For the past eleven days the eyes of the surfing world have, again, been focused on Australia's Gold Coast. Every year the whole WCT circus awakens from it's annual break, raises it's sleepy head and then lurches into another ten month contest schedule, escorted in by black tie awards ceremonies and party after celebrity party, as though contestants don't need any sleep. It's a very…"Goldie"… start to the year.
Whilst the World Tour rightly works it's way to a climactic conclusion in Hawaii, it also seems appropriate that it kicks off on the Gold Coast; a fitting recognition of the relentless output of world class contest surfers that this so competitive of surfing regions produces. One of the first to fly that flag was Michael Peterson, who passed away last March.
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 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"
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 the Gold Coast since, and his legacy is evident when you watch them surf against the rest of the best on their home turf every March.