Surfing legend, (MP) Michael Peterson (24th September 1952 – 29th March 2012), the Kirra Beach surfer who was widely regarded as the best in the world before proper world titles were introduced, died last week from a heart attack whilst eating breakfast at his Mum’s home . He was 59.
In his prime he was so far ahead that he blew all challengers out of the water, no matter what their reputation or freakish levels of skill. Nat Young, Terry Fitz, Rabbit, MR – they all got the brutal MP treatment at some point in the 1970s.
In 1970 MP won the Kirra Pro Am, this began a phenomenal winning streak that saw him win many State, National & Professional titles, including the inaugural 2SM/Coca-Cola Surfabout (1974) + 3 Bells in 1973, 1974 and 1975 making him the undisputed Champion of Australia + his swan song victory at the 1977 Burleigh Heads Stubbies Classic ( the first world’s first man-on-man surfing contest ).
He was inducted into the “Surfing Hall of Fame” in 1992.
For the better part of the 1970’s MP flew at his own altitude, way close to the sun, before his wings finally melted and he went down in an inglorious blaze of cops, drug addiction and, as everyone gradually figured out, the awful affliction of schizophrenia. He went quiet, disappeared off the radar and into a whole other realm, battling with mental demons. His struggles reached breaking point in 1983, when Peterson was arrested in a 15 car police chase from Coolangatta to Brisbane. He never surfed again.
Tall, athletic and long-haired, Peterson was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, who retreated from his celebrity status into a world of hard drugs, fast cars and seclusion before a period in jail and in psychiatric hospitals. He later found peace, living with his mother Joan Watt in South Tweed Heads and occasionally attending surfing functions.
Although he had not surfed for more than 20 years, Peterson said in an interview for the book ” Bells, the beach, the contest, the surfers “, that he still had dreams about surfing, including some about Bells Beach and Winki Pop. “I didn’t mind the cold, (it was) good in the winter time,” he said
“When he was in the water, everybody was forgotten,” Ms Watt, who stood by her son throughout his ordeals, said recently. “His life was on the water. He could talk to the water and he knew every wave that was coming and which one to take. Nobody else mattered when he was on that water.”
The greatest tribute to the reclusive rebel from Coolangatta was delivered to his face by the world’s greatest surfer, Kelly Slater, who once told him: ” You are better than me, MP.”
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!” – Jack Kerouac
About Michael Peterson
Peterson’s family lived in several places when he was very young before settling at Tweed Heads and Coolangatta on Queensland’s Gold Coast. He grew up there with his mother Joan, younger brother Tommy, and younger sisters Dorothy (Dot) and Denice. His mother ruled the roost; Peterson’s father was long gone, and nothing is publicly known of his identity or whereabouts.
As a boy he was involved in surf lifesaving and a member of the Greenmount Surf Life Saving Club. He won many junior titles for swimming. Being a clubbie was uncool in those days but when he got old enough to be worried by that sort of thing he stayed because it meant a locker and a warm shower at the beach. The price was a half-day a month on surf patrol, dressed in sluggos and watching swimmers. He had no patience for sitting around and he and Tommy would arrange to be on patrol together for company.
Peterson got started surfing first on surf-o-planes, then polystyrene Coolites. Money was very tight for the family, his mother Joan worked long, long hours peeling prawns and all sorts of jobs just to make ends meet, so the boys couldn’t own a board (of any kind), only hire or borrow, either from Billy Rak at Greenmount or Johnny Charlton at Kirra who ran tourist hire businesses. The boys ended up working for Rak for two summers, setting up and lugging boards around for tourists, etc.
The first boards Peterson owned, in early 1966, were ones broken so badly when washed over the rocks at Greenmount (before the days of leg ropes) that their owners didn’t bother collecting what remained. The boys would take them home, make rough repairs and head back out in the water on them. They also found surf club membership had another advantage – weekend surfers from Brisbane would leave their boards at the club during the week, so there was a great choice to sneak out and ride.
In September 1967 around Peterson’s 15th birthday the family moved to units in Tweed St, Coolangatta and the boys setup a board shaping bay underneath. They figured it’d be cheaper to make boards than to buy, and got resin and fibreglass offcuts from local factories. For blanks they used cut-down old longboards. A lot of the local kids couldn’t afford new boards either, so the little business flourished, expanding to Peterson’s friend Peter Townend’s garage too.
Unknowingly, the cut-downs they were making and surfing put them right in the middle of the shortboard revolution. 8 foot boards would be cut down to 6’8″, or to 6’0 or right down to 5’1, though they soon found that they’d gone too far with 5’1 when they got crunched at big Kirra. The shortest they ever got to was 4’3 for friend Kerry Gill, who actually found that board went well for him.
Peterson’s first new board, a proper board to his mind, came in 1968. His mother offered that if he won the Greenmount Surf Lifesaving Club championship then she’d buy him one. With his always competitive drive spurred on by that prize he was a convincing winner, and two weeks later got a 7’11 board from local shaper Ken Gudenswager.
MP swiftly became a key player in the exploding Kirra performance scene, along with surfers like Peter Townend, a very young Wayne Bartholomew and visiting Sydneysider Terry Fitzgerald. Together with Townend and Fitzgerald, he learned to shape surfboards at the legendary Joe Larkin factory between sessions.
Morning of the Earth
Alby Falzon’s masterpiece “Morning of the Earth” premiered at the Manly Silver Screen Theatre in 1972. Featuring stunning surfing sequences from Bali, Angourie, Kirra, Oahu, Maui and elsewhere, the film has been universally acclaimed as perhaps the greatest surfing film ever made.
In February 1971 young Alby Falzon was on the Gold Coast filming for Morning of the Earth during one of the best runs of swell ever seen there (12 continuous weeks rarely below head high). He’d earlier run a picture of Peterson in his magazine Tracks with an article about the underground Gold Coast scene, and on a particular day happened to be filming at Kirra while Peterson was taking the place apart.
The result was a 3 minute sequence in the film, and many stills printed in Tracks.
The shot of Peterson that stood out became known simply as “the cutback”, it had Peterson tall and muscular, long hair flying, doing a big cutback at Kirra. That shot became the cover for the July 1972 issue of Tracks too (after the film was released).
Peterson didn’t go to the local premiere of the film (10 January 1972). His mother Joan drove him up to the hall at Miami High (his old school) but he balked at being the centre of attention and they went home again. His nervousness at presentations and gatherings would be repeated many times in the future.
One of Peterson’s secrets for surfing barrels at Kirra was the rocker (underside curvature) on his boards. Instead of having the nose start to lift from somewhere close to the end of the board, he moved the apex back near the middle and would ride it with one foot either side. By shifting weight onto the back foot the board would be on the back part and would stall, slowing down to get back deeper in the tube. And by shifting weight forward onto the front part it’d shoot forward.
He told Mike Perry who shaped alongside him for a time “It’s just like cheating, man.”
