Sean Doherty on 'MP Untold'

Stu Nettle
Talking Heads

content_mp_untold_print_2_.jpegIn 2004 Sean Doherty wrote MP: The life of Michael Peterson, and while Sean would be the first to deny it's a definitive account of MP - in fact he says so below - it quickly became one of the surfing world's greatest books. MP is a must read, particularly for Australian surfers, and one that constantly ranks high whenever the 'best surf books' discussion happens around forums or campfires.

MP was Sean's first book. Since then he's written nine more, the latest being MP Untold, a collection of stories about Peterson told by his family and friends. Where the original biography kept a narrow focus, MP Untold widens its scope, inviting others to partake in the storytelling. As Doherty says, MP was "so deliberately absent from even the most key moments of his life, that those around him could fill that vacuum as they pleased."

In MP Untold, that void - or at least part of it - is filled by those closest to him.

Swellnet spoke to Sean about MP Untold.

Swellnet: What’s the genesis of MP Untold? Did you seek these new stories or did they seek you?
Sean Doherty: There were a number of forces at work I suppose. In the years after the initial biography was published, wherever I’d travel on the Australian coast I’d be pulled aside by some ol’ pirate with a schooner who’d recount an outrageous Michael Peterson story, and I soon became convinced there was this great armada of material still floating out there on the high seas.

Secondly, I think the first book asked more questions than it answered. The day before it went to print - it’d missed six deadlines by this stage - Mrs. P sat me down, poured herself a glass of red, and dropped the bombshell about Michael’s father. That revelation kinda shifted the ground under the whole story, but there wasn’t the time to explore exactly how before the book printed. That really gnawed at me.

And I suppose the final point where the book crystallised was at Michael’s funeral. I looked around the room and realised I didn’t know three-quarters of the people there and it dawned on me there was reason for that. They lived, as it turned out, in quiet corners of the coast and were shapers or tradies or they shared a few of Michael’s more exotic habits, but few of them had anything to do with pro surfing. In fact, Michael escaped the claustrophobia of pro surfing by hanging with these people, and as a result they knew someone very different to MP the surf star.

If he were alive, would MP have allowed these tales to be told?
I don’t think he would have been doing backflips over it, put it that way. He barely tolerated me doing it first time around. And the characters I tracked down for the book were largely the keepers of his secrets, so even though Michael died three years ago some of them still lived by his Omerta. They knew Michael wouldn’t want them talking so they didn’t. The real story of Michael and Owl Chapman’s infamous road trip to Phillip Island in 1977 will never be told. Owl made that pretty clear to me in the Sunset car park late one afternoon.

The first story is both tragic and hilarious, can you tell us any more of that anecdote?
A couple of years before he died, Michael and his mum went back to the old boarding house in Brisbane where she was assaulted and Michael conceived. The house is abandoned but still standing. Michael had of course known about his origins since he was a teenager but it never seemed to be a source of darkness for him. On the contrary. He wasn’t happy when Mrs. P let the secret out for the original book, but when he had a DNA test a couple of years before he died and the results came back that his father was of Italian origin, he turned to his Mum and chuckled and asked her to cook him some spaghetti.

If one thing shines through in this new book it’s Michael’s wicked, dark sense of humour, something only his close friends and family ever saw.

There are a few Rashomon moments, accounts that differ between story tellers. What were your thoughts when first made aware of this?
I know, there were a couple of accounts that clearly seemed to have happened on neighbouring planets, but I loved that. It speaks about the nature of memory, how it’s edited and what bits hit the floor and what bits stick, and what bits are spliced in at a later date. And Michael was a fantastic study in living mythology. He was so deliberately absent from even the most key moments of his life, that those around him could fill that vacuum as they pleased and so you end up with all these colourful and often conflicting accounts and this wild, wild mythology.

After he passed away I regretted not trying to hear more of Michael’s story from Michael himself, but eventually I realised the beauty of Michael’s story is that there is no definitive account, and now there never will be. Good luck debunking anything.

