What it’s like to try to qualify for surfing’s World Championship Tour

“To make the [World] Championship Tour is the holy grail for professional surfers,” Portuguese surfer Frederico Morais tells GrindTV. “It’s been my only goal, and only dream, since I was a kid. And now I’ve done it.”

The WCT is the top of the pyramid of the World Surf League. Only 32 surfers compete across the 11 events. At the end of the year, the 10 bottom-ranked surfers are relegated and the top 10 surfers from the World Qualifying Series (WQS) make the jump up to take their place.

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The ‘CT events feature better locations, much more prize money and much, much, much more exposure. Think Major League Baseball compared to the minor leagues.

Unlike the ‘CT, the ‘QS features more events and hundreds more surfers. The events are rated from 10,000 (the amount of ratings points you get if you win) all the way down to 1,000.

Kelly Slater in round 3 of the Billabong Pro Tahiti; photo courtesy ASP World Tour

Make the ‘CT and you can surf against Kelly Slater in Tahiti. Fail and you’ll be surfing slop in Cornwall. Photo: Courtesy of the WSL

At least 500 surfers compete on the ‘QS, and each one has aspirations of making the elusive Top 10 to reach the big leagues. As you can see by the math, the chances of making the grade are very slim.

It’s no wonder that the competitors call the ‘QS “The Grind,” with some surfers spending up to a decade trying to realize their dream. The ‘CT, on the other hand, is labeled “The Dream Tour.”

Are we starting to get the picture?

Going into the last two events of the ‘QS in Hawaii, both 10,000-rated, Morais was one of those many surfers with little or no chance. He was rated 38th and had accumulated only 7,000 points on the ‘QS all year. (You need at least 18,000 to make the cut.)

“I hadn’t completely written off my chances, as the last two events offer big points and I’m comfortable in Hawaii,” says Morais. A positive attitude, granted, but the 24-year-old still needed a minor miracle. In Hawaii, not only do all the ‘QS surfers compete, but the ‘CT heavy hitters — guys like Kelly Slater and John John Florence — also throw their hat in the ring.

Morais at Sunset Beach on the way to the final. Photo by WSL

Morais at Sunset Beach on the way to the final. Photo: Courtesy of WSL

However, despite the stacked draw, Morais claimed a second in the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa. That netted him 8,000 points and a jump up to the all-important 10th place. Then, at the last event of the year, the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset, he did the same again.

In surfing, miracles, it seems, can still happen.

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“To finish runner-up in both events, and jump to third in the ratings and qualify, was beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. “In those two events over just two weeks, my whole year, even my whole life, changed. I still can’t believe it.”

Of course, for every miraculous tale of success, there are many more instances of heartbreak. For example, Hawaiian Ezekiel Lau had been rated 13th going into Hawaii and had looked safe for most of the year. At the final event in Sunset, he had made it to the semifinals, where a third place in his heat would have secured his qualification.

He came in fourth, by just 1.10 points.

During the year, where he surfed 16 competitions across South Africa, Brazil, the Azores, Europe, USA, Hawaii, Mexico, Japan, the Caribbean and Australia, that 1.10 points meant he fell short of the magical 10th place by just 50 qualifying points (out of 18,800). So instead of upgrading to the Dream Tour, Lau will, for the sixth consecutive year, have to ply his trade in the dog-eat-dog world of the ‘QS.

“The ‘QS is so damn hard and can take a toll on your confidence,” says Morais. “You just have to keep plugging away and competing the right way. In the end, if you are good enough, you’ll get there.”