In 1971 Peterson won the Kirra Pro-Am contest, the first Queensland contest to offer any prize money ($150), and following that the Queensland Titles which had its final round at Kirra. That title earned him a start in the Australian Titles held at Bells Beach (incorporated into the Bells Beach Classic). He did poorly there, with his narrow 5’9 board unsuited to the fatter waves.
Back in Coolangatta the police had an unofficial campaign to clean up the beaches, getting rid of marijuana and the undesirable types who didn’t suit the family-oriented tourist destination the local chamber of commerce wanted to promote. Surfers were on the top of the list of targets (and on occasions they weren’t carrying anything the police were not averse to planting something). Peterson had been a heavy pot smoker for some time and on 24 January 1972 got arrested for possession and supply, but was lucky in court and got a $500 fine instead of 3 months jail.
That bust curbed his habit for a time, but not very long. He found pot relaxed him, one of the few things that could dull a growing whirlwind of thoughts in his head (almost certainly an early symptom of his later diagnosed schizophrenia). In coming years he was well known for having a couple of joints before or after surfing, even before contests. Others might have found pot made them unable to concentrate properly at a contest, but Peterson had no such worries. What he didn’t do, incidentally, was get drunk, neither when young nor when older. At a nightclub he might well have had some acid or be stoned, but while everyone around would be drinking, he’d just have lemonade.
In 1972 Peterson successfully defended his Queensland Title, narrowly beating friend Peter Townend. (Townend ended up with an unenviable record for second place finishes in his career.) The win put Peterson into the Australian titles again, but he almost didn’t get there.
Paul Neilsen was the reigning Australian champion but hadn’t made the Queensland titles final and so hadn’t qualified as such to defend his Australian title. His club “Windansea” from Surfers Paradise hatched a plan to bring up Peterson’s drug conviction (as if any of them had never indulged) at the inter-club meeting and get him ousted, in favour of Neilsen. The meeting descended into chaos and the selections were put to a vote, with the result Billy Grant was sacrificed. Over the years Peterson’s schizophrenia would make him imagine all sorts of plots, this was perhaps the only time there really was one.
The Australian titles were held that year at North Narrabeen in Sydney. In the second round Peterson surfed with energy, but also some luck, getting practically the only good waves that came through, and making it to the final. For the final the ocean went completely flat and the organisers had to cancel it, instead declaring Peterson the winner (with Peter Townend second, yet again).
That win then sent Peterson to the 1972 World Titles in San Diego. It was a wild time, with surfers practically taking over the Travelodge hotel there. Peterson made it through his first round heat, then in the second round in 1.5x head high waves at Oceanside he got a full 5 second tube ride, which one judge saw and scored 19 out of 20, but the other two didn’t. Only later when they compared scores did they realize the other two hadn’t seen him go in, and had only scored what they saw at the end. But it was too late, the scores stood and Peterson was eliminated.
If fate had meant Peterson to get a world title then 1972 would have been the year for it. As it happened though his most dominant year, 1974, fell in between this last 1972 amateur world title and the first professional title in 1976.
The Bells Beach Classic in 1973 offered a $1000 prize, which was very substantial at that time, and was to be run under the new “points per manoeuvre” system which had been trialled at the Hang Ten event in Hawaii a few months earlier. The idea was to eliminate subjectivity from judging, it was to be just a matter of counting moves completed. In the first few rounds in big messy conditions Peterson didn’t do well and was outside the top ten on total points.
On the last day he had a bit of luck when the leader Midget Farrelly came down with a bad flu and had to withdraw. Peterson was still well behind but he got a bigger board and started bouncing around making turns like crazy. By the end he thought he hadn’t done enough and didn’t hang around while the judges did their arithmetic. In fact he’d won and was amazed when told. The presentation was supposed to have been on the beach but it was so cold the organisers moved it to the local pub. Peterson’s speech was characteristically short, “I just want to thank everyone”, before he disappeared to the back of the room.
The 1973 Australian titles were held at Margaret River in big surf. Peterson was right up with the leaders through the early rounds, but it was fellow Queenslander Richard Harvey who got the win (and Peter Townend second, again).
Back on the Gold Coast Peterson did more board shaping, with Furry Austen enticing him away from Joe Larkin’s factory with the offer of more money.
1974 was a big year for Peterson, his most successful in contest results. It started with a second place finish to Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew in the Queensland titles though. Peterson had a bit of a feud going with Bartholomew in those years. It started, as these things do, over a trivial enough thing, Peterson hadn’t paid Bartholomew back for a cab ride they’d shared in Hawaii in early 1972. But with rivalry in surf competitions, it all escalated to the point where Peterson thought Bartholomew was stalking him or somehow out to get him (which wasn’t the case). They patched up their differences in later years, but in 1974 it really burned Peterson to lose the Queensland titles to Bartholomew (for a second year running).
Peterson then won the Kirra Pro-Am, the start of a remarkable run of wins. The next event was the Bells Beach Classic where instead of the come from behind win the previous year he was well in control and won by a big margin. The contest was still under the points per manoeuvre system and he milked it, even slipping in old school longboard moves that were still on the scoring card. This contest was also where he found that showing up from nowhere just minutes before a heat really played with his opponents heads and made his blitz in the water even more effective.
The inaugural 2SM/Coca-Cola Surfabout was held in May 1974. Coke didn’t just dip their toe into surf sponsorship, they went into it in a big way, offering a $2400 first prize, which was a new record for an Australian contest. It drew surfers from around Australia and the world, including some like Nat Young who had otherwise become disillusioned with the contest circuit. Peter Townend lead all the way to the final day and it was looking like Townend first and a young Mark Richards second. But Peterson just kept gaining and gaining and it played on Townend’s nerves. Townend slipped back (to fifth in the end) and Peterson came through the winner.
The Australian titles for 1974 were held at Snapper Rocks and Burleigh Heads. Peterson started slowly then crushed his opponents in tubes at Burleigh. On one tube he disappeared for so long the judges thought he’d fallen, until the crowd went wild when he popped out almost at the beach.
It was also during 1974 that Pete Townend gave Peterson the nickname “MP”. Peterson used to call him “PT” all the time, so Townend in turn coined “MP” and used it in newspaper columns he wrote, and it stuck. Peterson didn’t much like “MP” in later years, associating it with hype and image, though it’s still how he’s most often known.
Peterson Surf Shop
In September 1974 Peterson started his Michael Peterson Surfboards business, with a factory in Currumbin next to the Burford Blanks factory, and a shop at in Musgrave St, Kirra, right opposite the Kirra beach. His name by then was so big it seemed a sure winner. A caption in the Brisbane Courier Mail wondered if he could be “Australia’s first millionaire surfer”.
He had a rather inflated idea of his own business acumen, but did have the sense not to try to go it alone, he brought in Peter Hallas as a partner. Hallas was a fellow Kirra surfer and had worked alongside Peterson at Hohensee’s factory. They had a total of seven staff and would sell boards up and down the coast, often delivered by Peterson himself in his panel van.
