Memories and Moments with Michael Peterson

Since learning about Michael Peterson’s death back in March, Phil and Paul have been working on this piece documenting some of the memories they have of MP from back in their competition days with some additional words from S.K. and Phil “Killer” Coates.

Michael Peterson

R.I.P. Michael Peterson. 24/07/1952 – 29/03/2012

Michael Peterson: He’s the best contest surfer
Phil, December, 1974 Breakaway Magazine
He Can Go out in any contest and get a tube, do re-entries, cutbacks, and manoeuvre his board anywhere.
Paul, December, 1974 Breakaway Magazine
1965-1968

I don’t believe it was our request, but mum and dad loved travelling to Queensland at Christmas, and the Tweed Heads Caravan Park became our go to spot for summer holidays. 9 to 10ft Ockanui’s were still in their heyday and Greenmount Point drew Qld’s best to its perfectly peeling off right handers. Michael Peterson, brother Tommy, Peter Townend and Rabbit were the groms we surfed with in the corner. Michael was about 13 and we were 2 to 3 years older. There were much better surfers in the water at this stage, Michael was the best junior we had seen, while Merrins’ shaper Jeff Arnold riding a distinctive union jack design noserider could hang ten effortlessly wave after wave.

On our next trip we picked up Michael (now 15) on his way to Merrin surfboards at South Tweed. He was excited about collecting a board and we were in the process of ordering 2 new customs for Peter and Phil a 9’3″ and a 9’. It wasn’t until 30 years later, that we found out the shaper and the best surfer at Cooli were one and the same, Jeff Arnold.

1969

We were booked into the Tweed Heads Park once again, however with dad asleep and 16 year old Phil driving too fast, our car and van failed to negotiate a corner in the N.S.W outback. We sold the van for $50 scrap and aborted the journey.

1971 Australian Surfing Titles, Bells Beach.

Good reports had been filtering down from Queensland on M.P’s surfing. We were spectating at the Aus surf titles down at Bells, when we bumped into him on the steps and wished him luck. Michael was 18 and without a doubt a superb athlete on his way to the top. He was riding a short full nose full tail surfboard (probably the same one he was riding in Morning of the Earth). The fin was huge (14”) and the design became a trendsetter for boardmakers like Dale Evans, Mick Marchants and John Jolly here on the Peninsula. MP was setting trends well before winning Bells in 72,73,and 74. But in 71 it was fellow Queenslanders Paul and Rick Neilson who placed 1st and 4th in the national titles, and I believe MP’s first trip down to Vic was with his sponsor of the time Joe Larkin, one of the most skilled craftsmen to ever breathe life into foam and fiberglass.

Phil – “In the early 70s Don Burford moved to QLD and started producing blanks. A smart move on his behalf was to get the top surfers/shapers to shape Burford Surfboards (which he originally produced in the 1960s in South Australia) – with M.P. included. He paid those surfers and shapers in foam – getting the Burford blanks into the market place. A great way to become established.”

1972 National Titles, Sydney, N.S.W.

At the Manly pub leading into the comp we meet Bobby Mills, once a very good surfer, nice effervescent funny guy unfortunately with some drug issues. Ted and I think he’s having us on with some pretty tall stories, until he produces his favourite surfboard which has been shaped and coloured to look just like a bottle of champagne. In today’s currency it would be a priceless collector’s item. Back in 72 our current glasser John Jolly was producing boards under the “Shady Hollow” label with Mick Pierce as shaper. John must have produced a magic looking board for Vic junior champ Kelly Pritchard, as before the comp started Michael Peterson took particular interest in it, picking it up and complementing the design. Shortly after he came back and asked Kelly, up until minutes ago a total stranger, if he could ride the board in his 1st heat. A gobsmacked Kelly naturally agreed and M.P. won the heat and rolled on to win his first Australian Title. In the coming years Mick Pierce was to caddy for Michael at Bells, but unlike others I don’t think MP ever lost his board. Phil and I bombed out early in Sydney’s small surf, but my nice 6’7” made it thru to the Junior final under the feet of Maurice Cole.

