Pritamo Ahrendt: Confessions Of A Head Judge - Part 1
Whatever your take on the World Surf League, the common view is that it operates behind a veil of secrecy. Often, key broadcast or executive personnel are quietly disappeared, never to be heard from again: Martin Potter, Barton Lynch, Erik Logan - and every other CEO. Meanwhile, some surfers get celebrated retirements from the sport, like Mick Fanning and Owen Wright, while others, such as Matt Wilkinson, Connor Coffin, and Ace Buchan, are quietly shown the backdoor despite their decorated careers.
Having worked for the ASP and WSL for twenty years, the last five as Head Judge, Pritamo Ahrendt parted ways with the WSL last October. In this interview with Steve Shearer, Pritamo delves deeply into the often turbulent world of judging and gives his informed take on the recent controversies surrounding pro surfing.
Take your time with this dive into one of the most influential positions in the pro surfing caper.
Steve Shearer: Pritamo, could you give us a brief history of how you became the Head Judge of the WSL in 2018?
Pritamo Ahrendt: When I was a teenager, I did the Billabong Pro Junior series throughout Australia [as a competitor]. Towards the end of that, I realised that I wasn't going to be a pro surfer and, because I was always interested and involved in being around the competition, I had a couple people invite me back to judge some Pro Junior events.
I judged two Pro Juniors and then got invited to the Burleigh Pro Junior. During that event, unknown to me, they were looking for the next Australian judge to join the [Championship] Tour. Basically, on the third or fourth day of the event, Al Hunt came up and asked, “Are you available to come and do the event at Bells?”
I was like, “Yeah, sure, I'd love to do it. He came back and basically offered me Gold Coast, Bells, and I think it was Japan.”
How old were you?
I was 20 years old. So just a couple of years out of school, no job, no clear direction, just wanting to be a surfer and find something that could support me to be a surfer. Basically, by the end of the event, they'd offered me to come and do three CT events.
And then, probably two or three days after the event had finished, Al Hunt rang me up and invited me to do the whole year. So the interesting part of that was I ended up judging a CT event before a QS.
My first event was the Billabong Pro on the Gold Coast, and then I went from there to Bells, Japan, and Tahiti. I also ended up doing heaps of QS's that year - I think I did thirty events that year in a whole bunch of countries. I'd never left Australia before that year so in between those events I just stayed on the road and surfed and had fun.
That first year, I was just taking it one event at a time; I’d never really thought of it as being a full-time career. It just didn't seem like that's what I was there for. Like, I was kind of filling in. That led into the next year and the next year and continued on, and after probably three or four years, I realised ‘Oh, shit, this is my career.’
But also, ‘I'm getting good at it. I'm getting to be one of the best, so I'm going to give it my all.’
What did you develop to be good at it?
I think the main thing was a good memory recall, and I think that's what really helped me at the beginning. I could remember other waves and analyse them, then give reasons for my scores. I could go back and say, ‘Oh, the seven at the start of the heat was this, this, and this, and that's why I gave this one an eight because he did this, this and that.’
I really had the mindset where I could break down the waves, remember them. And from that, just being able to do it consistently, so really tap into watching a whole day and not get sidetracked. I loved it and wanted to be better at it.
At what point on that journey did you realise you were being groomed to be Head Judge and how did that transpire?
Yeah, throughout my first nine or ten years, Perry Hatchet was the Head Judge. He's a very interesting character. And his style and approach to head judging and life was real character-building for me.
In what way?
He's a pretty full-on character. He very much led the panel with a lot of aggression and kind of weird elements to who he was. It was full-on at times. There was a lot of divide and conquer, and kind of playing people off each other. He thrived on the power the position gave him and he used it to secure himself in that position
Don't get me wrong, Perry had a lot of good attributes and I learned a lot from him in my life, but his style of leadership could only exist in that day and age. Right now, there's no way a company would have somebody with that kind of personality overseeing a team that's making decisions like that.
Through that whole time there was never really a sense of job security or direction because he was keeping his position tight and he was not going to let somebody be trained for the position.