Orders for boards soon flooded in, more than they could fill. The boards they supplied were actually more designed for Peterson’s level of skill than the average surfer, but the “MP” label certainly made them sell. The problem was that Peterson wasn’t very business minded and would too often sell stock out the back door or treat the business like a personal bank when it was going well.
Eventually Hallas despaired and by mutual agreement let himself be bought out by Peterson’s mother Joan for just $1000. If run well the business should have been a gold mine, but he thought getting out was the smartest thing to do, and he remained friends with Peterson. Joan took charge, but couldn’t much improve the overall operation. She ended up walking away in 1977 when Peterson brought in a girlfriend who Joan strongly disapproved of, and shortly after that the business folded.
Fang tail / Moon rocket
Meanwhile back in 1974/75 at his factory Peterson shaped for himself a 6’6″ six-channel triple-flyer pintail which became known as the Moonrocket, or the Fangtail, or the Christmas Tree. His staff laughed when they saw it, wondering how anyone could possibly surf it. The fang-like flyers at the back and finger-deep channels also made it a glasser’s nightmare (so Peter Evans, who had that job at the factory, wasn’t laughing).
The board was Peterson’s secret weapon for the Pa Bendall contest at the start of 1975 at Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast. There was a lot of general weirdness on the beach at that contest, like Keith Paull going around with his head shaved and painted purple and blue. But Peterson’s board brought him victory (and a $2000 prize) in knee high slop, continuing his run of success from 1974.
Later the board passed to a young Peter Harris who worked at Peterson’s factory, in lieu of wages owed when the business shut down. Harris surfed it until it became hopelessly waterlogged and then gave it to a friend’s son on the Sunshine Coast, where, so the story goes, a famous piece of surfing memorabilia finished up as landfill.
In 1995 Tommy Peterson made a replica of the board. It was presented to Kelly Slater when Slater won the peer poll in Australia’s Surfing Life magazine that year.
Peterson first tried heroin some time in 1974, and later in 1975 got into it in a big way. The Queensland Police had done such a good job cleaning up the pot on the Gold Coast that they’d created a vacuum, which was filled by a far worse drug, heroin, cheap and very pure. Many local surfers got into it, and, with everyone naive, many died from overdoses. Rabbit Bartholomew has written about that time too, he lost twelve friends to overdoses.
Peterson had a phobia about needles, so he didn’t inject, instead he’d chop the heroin up and snort lines. His brother Tommy (who himself wrestled with heroin addiction over the years) thought that was the only thing that saved Michael from an overdose, the fact he couldn’t get enough up his nose at one time to be fatal.
All this time Peterson’s schizophrenia was gradually getting worse too, he became ever more erratic, hostile to friends, and imagined plots against him. These were classic symptoms in retrospect, but at the time those who knew him just thought it was the drugs, certainly he’d done enough to make anyone act weird. His friends later wished they’d done much more for him at the time.
At the start of 1976, Peterson went to New Zealand for the first event in the new IPS professional world tour. There weren’t many big names there, they were in Hawaii for the much more prestigious Duke contest, and Peterson got the win. There was a certain irony in the first event of the new professional era being won by a man who was in so many ways the opposite of budding professionals like Peter Townend (the eventual winner of the series that year).
In 1977, the inaugural Stubbies contest was held at Burleigh Heads. It was organised by Peter Drouyn and he devised the “man on man” heats system for it (which is used in ASP World Tour contests today). Just two surfers in the water suited Peterson, he could focus all his psyche-out energy on just the one poor bloke in the water with him. He got through to the semi-finals comfortably where he came up against Rabbit Bartholomew.
In front of a huge crowd, the two took on 6 foot freight trains. Peterson went deep in the tube and took chances from way out on the point. Bartholomew made high-percentage moves in the pocket. Scoring was based on the whole heat and it split the judges with Peterson getting the win. Just who surfed better that day was a hot topic of debate for many years. The final was then Peterson against a young Mark Richards, MP versus MR. Richards thought he couldn’t match Peterson’s wave hassling and decided just to take whatever came through while Peterson paddled back out. It was still quite close, with Peterson getting the win and the $5,000 prize.
That turned out to be his last major contest victory. He spent the next few years as something of a nomad, hardly known to anyone, taking erratic surfboard shaping jobs, sometimes dealing, and alternating time on and off drugs. To get himself clean, he’d go camping to a favourite spot at the base of Mount Warning with big bags of health food like fruits and nuts and just be by himself. Later in court (below), his solicitor told the court he’d tried about 30 times altogether to get clean. He surfed intermittently during those years, and got into windsurfing as recreation instead, just in a small way, perhaps attracted by its solo nature.
On the evening of 9 August 1983 Peterson was on his way to Noosa to go windsurfing the next day and had pulled up at Beenleigh south of Brisbane to sleep. A police car with siren blaring came by and it set him into a panic and he drove off as fast as he could. He had not realized the police car was actually going the other way. The policeman saw him and took up a pursuit.
The pursuit turned into something straight out of a Hollywood movie, 20 police cars following, two side-swiped, and pedestrians nearly killed when he mounted the footpath at one point. The chase went on at high speed all the way to Brisbane where a further 15 police cars setup a roadblock on the Story Bridge, at which point Peterson stopped. It made national news and became known in surfing circles simply as “the chase”.
He was held in a cell overnight at Beenleigh then taken to Boggo Road Gaol. The police assumed he was on drugs and took his car, The Falcon, apart looking for them. All they found was some vitamin C, part of his health kicks. The car ended up in so many pieces it was sent to the wreckers.
Peterson’s luck with the law had come to an end and he was sentenced to a year’s jail, and his driver’s license permanently revoked. The judge recognised heroin alone couldn’t explain Peterson’s sorry state and ordered a psychiatric report, but it didn’t provide a diagnosis and didn’t help him. Peterson started his sentence at Boggo Road, and in fact was there during some of the infamous riots (but stayed in his cell).
His mother Joan lobbied her local state MP, the justice minister and the prisons minister for medical help for Michael, and eventually he was moved to Wacol Prison Hospital on 25 December 1983 for psychiatric treatment.
His schizophrenia was, at long long last, diagnosed and he received Mellaril medication. He also took two electroshock treatments in the hope they would help (giving his own consent for that).
At the end of his sentence Peterson returned to the Gold Coast and lived either at care facilities or with his mother. His medication helped considerably but he lived those years almost as a recluse, rarely seeking out former friends. A poor diet and the medication (especially Clozaril) saw his weight balloon, to the point where those who knew him in his lanky muscular prime in the 1970s could scarcely recognise him.
Like most schizophrenics Peterson heard voices, but he was one of the lucky few whose voices are friendly and he could chat away to them, or sort of marshal the troops when trying to keep to a diet.
Through 2002 and 2003 Peterson cooperated with surf writer and Tracks editor Sean Doherty on a biography of his life, bringing light to many aspects that had only been the stuff of surfing legend.
Peterson had been well enough in recent years to attend a few surf functions, including a contest organised by his old Kirra Surfriders club in 2002 called the MP Classic in his honour. It raised about $10,000 to support various local mental health services like those who looked after him over the years.