1973 Rip Curl Easter Bells

Perfect conditions with waves up to 12ft in the early rounds and its still around a solid 8ft for the final. One great moment for the spectators is watching the courageous Sammy Hawk pulling into a monster closeout barrel in the bowl, needless to say he didn’t come out. A large contingent of international surfers are competing but no one can match Midget Farrelly’s mastery of big wave surfing, not even the Hawaiians. Midget the master shaper had a kombi full of boards all the same narrow swallow tail, light yellow pigment and scaling up 3 inches at a time. He rode an 8’6” on day one surfing top to bottom on 12ft waves from very deep inside. Peterson and most of the others were limited by their equipment and sat wide on the shoulder. Phil and I are part of the judging team that is trialing a new points for maneuver system that suits surfers like M.P. Unfortunately Farrelly the leader after 2 rounds is as sick as a dog and on a dropping swell Michael in perpetual motion blitzes, milking every single point from the takeoff to the shore break. According to a reliable source (Mark Richards) he had a copy of the official points system taped to the dashboard in his car. MP is still 6 months away from his 21st birthday and for the next 3 years will dominate Australian surfing like none before him.

1973 Australian surfing titles at Margret River W.A.

The finals are held in 8 to 12 ft waves, but Michael hasn’t come back down from his Bells win and fails to feature. Our good mate from Narrabeen, Col Smith is the outstanding surfer of the contest but riding the smaller 8 footers opens the door for Richard Harvey to win. It proves once again that the best surfer doesn’t always win. Good wave selection is critical. Yours truly places 11th after dropping in on George Simpson of W.A on a nice clean 10 ft peak, a costly mistake even though it was my wave. The presentation is at the Yallingup pub, Ted and I are attempting to chat to everybody’s hero the great MP, something we can tell our kids about, but unfortunately he’s in-communicado so we move on to someone else who’s still on planet earth.

1974 Australian surfing titles on the Gold coast Q.L.D.

Prior to the comp we had fantastic surf on a bank 100m north of Greenmount point. M.P wasn’t to be seen, but he could have been at Burleigh where the final would eventually be held. Some of the locals were quite vocal in their disrespect for the interstate team members and it culminated with Bruce Raymond of N.S.W (the stuntman from Big Wednesday) letting go a haymaker as he cut back sharply on a guy twice his size. It could have become a bit ugly but luckily the big dufus backed off. I queried Bruce on his radical new move and he answered that as the big guy had threatened to punch his lights out on the beach, his best chance of survival was in the water. His co-pilot for the trip Steve Jones went on to win the Juniors.

Paul Trigger at Tallos

Paul at Tallo’s before the Aus Titles in 1974

Phil – “I had purchased a super 8 movie camera to film my kids when they were born and naturally started filming the Trigger Bros crew surfing in contests. At the 1974 contest I filmed MP pull into a massive Burleigh barrel and make the first few sections, which everyone thought he wasn’t going to make… After leaving the camera running to later measure the distance travelled in the tube, I discovered MP had emerged from at least a 10 second barrel all the way through the point and its various sections. Pretty incredible – but I guess that’s what he was so notorious for.”

AMCO Program from the 1974 Aus Titles

Day 1 of competition and not even Duranbah has rideable waves. So the Aussie titles travels to Tallos beach at Byron for 2ft shifting peaks. MP was moving around like a motor boat on a mission. I was told after the heat he’d taken half a dozen lefts while the rest of us struggled for a couple of very ordinary rides. Team Trigger had very good representation that year in the Vic squad with Ian Portingale, Phil and I in the Open. Ian Cochrane in the Juniors, Rob McCartney in the kneeboard division and Gail Couper in the Womens. Unfortunately most of us were eliminated after that first day south of the border and yes M.P went on to take another Aussie title 4 months shy of his 22nd birthday.

Paul-Ian-bikini

Paul and Cocky getting ready for the Aussie title assualt

 

1974 Rip Curl Easter Bells

Ted Bainbridge and I were on the Vic A.S.A. committee for a few years during the early 70’s. On a couple of occasions Rip Curl threatened to drop their sponsorship of the event because of rising costs. To their credit they always managed to hang in there, sometimes finding co sponsors like Surfblanks. Now no matter how much money is thrown at other Pro Events the Rip Curl has the history that will always see it as the number one.

This year a refined version of the points for maneuver system is used, but no matter how its run Peterson is still the early leader from round one through to the third and final round. The points are then accumulated.

Phil Trigger is placed 12th after two rounds and MP is still number one. The surf for the final round is Bells Beach classic 5’-8’ corduroy. MP shreds Bells once again to take his third straight Bells trophy and Phil puts on a stellar performance finishing in 5th position. Fellow Victorian John Law comes third.

Phil – “I was lucky enough to make the main event and after the first two rounds (where points were totalled on all waves ridden) MP was 1st and I was 12th. After the third and final round, I ended up 5th and MP still retained 1st place. I’d had heaps of hassles in earlier rounds, but never a problem with Michael – despite common theories that he was the best hassler of all time. I was a pretty good paddler too, so it’s impressive we never clashed.”

