Michael Peterson Passes Suddenly
A Comet that Burned too Bright
The stunning legacy of Michael Peterson
Words by Tim Baker
(This story has been updated and edited to respect the wishes of his family)
Michael Peterson was quietly eating breakfast with his mother Joan in their Tweed Heads unit when he suffered a major heart attack and died.
Family and friends quickly gathered at the family home through the day to pay their respects and say goodbye to one of the world’s great surfers.
“People are lining up to see Michael lying in state,” says close friend Andrew McKinnon. “I have talked to Joan. (Michael’s brother) Tom’s down in Victoria because he was heading to Bells. Michael was sitting down to breakfast and he had a sudden heart attack. It happened very suddenly.”
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.”
- Tim Baker
A private funeral and wake will be held in the next few days.
The Rip Curl Pro is dedicating the event to MP, a contest he won three times running. And the 40th annual Pa Bendall will pay tribute on the Sunshine Coast over Easter.
Kirra Surfriders Club is having a club round this Sunday and is hoping to hold it at Kirra. Surfers will wear black arm bands.
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