Ed Sinnott’s memoir of the great Michael Peterson, MP in the early 1980’s down in Merimbula on the South Coast of NSW.
Michael Peterson with one of his radical surfboards called the ‘moon-rocket’.
Photo Steve Cooney
Steve Cooney products available at www.switch-foot.com or buy Steve Cooney’s DVD Ulu-32 at wavejammer.com
Michael Peterson set the surfing world on fire in the 1970s and was by far the most outstanding competitor of this era. The image of MP frozen in mid-cutback at Kirra in Alby Falzon’s classic surf movie, Morning of the Earth remains one of surfing’s most famous images. By 1972, Peterson was Australian champion, and over the next three years, he won every major surf contest held in Australia, including the inaugural 2SM/Coca-Cola Surfabout (1974) and the Bells Beach Easter event three times in a row (1973-’75).
He was a free spirited and dynamic surfer who set the standards for the birth of pro surfing’s world tour, even winning its first official event, the Stubbies Classic at Burleigh Heads in March 1977. MP exploits are legendary and Ed Sinnott had the luck to work, live and surf with him down in Merimbula on the Victorian border in the early 80s, Here is his story.
Pictured left to right, Ed Sinnott, Michael Peterson, Paul Winter, Tom Storey & Noel Gibson. (Pambula 1981). Photo Marion Jackson Boag.
“In 1981 Simon Anderson had won at Huge Bells on the first thruster the world had ever seen. Terry Richardson who worked with me at Skipp surfboards in Wollongong had come third and was on the hunt for some Hawaiian guns for the upcoming season. I was shaping Terry’s twin fin models was for our wholesale markets and he suggested a trip down to Merimbula to get some Guns hand-shaped by MP. Mick and his brother Tommy were living down as well as some mates of ours from Towradgi, Paul Winter, Noel Gibson and Tom Storey. I had seen Mick surfing at some of the contests and like every other Australian surfer in that era was blown away by his persona.”
“To me and thousands of other young Australian surfers MP was a surfing buccaneer, a rebel insurgent against normality and the king of all the pirates who defied convention and lived beyond the boundaries of everyday society.”
Michael Peterson Surfboards Logo Design.
Mick had made a clean break from all the madness on the Gold coast and was shaping boards under the Wintersun label as well as his own on the far south coast. Terry and I surfed Dolphin point at Ulladulla on the way by ourselves in the rain exploring the good force of nature. We watched the dark clouds blowing in from the south and knew a big swell was coming. We hit the highway and counted down the kilometers listening to the Rolling Stones till we arrived in Pambula where the Wintersun showroom was situated.
When we got there we waited around for MP to arrive, then suddenly this Ford 351 roars into the dirt car-park and screeches to holt in a blaze of rocks and dust. When the dust cleared I could see a shadowy figure low in the seat laughing with black aviator sunglass on that were reflecting our images back at us. Mick stepped out of the car smiling and shuffled towards us. Here he was 28 years old drug free, clean and in his prime physically. By today’s standards as a pro surfer he was only beginning; back then it felt you would retire at thirty.
Morning of the Earth. Pic Falzon. DVD available in store. Or go to Albert Falzon’s website www.morningoftheearth.net
The time out of competitive surfing hadn’t changed him much he still looked like the lean and super fit paddling machine we all knew. Heroin had taken its toll with him mentally though and the undiagnosed schizophrenia he was suffering from only added to his creative abstract edge. We didn’t know any different other than this was Mick Peterson the best surfer of our generation and he had the aura of a supernatural being. Thus began an amazing two and half year period of working and surfing with him. I travelled back and forward from Wollongong a lot; sometimes with my partner at the time Marion and daughters Conie and Keone; sometimes I went alone. Most of the time I stayed on Paul Winter’s farm on the Bombala Rd at Wyndham where Mick lived.