MP with the winners bell

Michael Peterson holding the classic Easter “Bells” winners trophy

 

The top 12 look pretty potent and Phil well and truly deserved his spot.

  1. Michael Peterson
  2. Peter Drouyn
  3. John Law
  4. Mark Warren
  5. Phil Trigger
  6. Mark Richards
  7. Wayne Bartholomew
  8. Ted Spencer
  9. Peter Townend
  10. Reno Abellira
  11. Richard Harvery
  12. Jeff Hakman
1975 Rip Curl Easter Bells

The surf was a really nice 6 foot with 8 foot sets. I drew an early heat with Michael and was paddling back out when he flashed by ripping it up. I was at least 30 meters in front and steaming back to the take off zone in the Bells bowl for an approaching set. I could sense MP sweating on me and then the pressure of his voice, “going this one?” “Nope”. The next wave loomed up as I tried desperately to maintain position. “Going this one?” he again yelled. “No”, and by inches I just managed to hang on and take the last marquee wave of that particular set. There’s one thing everyone agrees on, MP was the fastest paddler on the planet. The movie Searching for Michael Peterson has some fabulous footage of MP’s three wins at Bells. He’s in perpetual motion going into full cutbacks and coming out with just as much speed. In the barrel, off the top, a clear cut winner again in 75.

Points Listing

The scoring criteria sheet from Easter Bells 1975

1975 Australian Titles, Victoria Harbour, SA

Personally I can hardly recall seeing MP, but Peter Townend also from Coolangatta was larger than life. PT showed us his special hand made wetsuit boots that featured suction cup soap holders sewn into the sole. Ted and I became converts after a visit to the local hardware store. If anything they were a little bit too grippy. As with legropes the boots were banned from the comp within minutes of PT hitting the water. We also observed a new professional approach to contest surfing, as a young Mark Richards would be jogging down the road as we headed off for an early surf.

Phil – “Everyone was talking about MP as he was the surfer who was so far ahead of everyone else at that time – wondering if he’d show up or whatever. It didn’t look like he was going to turn up, until right at the last minute pre-heat he arrived in a taxi, wearing a black suit and carrying a briefcase. He’d obviously come from an important ‘business meeting’.”

The Victorian team waiting at the Rubbish Dump station for MP

The Victorian team waiting at the Rubbish Dump station for MP

 

1977 Oke Pro Comp, Phillip Island

The early rounds were held in solid 4-6ft waves at Woolami and then on a rising swell moved to Express Point, which was a conservative 8-10ft and clean with a light northerly breeze. (Rabbits book has a very good description of this comp and MP).

I paddled out for a pre comp surf on a brand new 6’6” board that Phil and I had hollowed out sections of in the inner core and replaced with ping pong balls. It was one of Phil Grace’s ideas to lighten up the craft. My first ride was a large 8’, where Hawaiian Pro Buzzy Kerbox dropped in and blocked me over the suck rock. Board and rider were obliterated and by the time I had rescued my new ocka it had a dozen gapping holes. Luckily for me Buzzy was also a starter in the first Quarter Final of the day, along with Rory Russel (Hawaii), Steven Hughes from Maroubra, Tommy Tirrell and five minutes after we left the shore out paddled MP. As we all caught waves Michael sat motionless on his board, literally not realizing who or where he was. Then with just seven minutes to go he started screaming, swearing and spinning around like a madman. It was scary at the time but upon reflection just a very sad moment for everyone that loved MP and his surfing. He paddled inside, grabbed a few 5-6 footers and by the cheers from the large crowd we knew the best tube rider in the world was getting barrelled off his brain. Rory Russel 1st, MP 2nd, Steve Hughes and Triggs equal 3rd and unfortunately Buzzy Kerbox was hassled back to a deserving last place.

This was to be the last time I ever saw MP, who at only 24 years of age had dominated Australian Surfing but was now spiralling out of control through drug abuse. There were just a few more brilliant moments like the ’78 Stubbies before his once shining light faded out.

Phil, 1979 National Titles, QLD

 “Like always, Bill Bolman (the contest director) was trying to clear the water and threatening all those who’d listen with expulsions and other penalties. MP was in the water (not competing), and Bill said “Michael Peterson you has been… GET OUT OF THE WATER” as he took off on a waist high wave along the sand at Snapper Rocks. I recall watching MP travel the length of the Snapper section with only the nose of his board visible from the tube. Ten years later at the Bells event, when I was interviewed and asked the best thing I’d ever seen surfing – I was quick to recall the ‘has-been’ wave at Snapper… apparently a few other guys interviewed said the same thing.”