He hadn’t surf since some time in the mid 1980s, but told Doherty “I haven’t given it away! Who told you that? Is that what’s getting around?”.
His friends had hopes that maybe on a mini-mal somewhere away from prying eyes his spark might be rekindled; many of his peers still surf.
By 1972, Peterson was Australian champion, and over the next three years, he won every major surf contest held in Australia, including the inaugural 2SM/Coca-Cola Surfabout (1974) and the Bells Beach Easter event three years running (1973-’75). His competitors struggled to get an angle on MP’s extremely fast paddling style and relentless, nonstop carving turns, not to mention his ferocious psyche.
Peterson just seemed to take the competition more seriously than anyone else. “You can become a permanent winner,” one magazine quoted him as saying. “It’s just a matter of putting the rest of the people up and watching them, and making sure you’re just a little bit more ‘on’ than they are.” Sounds simple, but in the inexperienced world of ’70s surf competition, few had an answer for the Queensland genius.
He had less good fortune in the Hawaiian arena, never placing higher than seventh (at the World Cup in 1974), although he received some rave reviews for that high-tech high-speed carving at Sunset Beach, along with a widely reported punch from local Ben Aipa following an error of etiquette in the lineup.
Back in Australia, his success continued, seeming to peak with the extraordinary Stubbies win against rising star Mark Richards. Yet by then, the wheels were already falling off the MP bandwagon. Peterson felt harassed by fame and its attendant complexities. Amid dark rumors of drug use, his behavior grew more and more opaque.
In one famous incident, during the presentation at Bells in 1975, he hid in the bushes rather than come out to accept his victory trophy; Ian Cairns accepted for him.
“I don’t know the reason why I have a lot of these problems,” Peterson later told Backdoor, an Australia-based surf mag of the day. “It’s mainly because it’s the way I look. It’s the way I act. I try to be like everybody else, but it’s hard. I can’t be bothered being that exposed to the media, because then it seems like I’m being…condemned to live like a hermit, to live in a dark room, and just survive. And not come out because as soon as you come out the people start to pick at you.”
It’s an attitude that oddly parallels that of Californian surfer Tom Curren, and in truth, these two surfers seem connected by some fascinating links. Both had explosive effects on their fellow surfing countrymen, spawning generations of brilliant performers; both relished the pointbreak style; both seemed painfully shy and only really happy when in the water doing what they did best. In 1994, Curren inspired another surfboard design evolution when he rode a channeled 5’11” Fish shaped by Tom Peterson in perfect 10-foot Indonesian surf; later, Curren agreed to surf as a “double” for MP in a proposed (and since abandoned) movie of Michael’s life.
But there the links end. Peterson never competed successfully again after the Stubbies event. He had serious mental problems and would eventually be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic after a car chase incident with Queensland police in 1983. After spending some time in various institutions, he was released into his family’s care, and passed away of a heart attack in 2012 at his NSW home.
In 2004, Sean Doherty’s bio, MP: The Life of Michael Peterson, revealed many of the details behind the implosion of this most energizing of Aussie surf figures – discussing both his battles with both heroin addiction and psychological ailments — while 2009’s film documentary, Searching For Michael Peterson, combined the tales with surf footage and firsthand perspectives from his contemporaries. Rather than casting judgment, both offer understanding and closure, providing something of a public catharsis for the legend.
In the mid 2000s Peterson emerged at the occasional surf function — such as the MP Classic, an event run in his name by the Kirra Surfriders to raise money for mental health services — but he mostly stayed to himself. And by all accounts, he hadn’t surfed since the mid-1980s
Searching for Michael Peterson – movie
by Jolyon Hoff
“Searching for Michael Peterson” takes off the rose colored glasses and offers a deeply personal and honest film which explores something of the darker side of the early ’70s Australian surf and social revolutions.
Searching for Michael Peterson is a documentary telling the moving story of one of Australia’s greatest surfers whose career was cut short by mental illness – after his mind and body succumbed to heroin and undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Jolyon Hoff’s documentary is a loving tribute to a Gold Coast native who was considered by many to be the greatest surfer in Australian history, charting a brief but incandescent career that still shines brightly in the mythology of Australia’s surfing culture
Interview with Jolyon Hoff
What inspired you to make a film about MP ?
As a teenager, my friends and I would drive our cars up the Australian coast to places like Seal Rocks or Angourie or Lennox Head and Byron Bay. The trips were all about growing up – there were girls, drunken nights, experiments with drugs as well as warm water and beautiful waves. We were chasing the surf but it was often the other unexpected things that happened along the way that became the highlight of the trip – stories to be endlessly recounted on our next trip.
It was on these trips that I first heard, from the older surfers we met, the stories of Michael Peterson, this mysterious character and incredible surfer. We’d sit around the campfire and they would speak with reverence while we listened in awe. It was like a surfing ghost story in many ways.
Years later I decided to throw the boards on the roof and the cameras in the boot and head out to the point breaks, beaches and carparks to capture all these wild, weird and magical stories.
How difficult was it for you to gain access to the archival footage which makes up so much of the film ?
It was and it wasn’t. All the surf filmmakers were really helpful and supportive whereas the networks were difficult to deal with. We ended up having to pay substantial amounts of money for the footage from the ABC. I’m still sore about that as they are completely funded by the Government in Australia, but then most of our funding came from the Government via Screen Australia, so swings and roundabouts.
Luckily the generosity of old school filmmakers like Dick Hoole, Alby Falzon, Steve Core and Mex Sumpter made it all possible. These guys are at the core of Australian surfing and keep the flame alive. I’m really grateful to them. I particularly enjoyed spooling through Dick Hoole’s outtakes in his garage one day.
I was also lucky that Steve Core’s film Ocean Rhythms had just been transferred to digital after 40 years sitting in film spools. It is some of the best stuff of MP ever filmed and a stroke of timing and luck on my part. A shout out should go to Warren Delbridge too – he’s Australia’s unofficial surf film archiver and helps restore the old films like Ocean Rhythms. He’s working on Bob Evan’s films now. Bob Evans is the original surf filmmaker in Australia and it’s going to be really cool to see when it’s finished.
Searching for Michael Peterson addresses the subject of mental illness. What were the challenges you faced while dealing with the subject of schizophrenia?
I was always really aware that I’m not a doctor and don’t really understand the illness so I tried to steer away from any specifics or making any judgment calls e.g. did the drugs cause the illness or was it already there? I’m just happy if the film raises awareness of mental illness, particularly among surfers. I think we are a restless breed and have more than our fair share of mental illness, luckily for most of us we can go and wash it away in the sea.
Your interviews, particularly with Rabbit, were very candid and emotional. Can you talk about the interview process ?
Yeah thanks. Rabbit’s a great storyteller and having watched the whole journey from grommit to adulthood he was obviously really affected by the story.
