Interview with Richie Porta: ASP Head Judge

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.