The Michael Peterson biography and the documentary are well worth having a look at. If you have an old M.P. surfboard like the one below then keep it under lock and key as its most likely just become your most valuable asset. If you have any memorabilia that you would like to show off, send to paul@triggerbros.com.au. If need be you can remain anonymous.

Words by Paul and Phil Trigger

More recollections from our readers

S.K. – “I bought the board when I was a teenager. Now am 53, I chose It because it did look fantastic and I was a fan of MP. I remember it cost $300, which was a bloody fortune then. However I knew it was special. Besides it was about right for my dimensions. In terms of ride, for me it was difficult. The boards design I feel was for more experienced surfer. It had so much speed and was hard to control. Not a board for a beginner. That’s what I remember. It took me ages to work out its personality. That is the term I use when I relate to surfboards, to me they must have a personality. You must relate to what I mean. MP had a special personality even though I never met him. I thought the board would too. He seemed so far ahead of his time. The board reflected this to me. Besides the other boards in the shop looked like they could not take a trophy home. I had a tremendous time trying to ride it . It’s colors also reflected the 70s. It also attracted heaps of attention where ever I went. Today as well especially if I had gone to Bells recently. Many great/famous people wreck their lives in one way or another, at least some of us treasure their gift/skills/talents during the best time of their lives. His board takes me to another place & to another life when all was so carefree. Ah! All the memories.”

Kieth “Stretch” Bingham – “I never met him personally but I do have a vivid memory of being in the water with him at Kirra in the winter of 77. Back then when I was a bit younger and a little bit fitter I considered myself a reasonable paddler. As I was paddling back out after a wave I had the pleasure of watching MP surf past me deep in the barrel, then a couple of minutes later effortlessly steam past me out the back again against the notourious Kirra current. While the whole time I was just struggling to hold a position in the line-up. It was incredible.”

Phil “Killer” Coates – “It has been a hectic few days since departing Melbourne on Monday morning. Here are my memories of MP (I never saw any of his recent obituary in the press but did read the book by Sean Doherty “The Life of Michael Peterson” – that was a fascinating read at the time). It explained a lot to me about what mistakenly happened during those years to countless other surfers who were afflicted by drugs (especially the “First Reefers” we experienced first-hand) – yet really were clueless about the side affects of persistent drug usage. Which is very sad because the next decade lay waste to too many unsuspecting souls.

I have two very vivid memories of getting up close to MP, a few years apart:

My first encounter was in Autumn 1977 at the height of his incredible surfing prowess gazing out from the carpark at Woolami during the Allan Oke Memorial contest. I was only sixteen, a non- competitor though a keen on-looker like everyone else wanting to see MP who was reputed to be the best surfer in the world at the time. I hadn’t made it to Bells that year as I was only starting out on my surfing career, having the opportunity to see MP at Phillip Island was too good to be true. MP was sitting out the back behind some solid 6 foot left-hand close-outs and as soon as he paddled for a wave all eyes in the carpark were on him. It was only a short ride but he was distinctive in his full length black steamer and clear resin board. The wave was pretty unspectacular and Michael never really got going – I remember the surf being a clean 4-6 foot fanned by a moderate northerly breeze. Nothing special but the memory has stayed with me for the past 35 years!

The other occasion that I saw MP was while surfing on the Gold Coast at Snapper Rocks at the Australian Titles as a Junior in 1979. I was paddling out in a heat having earlier caught a lesser wave down to Rainbow Bay. MP free-surfing took-off in the middle of the contest area on a nicely shaped 4 foot wave, immediately there was this brilliance exhibited by a surfer whose reputation had proceeded itself (except, now a few years on it was felt to be in decline). Not so – MP slotted himself in the curl of that wave and rode the tube for as far as I could watch him, totally relaxed and at one with the place – now and then a little back foot stall to position himself deeper in the tube. Edging forward and back under the lip, never too deep to become stuck or too far out from the curl to get uncovered. It was vintage MP with his piercing look of concentration or crazed eyes. It was the best display of tube riding I had ever seen, he knew when and where to position himself and how the wave would carry him. I doubt for pure finesse that I have ever seen a comparable sized wave better tube ridden, it showed his incredible talent and the king that he was, no one rode the tube better than he did back then.”

Phil Coates Credentials

Victorian Championships

Junior Runner-up 1977
Junior Champion 1978 & 79
Open Men’s 1981 – First Place
Open Men’s 1982 – Runner-up
Open Men’s 1983 – First Place
5 times Victorian Schoolboys Champion (1974 to 78) and 4 times

PSC Open Men’s Champion (1980 to 83).

None of this would have been possible without all the great support Phil and Paul gave me on my “Trigger Brother” surfboards throughout that period – thanks again!