My idea with the interviews was to head to the carparks and pointbreaks along the coast and to dig out some of the old time surfer’s who remembered the times and then film them in their own environment. I always try to run long interviews, up to 3hrs, to get beyond the standard sound bites and any nervousness.
Was his family receptive to the film ?
I was in contact with Michael and his mum throughout the process and screened a short version for them one night with a few of their close friends and they seemed to like it. Unfortunately that relationship has broken down now. I’m sad that it has and I’m hopeful that we can pick it up again. I think they (Michael & his mum) thought the film would make money, but really it’s been done as a tribute to MP and to document a piece of Australian surfing history. I doubt very much if it will ever make any money, but if it does MP will be the first to get some.
That said I’m really proud of the film, I think it’s very respectful to Michael and I know that he (secretly) enjoys watching it. It’s all pretty complicated and it must be incredibly difficult to deal with the illness, for him and for his mother.
He watched it ?
Oh yeah, Michael’s comment when I asked him what he thought of the film went like this: Me (nervously) – “What did you think of the film Michael ?” / Michael (long pause before mumbling) “It’s different.”
I wasn’t sure whether this was a positive or negative response but later on I thought “yeah he’s right, IT IS different and that’s what I like about it so much”.
One of the comments after the opening screening was “ …a fitting and emotional tribute…” That kind of sums it up.
What’s next for Jolyon Hoff ?
I’ve started making a little film tentatively called Surf Stories; it’s going to be a compilation of weird, wild and wonderful stories from the ocean. I’m really fascinated by the way surf stories are passed up and down the coast and want to try and capture a bit of that oral history.
I’m also about to make a film about Chuck Brown. He’s the godfather of Go-Go, a type of music listened to in the Washington DC underground. It’s an awesome story and he’s a great character. It’s a long way from the coast though and I’m going to miss the production technique of “boards on the roof, cameras in the boot. Let’s head up the coast.”
Other than that, spend some time with the kids and try and find quiet surf somewhere as often as possible.
′The story of Michael Peterson makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look like Alice In Wonderland.′ — Sean Doherty
For three years MP was the best surfer in the world, hands down. The gangly, long-haired rebel from Coolangatta breathed saltwater, and ruled the waves with savage, groundbreaking surfing. He was worshipped like a god – other surfers simply got out of the water to watch him, and girls threw themselves at him. But once you discover his dark beginnings, you′ll understand why MP was destined never to be your average guy. Michael Peterson was a tortured genius… and one complex cat.
An undiagnosed schizophrenic, MP despised the fame his surfing powers attracted, and he retreated into a world of hard drugs, fast cars and shadows. He hit rock bottom after a car chase that took 15 police cars to stop him. After years of jail and psychiatric institutions he emerged, alive, but bearing the scars of battle.
For 20 years Michael Peterson′s exploits in and out of the water existed only as a series of mythological tales, passed down by the surfing tribe — until Sean Doherty, editor of Tracks, sorted fact from fiction.
The 50 Greatest Surfer’s of All Time.
by Sean Doherty ( was also MP’s biographer (MP: The Life of Michael Peterson))
MP finished 16th on the list
Michael Peterson still sports the very same pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses he wore during the ’70s. They’re a bit beat up these days, the frame held together by sticky tape, but they still work just fine. For MP, the leather jackets, jeans, and panama hats may have been all about fashion, but the sunglasses were pure function. They formed a reflective barrier against the outside world.
Behind them he couldn’t be read. Behind them he could plot the downfall of the guys he was surfing against, size up the chick across the room, scope out a dealer for a bag of exotic candy.
Behind Michael Peterson’s glasses spun several worlds, some real, some imagined, one occasionally bleeding into the other.
Five years after Nat Young was christened “The Animal,” a gangly, scruffy kid from Coolangatta came along who made Nat look like a koala bear by comparison.
Aloof, awkward, and monosyllabic on land, Michael Peterson was transformed upon immersion into saltwater. His surfing was frenetic and savage, a personal blitzkrieg on the idyllic green walls running down into Rainbow Bay.
Growing up during the golden age of Kirra, Peterson, along with sparring partners Rabbit Bartholomew and Peter Townend, explored the innermost limits of tube-riding.
MP had shaped the rocker apex back into the middle of his boards, a simple yet beautiful idea—front foot meant go, back foot, stop. And if any potential interloper dared even look at one of the King Of Kirra’s waves he’d be warned off by a shrill whistle from inside the cavernous chamber.
Pathologically shy, MP would later attribute his love of being inside the barrel to the fact that no one could see him in there.
While America had Dora, Australia had MP.
No Australian surfer embodied the zeitgeist of the ’70s better than he did, and the fact that he revolutionized both surfing and surfboards along the way almost became lost behind the supernatural aura he generated. He was a walking totem with a loyal following of disciples, but loathed the limelight his surfing powers generated.
For the three years between ’73 and ’75 Peterson burned white hot, winning every professional contest in Australia. His success was a blend of obscene talent and rat cunning. This domination, however, never made it off Australian soil.
So used to being top dog in the water and hassling accordingly, a left hook to the jaw in Hawaii quickly took the wind from his sails. And despite being one of the first guys to surf Backdoor (“the Hawaiians wouldn’t let me go left”), he never really shone on surfing’s biggest stage.
By ’76 the wheels were falling off.
Loaded to the eyeballs on a smorgasbord of opiates and hallucinogens, he’d be occasionally sighted at the Bamboo Flute restaurant in Coolangatta devouring avocado ice cream.
His appearances in the lineup, meanwhile, were dwindling, and he’d even shaved off his trademark mustache. Living in the shadows, his behavior was spiking far beyond simple eccentricity, and it was clear something was going on with the guy. Most assumed it was his ravenous drug intake… but they were only partly right.
Michael Peterson was poison to the new, clean-cut professional regime that was taking over surfing. This was symbolized poetically when he pulled into the Sunset Beach car park so close to a car containing the “Bronzed Aussies” that they couldn’t open the door. He wound down the window, toked violently on a joint, cocked his head, and dead smoked the unsuspecting trio in matching T-shirts.
MP still had one last fight in him though.
The 1977 Stubbies at Burleigh saw the introduction of man-on-man surfing, although the five grand prize money was the real carrot. After smoking a pre-final scoob in the car park, MP paddled out in front of 20,000 people on Burleigh headland and dusted a young Mark Richards. He took the five grand and disappeared.
Michael Peterson loved Pink Floyd, and would soon go the same way as Syd Barrett. The voices were speaking to him by this stage. The cocktail of chemicals in his brain, both naturally occurring and supplemented from the street, were fuelling a cacophony inside his head. MP was a textbook schizophrenic years before medical science knew what a schizophrenic was.
His descent was equally spectacular and tragic.
While sleeping in his car on the side of the highway between the Gold Coast and Brisbane, he was woken by police sirens heading the other way and panicked. He sped off, quickly. A hundred miles and 15 police cars later he was eventually stopped on the Storey Bridge in Brisbane, telling the arresting officer he’d successfully outrun the aliens.
Jailed, then institutionalized, MP was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, medicated, and placed in the care of his mother, Joan.