Impressive effort getting stories from Peter Crawford! Supernatural even…
I sat on the headland at Dee Why Point with an Ouija board… plus I had an old cassette of an interview Mick Mock had done back in ’99.

Malcolm Knox gives a wonderful intro. His book, The Life, which gives a fictionalised account of MP, seems more pertinent now considering the issues he broaches are the myths of MP, the investment in his legacy, and the effect it all had on the man. MP Untold approaches the same subjects but from a different angle. How do you think the three books - your original biography, The Life, and now MP Untold - relate to each other?
I think they all try and venture into the Great Unknown of MP in their own way. The original biography followed the crumbs and mapped Michael’s life from beginning to end. It was largely a what, where and when. He’d been missing for most of his adult life so it was largely a historical reconstruction. The new book is a lot more about why and who. As an oral history it’s got more room to explore what made Michael tick. The real unknown however was what was going on inside Michael’s mind, how he saw the world, and, I suppose, all the other worlds spinning behind his sunglasses with his schizophrenia. Malcolm boldly went there. I think the common thing is that all three inherently acknowledge they were doomed to fail in their own ways. It’s like paddling for the horizon. The harder you try to understand Michael Peterson the further he gets away from you. I’m sure he’s laughing at us somewhere. He could never understand all the fuss everyone made over him, and his favourite line to his mum when they talked about it was, “And they thought I was mad!” 

MP Untold is on sale now and can be bought online.

Comments

waxer's picture
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waxer commented Monday, 3 Aug 2015 at 1:58pm

I believe that if you were around and surfing, when MP was in his prime, and had the opportunity to be in the surf with him (lets say Kirra off it's tits at 10foot) then it will remain an experience that few ever experience. Each of the many pros in those days, were incredible to watch up close and personal, but MP was "our Man" and he was pretty special. Sadly his demons short changed him, and we are left with just memories.
RIP

jimbrown's picture
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jimbrown commented Monday, 3 Aug 2015 at 2:34pm

Waxer it sounds like you are fortunate enough to have your own stories involving MP. Any incredible moments from out in the surf that you can share, any that particularly stick?

waxer's picture
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waxer commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 8:06am

Bit like the comments from the article. I grew up on the Goldy, and like many of my mates, we all have lots of special memories of MP, as well as quite a few other very talented guys that simply chose not to compete. But this article is about the man. One simple example of MP that is more about the man than his surfing, is ...... I remember one morning that we knew D Bah would be going off. So myself and several others made sure we would be in the water as the sun came up. It was pretty big and heavy, and we were just getting to work out which peak was best, and as we slowly began to see out the back, and there was MP, way out the back ripping up the left out in front of the groin. No legrope, and no one else, and God knows how long he had been out there. That poor wave was being shredded to bits. We couldn't believe it.

udo's picture
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udo commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 8:13am

Waxer, would have loved to have witnessed that session ..........just like when you were first to surf Lagundri bay Nias in 1972 ....reckon youre up to writing a short story about being the first there ?

waxer's picture
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waxer commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 4:05pm

I doubt i was the first to surf Nias, but i did have it to myself, and it was magic. Also went to many of the other islands and of course the reefs off shore. Those were the good old days.
Not keen on talking too much about myself. More comfortable talking in positive tones about great talented people like MP.

udo's picture
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udo commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 4:45pm

Waxer - 1972 you mentioned so you were definetly the first...3 years before Kevin Lovett and John Geisel.

