He walked out of the surf somewhere down the coast near Merimbula one day in 1983, donned his aviator sunglasses, threw his board in the car, and drove north in a bottle-green ’66 Falcon to a date with destiny on Brisbane’s Story Bridge. He never set foot in the water again. The tempest that had been brewing inside for years was about to break.
Michael Peterson the man, meanwhile, lived on, succumbing peacefully in late March in the arms of his loving mother, Joan. The ocean paid homage to a favorite son, to Joan’s “beautiful boy.” On the day of his funeral, over 1,200 miles of coastline between Noosa and Bells was firing. It was 6-foot and behind the rock at Snapper, and even Big Groyne Kirra was having flashbacks. Down at Bells, where Michael had won three times, they’d devoted the event to his memory. An hour after the Final, a storm front rolled in across the adjacent farmland and ripped the contest site apart. The road into Bells had been lined with cyclone fencing adorned with the images of every past Bells winner, and they were strewn like a pack of cards. Young, Richards, Curren, Occhilupo, and Slater were all scattered to the wind and lay face down in the scrub. There was only one image left standing. For MP believers, who have spent the past 30 years searching for such things, it was a sign.
MP and Michael Peterson were very different entities, although if you looked hard enough there were faint hints of one in the other. MP was the stage name. Michael Peterson was the man. MP was the most incandescent surfer Australia has ever produced, a guy with surfing coursing white-hot through his veins, a guy whose aura attracted loyal disciples in every corner of the Australian coast. Michael Peterson, meanwhile, was the gentle giant who lived reclusively Syd Barrett-style with his mother in a Tweed Heads council flat, a fragile schizophrenic who sat beneath a mango tree at the end of the street every morning and communed happily with the voices in his head. A guy who, if you could believe it, had years before—in another life—been the best surfer in the world.
I never knew MP. Never even saw him surf, but in Australia that doesn’t matter. Growing up as a surfer you’re infused with his talismanic legend. Hushed incantations are offered to supernatural surfing feats, stories are still told about the day MP rolled into town and surfed the local pointbreak like it’s never been surfed since, tall tales spun about his darker exploits and manic episodes. The Australian coastline positively echoes with them still today.
I never knew MP, but I met Michael Peterson. And when tasked with stringing together a narrative of his life, I knew detangling the man from the legend would be the prime directive. The two certainly looked different. Meeting Michael in the flesh for the first time was like having the curtain drawn back in the Emerald City and seeing the omnipotent Wizard of Oz suddenly standing there in all his human frailty. Summoned from his bedroom by his mother,
One day, I walked in just before lunch to talk Hawaii with Michael. I took my customary position at the Formica kitchen table and rolled the tape. It was slow going, and he took a couple of unexplained but clearly procedural walks around the perimeter of the backyard, a hangover from years of institutionalization. Joan told Michael she was going to Burger King to get lunch, and Michael promptly ordered a hamburger, large fries, and a Coke. Joan disappeared out the front door. Michael and I were talking about the time Ben Aipa punched his fins out at Sunset in 1973, but it was clear he was somewhere else. His eyes darted side-to-side, always a dead giveaway that there’s other business afoot. The keys crunched in the ignition and Joan reversed out of the driveway. I was mid-sentence when he wordlessly got up, walked past me, and out the back door. I was invisible. He peered over the back fence and watched his mother drive off down the road. He returned with purpose, straight into his bedroom. I heard furniture being moved and pondered what sort of contraband he’d hidden from Joan in there. He emerged seconds later with a fat spliff and the backyard was soon engulfed in smoke. Intrigued, I watched as he took a small garden trowel and buried the roach carefully in the far corner of the flowerbed. He ghosted back inside, straight past me, and into the bathroom. I heard the sound of teeth being brushed, deodorant being sprayed, hands being washed. The bathroom door opened just as the car pulled into the driveway. Michael shuffled into his chair just as the front door opened. He took up the Ben Aipa story exactly where he left it as Joan walked into the room. He locked eyes with me for half a second, offered a knowing look and a chuckle under his breath, and that’s when I saw him. MP. It was masterful.
Michael Peterson remembered the day MP died—August 10, 1983. The previous night he’d famously been arrested after a car chase that ended on the Story Bridge in Brisbane. The cops got him, but by then he’d outrun the Martians he claimed were chasing him. The police tore the car apart looking for the drugs, but there were none. Michael’s paranoia had finally caught up with him, and he was dragged off to Boggo Road Jail, a diagnosis and treatment still six months away. “They closed the road off and it stopped right there,” recalled Michael of that night. “Straight off to Boggo Road. I didn’t know what I was doing. I dunno…It was weird that night on the road. There was no one on the road; that’s what was weird. I thought it was a setup to get me. They gave it to me at the cop shop. Really gave it to me. I kept my cool and they put me in the cell overnight. The next morning they took me to Boggo Road. I liked it in Boggo Road; away from drugs, away from women, away from sex, away from surfing. It was good. It was what I needed. Away from the pressure, it was another world in jail. I wasn’t MP anymore. That’s what I wanted. It ended all that high pressure. I needed a break from it all. I liked it ’cause you got three meals a day and coffee, good coffee. They knew me as Michael, they didn’t know me as MP, and I played along with that. Pressure’s what you got to beat; jail never worried me. If you think like that, it doesn’t worry you. But that was the end of my surfing career right there. That was the end of MP.”
Michael Peterson died just a few feet away from the kitchen table where we’d sat and talked for two years. This time around it would be the man whose life would be celebrated, not just his legend. For 30 years the MP legend has been romanticized, stylized, and embellished to the point where it has taken on its own life. MP will be perpetuated in a cacophony of extraordinary tales—stories of prodigious feats in the water and dark mischief on land, some of them bullshit and some impossibly true. Michael’s family and close friends, meanwhile, will remember Michael Peterson, the man who lived through it all. A shy and vulnerable young man who, in the right company, was warm, engaging, and funny. They’ll speak of a haunted genius who spent 30 years running from the fame his surfing prowess generated. They’ll speak of a fish out of water. They’ll speak of Michael, not MP.