He stopped surfing altogether.
For the next 20 years surfing saw little of him, as he was busy hiding from open sky. A daily handful of prescription drugs quieted the voices but also saw his weight balloon, and a daily walk down the road to sit under his favorite mango tree was about as adventurous as he got. But the longer he stayed out of the spotlight, the more his legend grew.
In the past five years he has made tentative steps back into the surfing fold. Mingling with his heyday peers during the annual Gold Coast World Tour contest, Peterson offers flashes of that same razor-sharp mind that brought them undone all those years ago. Occasionally, even the sunglasses come off, his eyes darting back and forth nervously, hinting at vulnerability he’d always kept hidden.
“Take him out of his generation, put him anywhere, he was the whole act,” says Rabbit Bartholomew. “But he was more than the whole act, he was too much. It couldn’t last.”
Michael’s disease may have lit a fire under his surfing, but it also meant it would only burn for a few brief years.
By Ed Sinnott
“In 1981 Simon Anderson had won at Huge Bells on the first thruster the world had ever seen. Terry Richardson who worked with Ed at Skipp surfboards in Wollongong had come third and was on the hunt for some Hawaiian guns for the upcoming season. I was shaping Terry’s twin fin models was for our wholesale markets and he suggested a trip down to Merimbula to get some Guns hand-shaped by MP. Mick and his brother Tommy were living down as well as some mates of ours from Towradgi, Paul Winter, Noel Gibson and Tom Storey. I had seen Mick surfing at some of the contests and like every other Australian surfer in that era was blown away by his persona.”
“To me and thousands of other young Australian surfers MP was a surfing buccaneer, a rebel insurgent against normality and the king of all the pirates who defied convention and lived beyond the boundaries of everyday society.”
Mick had made a clean break from all the madness on the Gold coast and was shaping boards under the Wintersun label as well as his own on the far south coast. Terry and I surfed Dolphin point at Ulladulla on the way by ourselves in the rain exploring the good force of nature. We watched the dark clouds blowing in from the south and knew a big swell was coming. We hit the highway and counted down the kilometers listening to the Rolling Stones till we arrived in Pambula where the Wintersun showroom was situated.
When we got there we waited around for MP to arrive, then suddenly this Ford 351 roars into the dirt car-park and screeches to holt in a blaze of rocks and dust. When the dust cleared I could see a shadowy figure low in the seat laughing with black aviator sunglass on that were reflecting our images back at us. Mick stepped out of the car smiling and shuffled towards us. Here he was 28 years old drug free, clean and in his prime physically. By today’s standards as a pro surfer he was only beginning; back then it felt you would retire at thirty.
The time out of competitive surfing hadn’t changed him much he still looked like the lean and super fit paddling machine we all knew. Heroin had taken its toll with him mentally though and the undiagnosed schizophrenia he was suffering from only added to his creative abstract edge. We didn’t know any different other than this was Mick Peterson the best surfer of our generation and he had the aura of a supernatural being. Thus began an amazing two and half year period of working and surfing with him. I travelled back and forward from Wollongong a lot; sometimes with my partner at the time Marion and daughters Conie and Keone; sometimes I went alone. Most of the time I stayed on Paul Winter’s farm on the Bombala Rd at Wyndham where Mick lived.
Paul had a Falcon ute and we would throw our boards in every morning and head off down the dirt road to surf wherever the waves where the best, Leonard’s Island, Pinnacles, Haycocks or the Bar if it was cranking. MP loved to drive and he always drove one hundred miles an hour flat out, sitting low in the seat black aviators on with one hand coolly gripping wheel. I will always have an image of him etched in my mind overtaking at a furious pace and speeding towards oncoming trucks in the wrong lane, with me terrified gripping the dash while MP grinned from ear to ear saying “Don’t worry I’m a city slicker boys” and swerving at the last second to avoid instant death. Whew it was heavy!!!
Mick drove like he surfed. He had an extremely fast paddling style and surfed relentlessly doing nonstop carving turns which he powered with a dynamite psyche. When we got to the beach I used to thank god for getting us there in one piece. Richo would be straight out there and I wasn’t far behind him. Mick would walk dragging his board by the nose in the sand huge arms wrapped around his fin looking around taking it real easy but it was all a ploy. We would be paddling like blazes to get out there but as soon as Mick hit the water wham he was on fire! Arms like pistons paddling out the back in a flash then coming strait at you before throwing a ton of saltwater in your face as he’d go screaming past you gouging the face in a massive cutback arms held aloft triumphantly.
Richo was riding thrusters because it wasn’t long after Bells, but Mick wouldn’t have a bar of it. He was riding red bottomed concave singles with his little trade mark MP hook fin right on the tail. He had me spray the ace of spades on the deck because he said he was the ace. Mick told me hated thrusters and twin fins because he was a power surfer and spun them out. He said “those new thruster things can’t hold me in the water I’m the original power surfer, big back foot you know, and the things got to hold in the barrel none of this spinning around for me .Ha ha ha”!
I loved his boards and he was light years ahead of others in that department as far as his bottom shapes went. Here we had a case of one of the planets best surfers fine tuning his own equipment. The concaves he had in his boards at that time were very similar to today’s thrusters, they were built for speed. A lot of other shapers were doing rolled vee bottoms at that time but not Michael. He’d spend hours sanding his board and fin till it was just right. His shaping style was something else, blessed with a great eye he would simply measure the length and width then draw the curves out before attacking the blank with a planer. Mick would shape at a frantic pace just like he surfed and drove. There would be foam flying everywhere; the sound of the planer getting buried at full cut with the ball bearings screaming. Then it was all over, forty five minutes later there would be a Peterson original ready to glass.
We worked in an old dairy high on a hill on the Eden road overlooking the backwaters of Pambula River that was converted into the Wintersun surfboard factory. It was the full Morning of the Earth vibe and I loved it. The cows would come over and stick there heads through the window while we were at it. Tommy, MPs little brother was also shaping there at the time and he was an even faster shaper than Mick was and much more radical. Tom is a fun loving guy and a great surfer who always had me in stitches with his stories about the exploits him and Michael got up to growing up in Coolangatta. They certainly had a love hate relationship from what I saw but Tom always had Michael’s best interests at heart.
Tommy was shaping these little 5’6’’ step bottom fishes that had belly channels leading into the fins. They were so different to the mainstream, but they went ballistic. His boards look like the ones Rasta rides today or a fish with the nose pulled in. Tommy was ahead of the pack and he was already onto the fish revolution back then. Tom Curran eventually grabbed one of these Fireball fishes and gained a huge amount of exposure for the design. So much in fact that you could say that the Tom Peterson was in many ways a catalyst for the resurgence of the fish design worldwide. Both Tom and Michael had a huge influence on my shaping career, in that I was never afraid to experiment or try new things. I would just simply do it because as Tom said “it’s all about the feel you get when you surf; different designs are just different feelings you adjust to”.
