Some of the best surfers in the world will take to the waters of Steamer Lane this week for the return O’Neill Cold Water Classic.

The 36-year-old contest is back for a second year in a row Wednesday through Sunday, following a seven-year hiatus.

This year there are 96 men and 40 women are all fighting for a piece of the $10,000 prize purse. Like last year, the prize money is equal for both men and women.

Last year’s winners — Kolohe Andino of San Clemente and Zoe Benedetto of Palm City, Florida — are back to defend their titles against local notables including Nat Young, John Mel, Maddie Storrer and Autumn Hays.

A World Surf League qualifying event, the Cold Water Classic is unique in the world of competitive surfing, taking place in the iconic amphitheater that is Steamer Lane, said competitor Shaun Burns. The Santa Cruz native is a professional rider for O’Neill, the event’s longtime sponsor.

Shaun Burns, team and events manager at O'Neill.
Santa Cruz’s Shaun Burns, team and events manager at O’Neill, is also a professional surfer competing in the Cold Water Classic. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“It’s got the cliffs, so it’s kind of got a gladiator-esque arena to it where people are looking down on you surfing, yelling at you,” he said. Spectators have a bird’s-eye view of the competitors compared to most contests where the audience watches from the beach. “Here, it’s really a 3D approach of surfers and fans alike on top of the cliffs.”

The contest starts as a four-person heat, whittled down to a two-person heat starting in the 16th round. Heats run for 20 minutes in early rounds and can extend to as long as 35 minutes for the finals, depending on conditions.

Surfers are judged on a combination of speed, power and flow. “The judges really like to see a combination of powerful, explosive aerials, turns, [a] combination of technical maneuvers,” Burns said. “So the faster you can go, the more explosive and powerful that turn is and then how you can link them all together with a good flow and style is very important.”

With Santa Cruz County expected to see wet weather for the rest of the week, surfers will compete rain or shine, with some possible delays during midday high tides. “This week will be a little interesting with the weather,” said Burns. “There will be some scattered showers and some winds so it’ll create a little tricky conditions for the surfers, but still plenty of waves on forecast for contestable waves.”

The Cold Water Classic begins at 7 a.m. Wednesday and can be streamed live at

A surfer practices at Steamer Lane on Tuesday.
A surfer practices at Steamer Lane on Tuesday. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

A beginner’s guide to surf competitions



The early portions of a surfing competition are called heats. They typically consist of two to four competitors battling each other in a specific competition zone that is usually marked out by highly-visible markers or buoys. A heat usually runs 20 to 30 minutes depending on the specific competition. The goal for the surfers during a heat is to catch the best waves they can and to perform their best maneuvers on those waves.

Judges and scoring

Each competition has a panel of judges, usually five, who determine a score for each individual wave a surfer catches. Every wave a surfer catches is scored by each judge on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best. The highest and lowest scores from the five judges are thrown out, leaving three remaining scores. Those scores are averaged out, which determines the score for that one particular wave.

During a heat, a surfer is allowed to catch as many waves as they want, but only the two highest-scored waves will be counted and added together, which determines each surfer’s heat total. For example, if a surfer catches 10 waves during a heat and their highest two scores out of those 10 waves are a 5 and a 6, the heat total would be an 11.

Tuesday was a busy day at Steamer Lane as surfer prepared for the O'Neill Cold Water Classic.
Tuesday was a busy day at Steamer Lane as surfer prepared for the O’Neill Cold Water Classic. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The factors of scoring

According to the World Surf League’s competition rules, each judge looks at five key factors when determining how a competitor’s surfing is scored on each wave:

  1. Commitment and degree of difficulty.
  2. Innovative and progressive maneuvers.
  3. Combination of major maneuvers.
  4. Variety of maneuvers.
  5. Speed, power, and flow.

Once the five factors are considered by each judge, the judges put forth their scores. The scores will fall into one of five different quality-level categories:

  • 0.0 to 1.9 = poor
  • 2.0 to 3.9 = fair
  • 4.0 to 5.9 = average
  • 6.0 to 7.9 = good
  • 8.0 to 10 = excellent

Based on those factors and categories, it is easy to see why competitive surfers aren’t paddling for every wave. How surfing is scored is clearly based on the quality of each ride, not the quantity.

Preparations for the Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane on Tuesday.
Preparations for the Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane on Tuesday. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Kevin Painchaud is an international award-winning photojournalist. He has shot for various publications for the past 30 years, appearing on sites nationwide, including ABC News, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, The...