, and adapted constantly since, “to keep abreast of competitive surfing,” according to the ASP. In ’82, it was successful right off the bat, serving several purposes. As mentioned, none of the hassling for waves, allowing for a primary focus on performance. Also, it ushered in the era of one surfer per wave, which up until that time wasn’t standard practice, believe it or not. Made surf contests easier on the judges, and easier on the eyes for spectators all the same. In effect, the priority rule has become a tactical aspect in every heat and has changed contest strategy forever, most certainly for the best.
07 G-LAND, INDONESIA, 1995: BIRTH OF THE DREAM TOUR
Unfortunately, the desire to draw crowds caused event organizers to cater a little too much to spectators. The biggest contests were hosted in metropolitan areas with top pros battling it out in ankle-high slop. Fed up with lackluster Tour locations year after year, competitors urged contest directors to reassess their goals. And reassess they did. In 1995, Quiksilver’s Bruce Raymond and Rod Brooks put the “Dream Tour” in motion by choosing a venue based on the quality of the wave rather than spectator accessibility. World Tour surfers were able to take a break from big-city beachbreaks and hide out in the remote Indonesian jungle. Not to mention they scored. In firing 4- to 8-foot conditions, Kelly Slater (of course) put on a show by threading five barrels on a single wave and consequently taking the title. After this success, the ASP had found a new sense of purpose in “showcasing the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves.”
08 BELLS BEACH, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA, 2001: ALLOWING JET SKI ASSISTS
Still a contentious topic on the Tour, Jet Ski assists were introduced by the ASP at the 2001 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. This nixed the all-too-prevalent three-minute paddle-battles at the Bowl, and surfers were happy to be able to catch twice as many waves. Most spectators didn’t mind either.
09 SAQUAREMA, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL, 2002: DROPPING THE THIRD SCORE
In 2002, then–ASP CEO Pete Whittaker decided to cut the top three scores included in a surfer’s heat total down to two. Although they had experimented with this format at a few World Tour events prior, the Mundial Coca-Cola de Surf became the first event to use the new scoring system from start to finish. “I was going on and on about how the stats were showing that at these prime venues like Teahupo‘o, Cloudbreak, and J-Bay there were too many 4s and 5s being counted,” said Rabbit Bartholomew in a tribute to Whittaker. “The guys were scrambling for the third score and it was adversely affecting the quality of surfing. Pete looked at me deadpan and spat out, ‘Well, flamin’ just count the best two, then,’ and we did!” Rabbit got his wish, and because of it, Shane Beschen will go down as the only surfer to score a perfect 30 in WCT history.