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waxer commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 7:30pm

Owen Wright's dad Rob, is an old friend who insists he surfed Nias before me. I am pretty confident that there are many more intrepid travelling surfers that also had the luxury to surf this special place as well before it became famous.
it's really not important, who was first, but the simple fact that the wave is somewhat special. I see photos now and it's like totally crazy. When it's like that i would rather move to another location. Crowds and me do not get on well.

udo's picture
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udo commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 7:40pm

Would you and Owens dad mind editing the Wikipedia page on lagundri Bay...seems its incorrect
Got any old box brownie pics from the 72 trip ?

waxer's picture
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waxer commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 1:55pm

Looking for my old pics already. Unfortunately my ex spat the dummy over all my surfing memorabilia, and destroyed a lot of my pics. But hey ho, i still had a few things stashed away, and will put anything i find up for all to enjoy.

fitzfoo61's picture
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fitzfoo61 commented Thursday, 29 Oct 2020 at 9:28am

Hi Udo you mentioned Kevin Lovett in your comment.If It was the kneeboarding man from W.A would you have any idea where he may be these days.I used shape boards for Kevin many years ago and lost touch.Would love to touch base with him, really nice guy and helped me heaps in my early Indo days..
Got To surf with MP quite a few times in the early eighties at Kirra, but one session at pumping Angourie lives with me forever, 4-5’, mid week, 4 out,,and that day I really learnt to ride a barrel.Watching his style,positioning,where he was focussed on in the barrel(primarily the lip at the shoulder) was just gold.What a surfer, what a man....Thanks

Foodini

finback's picture
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finback commented Monday, 3 Aug 2015 at 5:16pm

Went to Dymocks and purchased the book this morning. Great layout, recounts and pictures/letters/medical records re MP. Another book to add to my 35+ collection and share with friends. Only ever had one book not returned (Dora) as Monty lost it moving house but he gave me one of his new release books ( Random Rogues and Ratbag Tales) about 5 years ago. Thanks Sean for recording surf tales for the younger and future generations of surfers.

saurusv1's picture
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saurusv1 commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 9:41am

I worked with Michael at Goodtime surfboards (Kirra) in the 70's and surfed Kirra with him a lot. I had lived at Byron for a while so one big swell day I talked them into coming down to Lennox - myself, Brian (Furry) Austen, Bill Penrue and Michael went down and ran into Keith (Paull) on the road between Lennox and Broken Head. It was a good 10 foot maybe the sets bigger than that, I was riding a 7'6 Wilderness gun I had borowed, Furry was on a 7'3, Bill on a 6'6 or thereabouts and Michael was riding a 6'4. It was barrelling through the inside and myself and Furry were getting through fairly easy on the bigger boards, Michael showed just how good he was by surfing extremely good using equipment that was not suited to the conditions, he was forever pushing the board and while he didn't make a few the display was unforgettable. Funny thing Keith was off his head and just stood up while paddling up the face of one set wave, fell off and had to swim all the way in - no leggies in those days!!

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penmister commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 12:17pm

Keep em coming doherty....can read about mp all day..

wally's picture
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wally commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 5:08pm

Nice photo previously published on Coastalwatch.

L-R: Andrew McKinnon, Joan Peterson, MP, Larry Bertlemann, Rabbit and PT, seated.

I saw MP free surfing quite a few times on the Gold Coast during the 70's. He was the best at the time. One day, I was wandering along up to the pointy end of Snapper Rocks and I saw MP was surfing the rare Snapper left. 4 foot faces, MP the only one surfing this rare little left. I sat down on the sand to watch. MP was mainly doing little rail moves before ducking into the closeout tubes. The odd thing was, I would look for him to pop up in the foam, but he would be 4 metres behind the wave paddling back out. I couldn't work out he was doing the island pullout in these tight little closeouts. He was special.

waxer's picture
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waxer commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 6:31pm

Not sure who thought of it first, but MP was a master at it. When the section in front of you is closing out he would literally point his nose into the base of the wave and pop out the back as easy as that. Takes a bit of practice, and really only works when your surfing a wave as hollow as Kirra. Once mastered it is a really cool part of your repitoir.

enso's picture
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enso commented Tuesday, 4 Aug 2015 at 9:34pm

Got stuck in the green room at Kirra 6 - 8 ft and perfect - 1973, Huey rolling me around on Gaia's sand, smiling from ear to ear I was, with gold tops everything was alive. I couldn't understand why their was only 1/2 a dozen surfing. I was a grommet from down south, I had never seen anyone scratch the ocean like this guy MP. Awesome!Awesome!Awesome!