The way the Peterson brothers used a hand planer so confidently to carve out a blank into a surfboard was something else, they were both so fast at it and accurate. In those days there were no pre shapes like today we did everything by hand the “old way”. It really was a great learning curve for me and helped me get to the stage as a production shaper in the eighties where I could hand-shape up to eight or nine boards a day if a had to. Terry Richardson was also a great shaper, he used to run around the shaping bay all day when he was off the tour and knock out ten or eleven. That era was something else and you had to be part of it to understand the work ethic. These days shapers only scrape away at a pre-shape basically sanding the lines out; in those days we designed the whole board every time we picked up a planer.
Living out on the Bombala Rd with Mick and Paul Winter was great. Mick was into his health food stage at that time and I would awake in the morning to the sound of the blender going ballistic. Mick would get up climb the mulberry tree then deposit the contents into the blender along with apple pieces, brewers yeast, fish oil, heaps of vitamin pills, yogurt and whatever else was available. Then he would swallow the lot. Mick swore by his health elixir. My daughter Keone who had just started walking would steal his mulberries and you would hear him going “hey kid bring them back”. It was hilarious. Mick had also got hold of a set of acupuncture needles from somewhere and practiced on himself all the time. He had big acupuncture charts in his room on the wall showing all the points for the entire body. It seemed far out but whatever works and it did for him.
At night we would all hang out on the farm where Mick would always have me and Marion drawing pictures for his boards or for the sails of his windsurfer. I remember drawing teradactyles, sharks, eagles and monsters and having loads of fun in the process.
Michael had theories about everything he would tell us about how we all need to live on mountains to survive the tsunamis that was coming and how surfers were the strongest and fittest people on planet earth.
He also told me that he thought the majority of Australian people were alcoholics who were destroying themselves and their livers.”Yeah they’ve all got cirrhosis how can they surf being like that”! Mick wasn’t a drinker. He said that’s how he dominated for so long and that he had a one track mind for winning.
I spent a lot of time in working at the factory with just me and Mick. One day I found out we shared the same birthday the twenty-fourth of September it blew us out. He used to freak out about the old woman down the hill who would light fires in her farmhouse everyday to cook. He used to say to me “..shes willing me , she’s trying to get to me.” Mick’s paranoia was something we all knew about but it seemed to be getting more severe. Sometimes he would disappear for days on end and no one knew where he went.
One day in 1983 I think it was we had gone surfing at Haycocks beach early in the morning and got some great waves. Mick was on fire and on the top of his game as far as surfing goes. When we went to work I noticed he was a lot more agitated than usual and sweating profusely. He started spinning out about the woman in the farmhouse and the fire she had , and then told me he was going to drive to Coolangatta which was eighteen hours north. It was the last time I ever saw him as I stood in the field watching his car disappear in a swirling cloud of dust flying down the dirt track in the morning sun.
All I know is that not long after this I heard the shit had hit the fan in Queensland where all these police had pursued Mick in a high speed chase which resulted in his arrest and incarceration in the Bogga Road jail and then in a mental health facility. He hasn’t surfed since. I still wonder if that surf we had was his last. Who Knows? The legacy of Michael Peterson lives on and my interaction with him was a fascinating insight into a flawed genius. In 1981 when I met Michael, Neviile Wran was the Premier of N.S.W, the film Puberty Blues had just been released and the song Ant Music by Adam and the Ants was number one right around Australia. Raiders of The Lost Ark was the top movie, Britney Spears was born and the legendary Bob Marley died. Life goes on.
Tributes to Michael – following his death
By Jolyon Hoff
Yesterday morning I woke up to the news that Michael Peterson had died. I was saddened to hear the news. He was a hero to me and so many others, and he’ll be missed by so many.
A few years ago I was privileged enough to make a film called Searching for Michael Peterson. I’d been fascinated by Michael ever since I picked up my uncle’s old Tracks magazines, sometime in the mid-eighties. They were like a secret world of wild characters and radical behavior, and Michael was the wildest and most radical. Tall and good looking; the long hair, the aviator glasses, the bewildering statements and his odd behavior all just added to his mystique. I was hooked.
In the film, I never really ‘found’ him, and in a way I don’t think I wanted to. To me the film is more about us. Why were we so enamored by this flawed hero? What special magic did he hold?
All that I can say about that is in the film, but for anybody who is still searching for ‘MP’, go and watch the famous clip from Morning of the Earth, there is magic there. The movement, the light, the waves, the music, the filmmaker. It all came together that day to capture something about the man – an intangible energy that drew us all to him. To me, as a surfer, that’s the closest that we can come to finding Michael Peterson, to ever really knowing him.
My deepest condolences go to his family and close friends who helped him through his life and who really did know him. I am sure this is a difficult time for you all.
To Michael. I hope you have found your peace. I’m sure Kirra is always six foot and offshore wherever you are.
Thank you for everything.
By Simon Anderson
To Mrs Peterson, Dot and Tommy deepest sympathies at the passing of your son and brother.
Your dedication to Michael in his later years has been a wonderful thing.
Mick will of course be remembered forever in Australian surfing. He was arguably the greatest Australian surfer of all time dominating contests in Australia for most of the 1970’s.
I was fortunate enough to compete against Mick during this period and was privileged to see a lot of his ground breaking performances in the surf and glimpse some of his state of the art shapes taking surfing and boards to the next couple of levels. You could also argue that Michael was the greatest surfer, shaper designer of all time anywhere. His contribution to surfing and influence on surfing and board design, pushing it to previously unknown levels can only be compared to Kelly Slater.
Michael’s hero was Nat Young, he wanted to surf like Nat, he did that for sure and will always be held in the highest esteem in the lofty halls of surfing freaks.
Mick you touched surfing with your magic and surfing is forever better for it.
by Derek Rielly
In 1977, in front of 20,000 people, Michael Peterson beat future four times world champion Mark Richards to win the first event of the surfing world tour. It was his last competition and he was only seen occasionally until 1983 when he was arrested in a 15-car police chase from Coolangatta to Brisbane. He never surfed again and, after years in Boggo Road gaol, he was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
In a Banora Point duplex, Michael Peterson stares into the bathroom mirror, adjusting a pair of gold aviator sunglasses, his signature look.
His balloon-like gut is just contained within a fresh white Rip Curl T-shirt, a lifetime sponsor. His hair is thin with early cameos of grey. He slicks it back with a comb. Man alive, he’s nervous! Kelly Slater is coming!
Just 20 years earlier in 1974, Michael Peterson was the undisputed best surfer in Australia, and as good as anyone in the world. He became known only by his initials and it was these initials, MP, that would symbolise a type of surfer a long, long way from the polished athletes we identify with the sport today.
MP was performance and perfection but it was a dirty performance, a dirty perfection.
This was a surfer who could build world-class equipment with his own hands and then ride it to victory the following weekend. For three consecutive years he won the most prestigious surfing contest in the country, at Bells Beach.
A man with a luxury of gold hair, coat-hanger shoulders and a genuine psychotic need to win. MP owned the beach side town of Coolangatta, held in awe by the men and adored by the women.