Anyway, during that time there was never a moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I'm going to be the Head Judge.’
When they [the ASP in 2010] let Perry go I know now the conversation was like, ‘Pritamo's a good person for it, but he's still a bit young and probably not quite ready.’ The dynamics between some of the other judges that were probably feeling that they were next in line and how to forge the team together and make it a really strong team made things tricky. They couldn't work out how I could lead that at that stage.
So they brought Richie Porta in and his first decision was to bring me and Shipley - Dave Shipley - in as co-Head Judges because he knew that we both deserved to be in that kind of role and we had a lot of good experience and understanding of the level of the sport that he wanted utilise and tap into. I think it was a really smart decision to bring us into the fold to make us close as a team to lead the sport.
Through that, I think we were at a really good moment where we were rotating as scoring judges and then as Head judges during the day. So at the same time, we were giving a lot of our input to the sport and to judging, but we also were getting the opportunity to learn how to be a head judge, learn that skill without actually having to take it all on and deal with all the other aspects a head judge deals with outside of the tower. We really had the opportunity to learn to become head judges in the tower
That experience gave me the confidence that when Richie left, I was ready for it. I knew that I was capable. I knew that I had the judging level and appreciation of where surfing was heading, and also how I felt the direction of the sport and judging should be going. So I think their decision-making that led to that was actually really good and really helped me become who I was as the Head Judge.
So when you became Head Judge, what sort of vision did you have? You described a style of Perry's that was domineering and ‘my way or the highway’. What sort of style and what sort of regime did you want to bring in as Head Judge?
One thing that I knew was a lot of people weren't happy in that type of environment; they weren't stoked to be in the tower. I wanted to lead a panel with positivity to create a confident and strong team, the Head Judge really has to give a lot back, make them feel confident in who they are and how they’re judging.
I just wanted to pick the best team, the team that I believe deserved to be there because of their judging skills. And I wanted to make people feel they were privileged in that position; that it was an honour for them and they should be enjoying it and it should be a good environment so when you're at work, you're stoked to be there. I felt this environment helped the panels to do their best judging.
I allowed people to be a lot more free and to learn as well, to learn from their mistakes.
What about the vision for judging?
Probably my biggest thing that I've contributed to the sport was, for the very first event as Head Judge I changed the scale. I believed that the scale had got to a point where no-one needed to progress their surfing to get to a high score. You could get into the nine to ten point range by just getting a good wave and doing really high level surfing, but not including an element of high risk surfing that's going to change the sport.
There was no apple dangling that certain people could reach yet others couldn't. I felt if you bring the scale down, it allows the top surfers to separate themselves and stand out. If you got a 9.5, that should be something that's memorable throughout a day that people will talk about later, it shouldn't just be another one of ten 9.5s that happened that day.
I really wanted that to be my stamp of how I was going to bring in my head judging position.
Where did that come from? Were you thinking about that for a period of time or was that a bolt from the blue?
Once I became the Head Judge, I was reviewing the previous couple of years. And we'd had events where we'd scored excellent surf and I just remember walking away from days going, ‘Fuck, we had so many tens and so many nines, some of those waves have to be better than the other ones.’
I think we were doing a disservice for the surfers and the sport by allowing everything to be the top level when it's not. I didn't feel that the surfers were having to show us another level because there was nothing to gain and it wasn't worth risking more when you're only going to get 0.2 of a point more.
Like if you show them that they're going to get 1.5 points more if they did something crazy…that's where I felt that I wanted to make a change.
A big part of that story is because I knew there'd be a lot of pushback from it, and not just pushback, but a lot of questioning, a lot of people trying to understand it and having to explain to the surfers and the WSL. I basically kept it a secret and just rocked up the first day with only my team knowing that I was going to do that.
But my whole team backed it, so I knew I wasn't just going solo. Luli, who's going to be the Head Judge from now on, he was like, ‘Yeah, we got to fucking do this.’ And so, I kind of had the confidence that it was the right thing.