Paul had a Falcon ute and we would throw our boards in every morning and head off down the dirt road to surf wherever the waves where the best, Leonard’s Island, Pinnacles, Haycocks or the Bar if it was cranking. MP loved to drive and he always drove one hundred miles an hour flat out, sitting low in the seat black aviators on with one hand coolly gripping wheel. I will always have an image of him etched in my mind overtaking at a furious pace and speeding towards oncoming trucks in the wrong lane, with me terrified gripping the dash while MP grinned from ear to ear saying “Don’t worry I’m a city slicker boys” and swerving at the last second to avoid instant death. Whew it was heavy!!!
MP in the Albert Falzon’s ground breaking film “Morning of the Earth” DVD available in store. Or go to Albert Falzon’s website www.morningoftheearth.net
Mick drove like he surfed. He had an extremely fast paddling style and surfed relentlessly doing nonstop carving turns which he powered with a dynamite psyche. When we got to the beach I used to thank god for getting us there in one piece. Richo would be straight out there and I wasn’t far behind him. Mick would walk dragging his board by the nose in the sand huge arms wrapped around his fin looking around taking it real easy but it was all a ploy. We would be paddling like blazes to get out there but as soon as Mick hit the water wham he was on fire! Arms like pistons paddling out the back in a flash then coming strait at you before throwing a ton of saltwater in your face as he’d go screaming past you gouging the face in a massive cutback arms held aloft triumphantly.
Richo was riding thrusters because it wasn’t long after Bells, but Mick wouldn’t have a bar of it. He was riding red bottomed concave singles with his little trade mark MP hook fin right on the tail. He had me spray the ace of spades on the deck because he said he was the ace. Mick told me hated thrusters and twin fins because he was a power surfer and spun them out. He said
“those new thruster things can’t hold me in the water I’m the original power surfer, big back foot you know, and the things got to hold in the barrel none of this spinning around for me .Ha ha ha”!
I loved his boards and he was light years ahead of others in that department as far as his bottom shapes went. Here we had a case of one of the planets best surfers fine tuning his own equipment. The concaves he had in his boards at that time were very similar to today’s thrusters, they were built for speed. A lot of other shapers were doing rolled vee bottoms at that time but not Michael. He’d spend hours sanding his board and fin till it was just right. His shaping style was something else, blessed with a great eye he would simply measure the length and width then draw the curves out before attacking the blank with a planer. Mick would shape at a frantic pace just like he surfed and drove. There would be foam flying everywhere; the sound of the planer getting buried at full cut with the ball bearings screaming. Then it was all over, forty five minutes later there would be a Peterson original ready to glass.
We worked in an old dairy high on a hill on the Eden road overlooking the backwaters of Pambula River that was converted into the Wintersun surfboard factory. It was the full Morning of the Earth vibe and I loved it. The cows would come over and stick there heads through the window while we were at it. Tommy, MPs little brother was also shaping there at the time and he was an even faster shaper than Mick was and much more radical. Tom is a fun loving guy and a great surfer who always had me in stitches with his stories about the exploits him and Michael got up to growing up in Coolangatta. They certainly had a love hate relationship from what I saw but Tom always had Michael’s best interests at heart.
Michael Peterson genius Surfer and mysterious man. Photo Dan Merkel. For Merkel photographs contact www.danmerkelmedia.com or surfline.com
Tommy was shaping these little 5’6’’ step bottom fishes that had belly channels leading into the fins. They were so different to the mainstream, but they went ballistic. His boards look like the ones Rasta rides today or a fish with the nose pulled in. Tommy was ahead of the pack and he was already onto the fish revolution back then. Tom Curran eventually grabbed one of these Fireball fishes and gained a huge amount of exposure for the design. So much in fact that you could say that the Tom Peterson was in many ways a catalyst for the resurgence of the fish design worldwide. Both Tom and Michael had a huge influence on my shaping career, in that I was never afraid to experiment or try new things. I would just simply do it because as Tom said
“it’s all about the feel you get when you surf; different designs are just different feelings you adjust to”.