At the sparkling right hand point break that breaks from the northern apex of Coolangatta Beach and through Kirra in one long cylinder, he perfected the art of tuberiding; a somewhat mystical part of the sport that made it transcend, if superficially, the line between sport and art.
Nineteen seventy-four was also the year MP snorted heroin for the first time.
But here, in 1994, we find Michael Peterson, in the house he lives in with his mother Joan and her partner. He is a medicated schizophrenic, a diabetic and a former prison inmate, naturally reclusive, who still smokes the occasional joints secretly delivered to him by his little brother Tom.
As the editor of a surfing magazine, I wanted to put the current world champion together with the Shadow of Australian Surfing, a man who famously hadn’t been seen in the water since being released from Boggo Road prison in Brisbane in 1984 after a car chase that only ended when the cops set-up a roadblock on the Story Bridge.
His brother Tom agreed to make a replica of a single-fin Michael had ridden as a gift to Kelly for winning a best surfer award for the magazine.
I was surprised when his mother agreed; she’d refused every other request. But, this was a coming out for Michael. Soon, the family would be working with a screenwriter on a movie and it wasn’t long before a clothing line and a signature surfboard model were created.
Kelly Slater arrives, not yet 25 and with only four of his 11 world titles in the bag. The pair nervously circle each other. The banter is forgettable, banal. Two great surfers, sure, but split not just by 20 years, but by a cavernous difference in lifestyle. Kelly doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke and while his need to win has been described as psychotic, he harnesses it in a way that doesn’t destroy his life.
Still, it’s a moment. Lisa Andersen, the four-time women’s world champ, has also come but she fades into the background as the two men try to connect. Michael signs a poster and gives it to Kelly. He tells Kelly that “he might get back into it and surf again”.
As we walk outside, Kelly whistles and says, “wow.”
And the pair stayed in touch.
“I would get little messages from him through his sister,” Kelly said today.
“I felt like we had a special friendship… I was nervous to meet him and I’ll be recounting my memories of him and looking up old photos I got to take with him.
“I was supposed to go over and see him over the last month and am very upset I didn’t. Dot (his sister) called me this morning to tell me she’d found him”
Three years ago, the quasi-documentary Searching for Michael Peterson did the rounds of bowls clubs and RSLs up and down the coast. A stylised take on his disappearance from professional surfing, it painted a picture of a genius who had vanished off the face of the earth.
A Nick Drake, a Jim Morrison. Tortured and magnificent. MP’s reputation grew among a new generation.
But, MP wasn’t dead.
Ironically, the night after I saw Searching for Michael Peterson I flew to Bells for its yearly Easter surf contest and, goddammit, who’s the first person I bump into at Rip Curl’s opening night party ? Fricken Michael Peterson !
Even after all the years, even after his decline, he can still make a surf fan nervous. My conversation blows into the wind. I do say, “I found you” as a joke and Michael, who makes the connection, smiles and says, “Yep…”
Australian surfing has a terrible hole in its heart today.
by Tim Baker
MP will be remembered as one of the greatest surfers of all time, for his deep tube-riding at Kirra, complete dominance at Bells, and a virtual whitewash of the Australian contest scene in the ‘70s.
A self-taught shaper, his board designs were also considered way ahead of their time. McKinnon had only recently visited MP with the original Coolangatta Kids Rabbit Bartholomew and Peter Townend, as well as visiting Hawaiian great Larry Bertleman.
“That was the last time I saw him and everything was good, he was really stoked to see everybody,” says Andrew. “He was happy. He seemed really content. In actual fact, he looked less stressed than I ever saw him … He was so stoked to see Larry Bertleman. As Larry said, they used to call him the Hawaiian Peterson because they both came out of left field in the ‘70s and blew everyone away.
“He looked really good. He’d grown a beard. He almost looked like Earnest Hemingway. He had that grandeur about himself, like surfing royalty. He’d accepted it all. He knew that he wasn’t going to go surfing again and he knew how good he was because everybody kept reminding him.”
Michael was an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic during his surfing career, resulting in an enigmatic, reclusive persona on land and an escalating drug habit that was eventually his undoing.
His final hurrah was the 1977 Stubbies where he wiped the floor with the new era of polished professionals at perfect Burleigh, defeating Mark Richards in the final. Then he was gone.
He spent time in jail and psychiatric hospitals after leading police on a high speed car chase from the Gold Coast to Brisbane’s Storey Bridge in 1983.
For much of his adult life, he lived as virtual recluse with his mother in a small two bedroom unit in Tweed Heads. Recently, he had become more outgoing, attending surfing functions and receiving visitors.
Thankfully, Michael lived long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his beloved Kirra Surfriders Club, where he stood alongside two time world champ Mick Fanning to mark the milestone.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Michael back in 1992. His mother Joan approached me at Bells Beach, after Michael had just been inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame, a long overdue honour. MP had been passed over for years because the powers that be were too squeamish to acknowledge the less wholesome elements of his story. Finally, he had received his due recognition.
Michael wasn’t there to accept his award but Joan wanted me to meet him and tell his story so a new generation of surfers could come to appreciate his legacy.
“The young ones never see him. They only hear of him and people say all kinds of stories. I want people to know what he is really like, that he is in the land of the living,” Joan told me.
I arrived at their small brick unit in the quiet back streets of South Tweed Heads, nervously clutching a bundle of surfing magazines as a rather inadequate offering.
Michael shuffled slowly out of the shadows of his bedroom in slippers and tracksuits, emerging from the mists of history. He was more interested in leafing through the current surf magazines than regaling me with stories of his glorious past.
“I go down the beach and I don’t get hassles from anyone. They don’t say anything to me,” he told me. “When my brother, when he’s down there with his girlfriend they all say, how’s Michael going? Where’s he gone? When he’s going to get back in the surf? When I go out no one says anything to me. It’s weird like that.”
He’d often watch the waves from the top of Kirra Hill but seemed dismissive of the modern era of surfing.
“It was more of an art in the ‘70s. Now it’s all slash, bang, crash, see ya’ next time.”
And he seemed in no doubt about the magnitude of his own talent. “Show him that cutback,” he told his mum with urgency as she flicked through a family photo album. “”That’s the way we were surfing, jamming out all over the place, know what I mean? That was a classy cutback, have a go at it. That one, for those days, look at the track behind it.”
But he was most lucid on the subject of surfboards – a fact reinforced when I watched Andrew Kidman’s recent film, Lost In The Ether. It strikes me that MP’s intuitive genius as surfboard designer and shaper, born of a need to keep up with his outlandish visions of where he could go on a wave, has been widely overlooked.
“A lot of surfers didn’t have good boards. Back in those days they were all falling off all over the place, so I thought that’s the best way to do it. Organise a good board that didn’t play around, did all the right turns, all the right manoeuvres, re-entries, cutbacks, without fouling up. That took a lot of work but that’s what I worked on and that’s what I got.”
Michael Peterson has left the beach – R.I.P