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Coops70 commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 7:19am

Love these stories and can't wait to read the book, you guys were lucky to have had those experiences.

saurusv1's picture
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saurusv1 commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 10:48am

Regarding the last paragraph in the 1st question (Swellnet - Doherty) yes, Michael did only hang around with the local blokes although he was a bit of a loner and hung with his girlfriends a lot.
That photo has blown me away, in the 70's he had no time for PT, Rabbit or any of the Burleigh / Surfers Paradise blokes although I think they would have liked to be mates with him. I would love to know what he was thinking in that photo - being in the company of the enemy!
Working with him for several years enabled me to see what made him tick and I think the fact that he hated some of the other surfers of his ilk is what drove him, out in the water he would hardly acknowledge anyone, he was just so heavily focussed on getting the very best waves and smoking everyone.
I remember that whistle that warned anyone thinking of taking off/dropping in that he was a'coming so don't even think about it

blindboy's picture
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blindboy commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 11:13am

I remember a lot of surfers at that time who had very negative views of Michael particularly in terms of his drug use and the fact that he was never going to fit the clean cut image that they were so keen to promote. I would specifically exclude the surfers in that photo, Andrew, PT and Rabbit, from that comment as I spent quite a bit of time with all three when Michael was at his peak and I cannot recall a negative comment from any of them. I also remember that there were quite a few surfers who Michael got on very well with. Russell Lewis comes to mind. My own best memory of Michael is being dropped in on by him as he tried to grab a couple of warm up waves at Bells one morning and the way he so sincerely apologised and explained why he did it......I never got that from the quite long list of other very respectable pros of that generation who at one time or another pulled serious drop ins on me!

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memlasurf commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 2:02pm

Have things changed much BB? Seems to be par for course these days.

saurusv1's picture
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saurusv1 commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 11:40am

Agree that those 3 guys never made a negative comment re Michael, my view is the dislike was all from him, like I said I believe that mindset is what he used to drive him to be so focussed and competitive. Also agree he was well mannered.

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spiggy topes commented Wednesday, 5 Aug 2015 at 2:00pm

I worked with PT in 76 and from the time we first met he was always full of praise for Michael Peterson's abilities and pioneering techniques and shaping. At his funeral, a clearly deeply emotional PT said he had tried to get MP back in the water many times but he just wouldn't do it. He wouldn't surf again because he knew he could never again be the best. And he only ever wanted to be the best surfer in the water, wherever that was. I suspect there was very little separating MP the surfer and MP the man. It was MP the surfer who gave him his most desirable identity - inscrutable, unmatchable, legendary.

pigdogger's picture
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pigdogger commented Thursday, 6 Aug 2015 at 9:08am

Really enjoyed the first book, so I expect this one will hit the mark, too. I only ever spoke with MP twice once as recounted here (from when I was learning how to surf Kirra on my backhand) and once after he was out of gaol and hanging with Wayne Murphy (Mull Man in the book - Moleman as we knew him) and Ray Manicaros at, I think, the Shaping Company at South Tweed.
From the summer of 1978/79: I remember some crazy surfs with the fin pushed way forwards in the fin box. Skittering down the face of the wave in the pig-dog stance, waiting for the rail and fin to grab, then it was up the face, then angling down. MP once paddled up to me after I was annihilated on an 8ft-plus Big Groyne keg. “I bet that made you think?” he asked – I took it as a compliment. I will never forget the sight and sound experience of seeing MP out there – he’d be whistling, deep inside the barrel, he was gone, surely. Then he’d invariably emerge from a seemingly impossible position riding his crazy multi winged beast. Moments later he’d be back in the line up after paddling 100 metres wide of the raging south to north rip, he had the Eye of the Tiger, and he paddled fast – now that was a valuable lesson to learn about surfing Kirra.

