The Life

17 May 2012 0 Share


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Illustrations by Nanda Ormond
Story from Surfing World Magazine - Issue 326 

Birth – 1952

On September 24, Michael is born a healthy nine pounds and eight ounces to Joan Philp, a humble young woman living and working in a Catholic refuge. His father is unknown but Michael later takes the name Peterson from Sid, his non-providing stepfather and the father of his brother, Tommy.

Adolescence – 1967

Michael enrolls at Miami High where he picks up a job shaping at the nearby Hohensee Surfboards during lunchtimes. He’s the first kid to grow his hair long at the school and develops both a cult-like status among his peers and a shyness for their adulation, saying to his brother Tommy, “...your friends, they’ll bring you undone, it’s no good having them.”

Grom Years

After living from house to farm to tent for a few years, Joan is fed up and moves the family back to Tweed Heads permanently. Michael and Tommy become members of the Greenmount Surf Club where they spend their days terrorising the beach and learning to surf on anything they can get their hands on.

Bellbird Flats – 1967

The Peterson family moves into Bellbird, a modest two-storey wooden shack in Tweed St, Coolangatta. He and Tommy set up a shaping factory underneath, nearly burning the place down on occasion. Their cutting down and reshaping of old longboards unknowingly plays a part in the shortboard revolution. Upon leaving school he would shape for Joe Larkin.

Rising Star – 1970

After winning the juniors at Bells, Michael tells his brother he is going to beat everyone. Why? “Because I beat Wayne Lynch at Bells.” Nat Young catches his first sight of MP one day at Lennox Head and recognises him as the kid who would take his place in Australian surfing. “I remember seeing this kid doing the same sort of thing I was doing, but doing it with more power,” said Nat later. “He was on fire, and it was really something to see.”

Drugs – 1971

A regular cannabis smoker, Michael begins to dabble in LSD and is often seen leaning against the wall at local nightclub, the Patch. Never drinking, always wearing his trademark Aviator sunglasses and rarely socialising with anyone. Local police focus their attention towards surfers and Michael is arrested for possession and supply of marijuana, receiving a $500 fine.

The CutbacK – 1971

Coolangatta experiences a freakish 12 continuous weeks of swell that rarely dips below head height. It’s golden age Kirra. A young Albe Falzon sets up his camera and turns it to Michael, whose surfing from the session becomes a three-minute sequence in the revered, Morning of The Earth. A screenshot from the film lands him the cover of Tracks in July the next year. “The Cutback” would become the most famous image in Australian Surfing.

Morning of The Earth – 1972

On the 10th of January Joan drives Michael to the premiere of Morning Of The Earth at the Miami High School hall but, fearing the attention, he doesn’t go inside and instead makes Joan drive him home again. The film screens nationally and in America and is a giant success, establishing MP as a cult figure in surf culture around the world.

The World Champs, San Diego – 1972

Michael wins the Australian Title at North Narrabeen and gains a place in the Australian team for the World Championships in San Diego. He arrives at the airport days after his 20th birthday ready for America in a suit befitting Liberace but once in San Diego the contest turns to mayhem with more action taking place at the hotel than in the water. American devotees leave a growing pile of contraband by the door of MP’s hotel room.

The Bells – 1973

Michael wins Bells utilising the new judging system, which awards points-per-manoeuvre. MP tapes the list of manoeuvres to his dashboard and studies it. He relishes the new system stating, “I just didn’t stop moving. I even zigged and zagged between my zigs and zags.” His acceptance speech at the Torquay Hotel is just six words, “I’d just like to thank everyone.”

The North Shore – 1972

Rabbit and MP break away from the Australian team at the World Championships and jump a flight to Hawaii. They sleep underneath the palm trees at Rocky Point for a few nights until rain sends them onto Sam Hawke and Owl Chapman’s verandah. The duo take the Australian vagabonds under their wings and introduce them to Hawaiian life as well as big Sunset and Pipe. Mick stays on for three months writing letters home for money.

The North Shore Part 2 – 1973

A growing confidence on Hawaii’s bigger stage sees MP surf Sunset from behind the peak like Kirra, and posts the highest wave score of the Hang Ten contest. But he clashes with local Ben Aipa who punches his fins out after an MP drop in. His confidence on the North Shore never reaches the same bravado as home and he writes to his Mum pleading for a plane ticket home.

Unbeatable – 1974

Michael has a stellar year of competition on home soil, winning the three biggest competitions in the country – Bells, the Coke Surfabout (the world’s richest surfing contest of the time), and the Australian title. He pays his mother back for the endless series of airfares, fines and donations by buying her a lounge suite from Biggs & Sons at Coolangatta.

The White Lady – 1975/76

Queensland police effectively sweep all but the faintest smell of cannabis out of Coolangatta leaving a drug vacuum that floods with heroin. Much of the surf community gets hooked, including Michael who is too afraid of needles to shoot up and snorts it instead. In the same period he finishes 9th in the Coke Surfabout. It is the first Australian pro contest in three years that he hasn’t won.

MP Surfboards – 1974

Michael opens Michael Peterson Surfboards with a factory in Currumbin and a shop opposite Kirra Beach. Despite an unending demand for surfboards, his tendency to shape designs only he can ride (like The Moonrocket – a six-channelled triple-flyered pintail), and a habit of borrowing from his own till means a short lifespan for the business.

The Stubbies – 1977

In the grips of heroin addicition and dealing with the demons of undiagnosed schizophrenia, Michael wins the 77 Stubbies in front of 25,000 at Burleigh. It’s the first man-on-man competition and the sign of a new era of professional surfing, but it is the last hurrah for the great MP. After repaying some “bills” he gives his mother the remaining $2000 for a deposit on a unit in Kirra.

The Roadtrip – 1977

Having not been in the ocean since the Stubbies final a month prior, MP embarks on a road trip to the Alan Oke Memorial contest on Phillip Island with spiritual brother, Owl Chapman. In a journey reminiscent of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, the pair take a week, three cars and a couple of hours in various police lockups to get to their destination. He arrives at the contest looking dishevelled and no longer the competitive threat he once was.

The Chase – 1983

While sleeping in his car on the way to a windsurfing competition in Noosa, a police car drives past and sets MP into a panic. He leads police on a 30-minute car chase from Beenleigh to Brisbane. Like something out of a Hollywood movie it takes 20 police cars and a road block at the Story Bridge for it to end. He is arrested for dangerous driving and is sentenced to a year’s jail.

Darkness – late 70s, early 80s

Michael is rarely seen surfing. He moves to Merimbula on the NSW South Coast and takes up windsurfing. His presence though, as Rabbit says later, is still felt in Coolangatta. “In those next three, four years, he was scary. He’d sit up the top of Duranbah hill, just sit in his car, this brooding energy, it was seriously like looking at Darth Vader sitting in his car. He gave off that sort of vibe, and it was heavy. We didn’t realise he was sick.”

Recluse – 1983-2012

After serving time in Boggo Road jail and Waycol psychiatric hospital he is finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, receiving medication and shock therapy before being released to care facilities and eventually into the care of his mother. For the next 30 years he lives as a semi- recluse, appearing occasionally at surf functions but most often in just the company of his close family. He never surfs again.

Tags: surfingworld , surfing , world , magazine , Michael Peterson , mp (create Alert from these tags)

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