And then the first day the media kind of blew up about it, kind of wrote me off in a way. There were a couple of guys that I knew would utilise that to their advantage. So I was OK, that's cool that they can see where they can use this scale and make a point of difference to separate themselves.
Did you get any notable pushback though from any of the surfers?
Can you tell me who?
It was the whole group in the end. Basically, they made me front the surfers, the whole surfing tour in Margs and have a meeting and explain why I did it.
What was that like?
Fuck, it was intimidating leading into it, but by that stage it was the third event [of the season] and the media had kind of turned around by then. I'd had a few ex-pro surfers, plus a few surfers on tour, come up to me privately and say, ‘You're doing the right thing. That's the direction that it needs to go.’
So, by that time I was confident to get up and just tell them why. And I understand why it was tricky for a lot of people to grasp because when you compress the upper end of the scale, things kind of get a little bit blurred in the lower end of the scale. There's probably not enough separation, but you're making the grey area in the lower end of the scale rather than making the grey area in the high end of the scale which is where you want heats to be decided. You want more points of difference at the top so that you can really decide who the best surfers were in each heat and during a day.
So you had to quell the mutiny. After that meeting was everyone satisfied?
I don't think so. I think a lot of surfers really benefited from it, but then a lot of surfers went from surfing for eights and nines, to now surfing for sevens. It was probably a big hit for some egos like, ‘Wow, I'm surfing as hard as I can and I'm only getting a seven?’ It was harsh.
It was a big step that we took, it wasn't just a small shift, it was putting a stake in the sand saying: This is what you need to do.
The WSL also pushed back and questioned me quite a few times through those first few events.
What was the basis of their pushback?
A little bit of it was: Are you doing a disservice to the sport by not allowing the best athletes to get in that high end of the sport when they've been used to it for a long time?
There's more storylines when there's more of those moments at an event, whereas I kind of saw it as the storylines become more clear when you separate those little moments from the rest of the surfing. I think one of the best things was that the WSL didn't do anything to stop it. They definitely questioned it. Really put it on me like, ‘You better be doing the right thing.’
Is this coming right from the top, from the CEO?
It wasn't [communicated to me] from the top, but I believe that the questions were probably coming from the top. And I think it's right for them to question it. You know what I mean?
Like, if there's a shift and it's not been discussed and I haven't talked about it. But honestly, I knew it would get either stopped or we wouldn't have been able to take it as far as I wanted to take it if we let it go to them.
How happy were you with the results of that decision after year one? Did you think you'd lifted the level of surfing as a whole on the tour?
Totally. There was a shift in surfers’ performances. And I think, whether it was necessarily just from the scale or it was part of the progression of sport at the same time is hard to say. There's always moments in surfing and sport where dynamics change and people don't want to be part of the group. They want to separate themselves and they know they've got the next level.
Maybe they've surfed inside their comfort zone and you just give them a little poke and it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I need to be the guy that's getting the nines.’ I think progression of the sport is either followed by the judging or the judges make a little stance and then the surfers kind of jump to catch up and make their point.
So that was a Medina title year. Finishing at Pipe with Julian Wilson. That was incredible.
That was amazing.
Yeah, the events that finished at Pipe with the title races, like I had that one and I had the Medina and Italo one the following year, which was just heat after heat, just pressure.
And building performances…
Everyone focused on the Italo/Medina battle in 2019, but I actually preferred the year before, the Wilson/Medina one. Medina's backside tuberiding at Backdoor was so next level.
And that was a progression in the sport I thought where he was really separating himself by making a statement: I'm a goofyfooter, I'm going to go right and I'm going to do technical tube riding..
Pumping with no hands and adjustments in the barrel.
Yes, all that stuff. I was stoked to see that get rewarded. So from there, you had to go through this massive series of challenges. Well we had 2019, which was another banner year with Medina and Italo facing off at Pipe. And then the sport had a massive convulsion, we had COVID, plus a major restructure of the whole thing. Just how challenging was it to go from what had been quite a stable setup, where you were able to institute this change in the judging, to all of a sudden the whole sport's been restructured underneath you?