The way the Peterson brothers used a hand planer so confidently to carve out a blank into a surfboard was something else, they were both so fast at it and accurate. In those days there were no pre shapes like today we did everything by hand the “old way”. It really was a great learning curve for me and helped me get to the stage as a production shaper in the eighties where I could hand-shape up to eight or nine boards a day if a had to. Terry Richardson was also a great shaper, he used to run around the shaping bay all day when he was off the tour and knock out ten or eleven. That era was something else and you had to be part of it to understand the work ethic. These days shapers only scrape away at a pre-shape basically sanding the lines out; in those days we designed the whole board every time we picked up a planer.
Mp Look back re-entry Pic by Dick Hoole. For Dick Hoole products contact www.switch-foot.com
Living out on the Bombala Rd with Mick and Paul Winter was great. Mick was into his health food stage at that time and I would awake in the morning to the sound of the blender going ballistic. Mick would get up climb the mulberry tree then deposit the contents into the blender along with apple pieces, brewers yeast, fish oil, heaps of vitamin pills, yogurt and whatever else was available. Then he would swallow the lot. Mick swore by his health elixir. My daughter Keone who had just started walking would steal his mulberries and you would hear him going “hey kid bring them back”. It was hilarious. Mick had also got hold of a set of acupuncture needles from somewhere and practiced on himself all the time. He had big acupuncture charts in his room on the wall showing all the points for the entire body. It seemed far out but whatever works and it did for him.
At night we would all hang out on the farm where Mick would always have me and Marion drawing pictures for his boards or for the sails of his windsurfer. I remember drawing teradactyles, sharks, eagles and monsters and having loads of fun in the process.
Michael had theories about everything he would tell us about how we all need to live on mountains to survive the tsunamis that was coming and how surfers were the strongest and fittest people on planet earth.
He also told me that he thought the majority of Australian people were alcoholics who were destroying themselves and their livers.”Yeah they’ve all got cirrhosis how can they surf being like that”! Mick wasn’t a drinker. He said that’s how he dominated for so long and that he had a one track mind for winning.
Mp Tube Style, Pic by Dick Hoole. For Dick Hoole products contact switch-foot.com
I spent a lot of time in working at the factory with just me and Mick. One day I found out we shared the same birthday the twenty-fourth of September it blew us out. He used to freak out about the old woman down the hill who would light fires in her farmhouse everyday to cook. He used to say to me “..shes willing me , she’s trying to get to me.” Mick’s paranoia was something we all knew about but it seemed to be getting more severe. Sometimes he would disappear for days on end and no one knew where he went.
One day in 1983 I think it was we had gone surfing at Haycocks beach early in the morning and got some great waves. Mick was on fire and on the top of his game as far as surfing goes. When we went to work I noticed he was a lot more agitated than usual and sweating profusely. He started spinning out about the woman in the farmhouse and the fire she had , and then told me he was going to drive to Coolangatta which was eighteen hours north. It was the last time I ever saw him as I stood in the field watching his car disappear in a swirling cloud of dust flying down the dirt track in the morning sun.
All I know is that not long after this I heard the shit had hit the fan in Queensland where all these police had pursued Mick in a high speed chase which resulted in his arrest and incarceration in the Bogga Road jail and then in a mental health facility. He hasn’t surfed since. I still wonder if that surf we had was his last. Who Knows? The legacy of Michael Peterson lives on and my interaction with him was a fascinating insight into a flawed genius.
In 1981 when I met Michael, Neviile Wran was the Premier of N.S.W, the film Puberty Blues had just been released and the song Ant Music by Adam and the Ants was number one right around Australia. Raiders of The Lost Ark was the top movie, Britney Spears was born and the legendary Bob Marley died. The Parramatta Eels defeat the Newtown Jets 20-11† to win the 74th NSWRL premiership. It is also the first premiership for the Parramatta Eels, who had been trying to win one since 1947. Fans celebrate by burning down the main grandstand of the Cumberland Oval, which was due to be demolished. Oh yeah, Ronald Reagan got shot and survived. Life goes on.
Written by Ed Sinnott