Michael Peterson

Back then…

Michael PetersonSomeone said to me after seeing the surfing of Michael at Kirra that they felt frustrated because the waves were so good and he was just standing there. The waves are good, classic Kirra walls and Michael sometimes just standing there clean and straight heading in a straight line at maximum speed. He surfs Kirra with confidence.

Michael is representative of a lot of good Australian kids but more purposeful and a little more stylized. He lives at Kirra and knows exactly what each wave is going to do. He doesn't fight it but seems to fit into its curves and flow with its energy. He has a beautiful feeling for the wave and the wave for him.

It was very difficult to know eactly what to do with the 25 minutes of Kira footage because there was quite a variety of good surfing of several surfers. The more I looked at it, the more interesting became Michael's waves. His timing, his choice of waves, his positioning was just so much better than anyone else's that I found myself gradually eliminating all but his rides. The end result is three minutes.

– AF


Without doubt the greatest competitive surfer of the '70s, Michael Peterson set all of the standards for the birth of pro surfing's world tour, even winning its first official event – the Stubbies Classic at Burleigh Heads in March 1977. Creatively, he bridged the gap between the Nat Young/Wayne Lynch shortboard evolution of the late '60s and the dynamic superstar performers of the '80s. He demonstrated a full-power style that combined an acute tube sense with fast, deep rail carves. Yet Peterson – known simply as "MP" to the core Australian underground surf community who idolized him – never converted his legend to a long-term lifestyle, and it has been many years since he's ventured out on a board.

Peterson grew up near Kirra Point in Queensland, Australia, with younger siblings Tom and Dorothy. His mother ruled the roost; Peterson's father was long gone, and nothing is publicly known of his identity or whereabouts. Michael and Tom were surfing by their early teens; 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.

Famous footage of Peterson, shot at Kirra in the classic 1970 cyclone season by Alby Falzon for the cult surf movie Morning of the Earth, clearly shows a surfer on the brink of a radical step forward in performance. A still from the footage, of MP frozen in mid-cutback, remains one of surfing's archetypal images.

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 surfing fellow 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 now lives quietly in Tweed Heads, Australia, just a few miles from his old Kirra stomping grounds.

– Nick Carroll, February 2001