It was a weird year for everyone. At the same time we were going into lots of meetings and kind of deciding the future of the sport. It was the time to do something. There was time for WSL to make decisions that they could restructure it to how they had been envisioning it.
It was already the plan - the thoughts had already been there - they'd kind of tried to do it a few years prior and it just didn't happen. Pat [O’Connell] was in charge and he was kind of playing with a few ideas and that's what it ended up on, which everyone has very strong opinions on.
Did the judging panel have a role in that restructuring of the sport?
Yeah, since about 2010, when we went from the top 44 to the 36, I changed the format that they were planning on using. Since then, they’ve invited me to be a part of the tech committee and then the tours and comm afterwards. So from that stage I'd always been a part of decision-making.
A lot of the tour restructuring came to us as a done deal and we had to work out the specifics. The big picture was done way above me.
No-one ever really seemed to take ownership of that restructured tour vision. Who was the architect of it? Who was the brains behind it?
I'm not sure if I know the clear answer to it. I'd say the Top Five concept is probably more Dirk and those right at the top. I don't know that for a fact, but I'd put that right at the top there.
The restructuring, or the regionalising, of the tour comes back to probably a group of people wanting to have fewer international events with everyone just spending so much money. I think there's elements of that that really worked. That decision-making I think came from COVID and kind of looking at the next few years like, ‘Well, what are we going to be looking at? Let's work out how we can still run this tour and let's see if it's something that can last and be the future of the Qualifying Series.’
Going into 2018 there was also a new element which was the wave pool. First at the Founder's Cup in May and then the first official CT in September. This is a completely new element, you've now got an artificial wave. How did that influence the judging and how hard was it to deal with that? All of a sudden, you're looking at hundreds and hundreds of waves almost exactly the same and you have to differentiate them.
It's interesting, that's one of the more-asked questions: How is it to judge that wave? And obviously, we had some controversy there last year, but as a wave, to score and to judge, it's probably one of the easiest in that you know what that wave is going to provide. You know, even though surfers might not follow it 100%, what can happen in each of those sections.
So the surfers themselves have a pre-plan of what that wave is, where they can do their turns, what turns are possible. It's been one of the events where the judges see pretty similar things [to each other]. I don't get much fluctuation in scores at that event. If you don't finish the wave, it chops your scores away really easily. But in the same sense, there's not as much to separate on those waves, so you do get a lot of scores that end up in a similar range, which makes it difficult to find the moments that you've got to separate because it's literally nine turns and two barrels. The Head Judge provides a very detailed Criteria for that Event for the Surfer's days before it started.
A lot of the fans complain the wave pools very quickly become monotonous to watch and people get bored with it quickly, and even Kelly admitted that. Is that the same from a judging perspective, would it get boring or monotonous?
Probably for a few judges it was a little like that. For me, and it's probably an unpopular view, but I actually liked it for the sport. There's a standard for the wave, no one's getting a bonus wave or the random wave that's way better than anything else, and it's basically your performance on a similar wave.
For me, I liked that for the sport and I was never bummed that it was part of the tour. The only part that became tricky, I think, is that some people have surfed it so much more than others and that's where the advantage/disadvantage came in.
So you think that was an advantage to have more time in the pool?
Yeah, definitely. Also, some people's surfing fits it anyway so they can kind of break that disadvantage. But not many people turned up and really performed there.
I mean, even John John never really quite looked completely comfortable out there. He had his moments on his forehand, but his backhand, he never quite seemed to come to grips with that left properly.
There's definitely a couple of top surfers that really, in a way, didn't fit the wave and didn't look as good as they do in the ocean.
Tune into Swellnet on Tuesday to read Part 2, where Pritamo expands on his sometimes-contentious role in 'Make or Break', including acting as peacemaker to a furious Italo, why surfing progression includes the rail as much as the air, the wavepool fiasco that ended his tenure with the WSL, the Erik Logan question, and his legacy for the sport.