People, Surf cultureThe Enigmatic Michael Peterson 

-Words by Mat Arney, images by Mat Arney & film by Jolyon Hoff

Australia as a nation is incredibly reliable when it comes to producing world-class competitive surfers; so far in 2016 they’re two for two on home shores, and they’ve a rich history when it comes to winners on the waves. Amongst their ranks of iconic and highly decorated surfers the story of the enigmatic Michael Peterson, who passed away in March 2012 at the age of 59, is perhaps one of the most compelling.

MP bridged the gap between the shortboard revolution of the late sixties and the competitive era of the late seventies, burning twice as bright for half as long. He was an iconic and revolutionary surfer as famous for his intuitive barrel riding as he was for his full-rail carves and developed a reputation as a ferocious and calculating competitor before surfing had really figured out how to function as a sport.

“He just seemed to paddle faster than everyone else and do more manoeuvres than everyone else. Michael was unstoppable in the era when they counted every wave you caught and it was points for manoeuvres”
4 x World Champion, Mark Richards

Behind the natural ability and calculated competition tactics, however, was a morbidly shy individual who struggled to handle the celebrity status that his surfing ability generated. He was awkward and uncomfortable when surrounded by people on land, only really coming to life when alone in the ocean. Between 1973 and 1975 MP won every professional contest going in Australia, including three consecutive Bells titles, and seemed unstoppable until a dangerous combination of drug abuse and serious mental illness started to unravel his grip on normality. After winning the 1977 Stubbies event at Burliegh in front of twenty thousand spectators, Peterson accepted the five grand cheque and all-but disappeared. His subsequent fall from the top of professional surfing was fast and dramatic: he became a recluse, reportedly alternating between periods of drug abuse and abstinence, before an incident in August of 1983 that became known in the Australian surfing community as “The Chase”. Following a hundred mile car chase involving twenty five police cars that ended on a Brisbane bridge with him claiming that he’d outrun “the aliens”, MP was jailed and then institutionalised before later being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He stopped surfing and for the next twenty years he was cared for by his mother, far away from the magnifying glass of the surf media. His instant disappearance from the public eye fed the legend of MP:

“MP’s now been infused with this haze of nostalgia, y’know, the brilliant surfer who was a bad guy and all that sort of thing. And it’s convenient to see him from that point of view, but in the early seventies he actually freakin’ existed…he was like the Black Wizard of surfing in Australia”
Nick Carroll

Painted on the exterior wall of a restaurant that overlooks Burleigh Point on the Gold Coast there was for a long time, and I hope still is, a stencil of Michael Peterson. He’s leaning back on the wall, looking exhausted and rattled. It’s a portrait of a fragile yet brilliant man who was, sadly, unable to function completely normally when taken out of his comfort zone deep inside the spinning blue tubes of the Gold Coast’s sandy points. MP’s ability and style was a flash of inspiration – no matter how brief – for the legions of great surfers that have come out of Australia since, and his legacy is evident when you watch them surf against the rest of the best on their home turf every March and April.