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Gazman commented Saturday, 8 Aug 2015 at 7:38am

I am from the Sunshine Coast and was lucky enough to surf with MP and watch him many times from 74 to when he stopped surfing, he was my Idol and I watched him closely, like most other young grommies at the time, Peter Harris and Dave McDonald,were the 2 that looked like him surfing, MP was one of the fastest paddlers of anyone in QLD and after Surfing with him at Widows on Straddie I knew he was the ultimate surfer,we got to see his backhand attack at perfect 6ft Main Beach that weekend, just awesome to watch,we got to see him on the Sunny Coast at the Pa Bendall, which he won in 75/6 , 1975 being the year he pulled his Fang or Spaceship board out, everyones mouths dropped to the ground when we saw it.I was also lucky to be there at Kirra I was a Junior at the time in the Qld Titles and we surged Burliegh on Sat and it got to big to surf it so they moved to Kirra, 10ft boomersMP was in his element and in the Final got the First 10 I had seen, he dropped into a groyne suckout and somehow made it to hoots of all of us in and around the shelter shed, he got 2 more barrels on that wave surfed it to the beach ran up and jumped on the bonnet of a mates car and got drven to Greenmount, paddled across the bay and got another groynside bomb.Such a legend, I will never forget him or his surfing, I have a few other great stories of those wonderful years with the QLD team. YOH.

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tworules commented Sunday, 9 Aug 2015 at 7:26pm

mp,s boards were unreal. Found the first one, 6'4 tear drop in amongst MR's twin fins in hunter street.MR didn't seem too impressed with the sale.Only board to take me through knardly's out the point in a cyclone swell.full on. Second from Gail Austen's Goodtimes, almost a kneeboard, put a kneeboard fin in the finbox, trying to get that cutback out peggies, oh yeah. 3rd a flyer swallow tail in a surf shop in Eden on the way down to Bells.Surfing good bells on a MP is unreal.Still got it in the rafters. Didn't see much of his surfing, except one 6' Kirra shore dump where he seemed phased and was coming in.He took off into a backhand bottom turn, straight up into the best backhand re-entry off the lip I have ever seen to land effortlessly back on earth.Glad I didn't have to deal with him!

udo's picture
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udo commented Sunday, 9 Aug 2015 at 8:10pm

Can you get it out from the rafters and take a pic or three ?

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toneranger commented Sunday, 9 Aug 2015 at 9:41pm

mate and i had driven up from vicco around '74 and were mainly surfing burliegh.drove around to kirra one afternoon ,3-4 ft and no one out.couldn't get out quick enough but about half way out encountered plague proportions of blue bottles,but tried soldiering on anyway,until my mate face planted one on a wipeout.came in and were drying off when another car pulls up next us at the carpark.M.P. gets out,flashes us a grin,paddles out and proceeds to rip the bag out it.god,it was like a live surf movie.anyway,he sprints around to go out again and he had a camera around his neck.i kid u not,as he got barrelled he was turning around taking photos,and we were the only ones in the carpark looking at it.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Sunday, 9 Aug 2015 at 10:16pm

Hey Tone, there's a story in the book, can't remember who tells it, about MP taking photos of his back foot while surfing. From memory, he wanted to understand how water flowed off the board. There's even one of the photos in the book.

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surfing-cronulla commented Sunday, 6 Mar 2016 at 8:17pm

Ray Henderson sent me a copy of a pic from Tracks, MP on his Ski Free, shows back foot and tail.
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=514330661934869&set=o.4584113441...

stunet wrote:

Hey Tone, there's a story in the book, can't remember who tells it, about MP taking photos of his back foot while surfing. From memory, he wanted to understand how water flowed off the board. There's even one of the photos in the book.

tworules's picture
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tworules commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 8:43am

Udo wanna raise the devil?

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 8:57am

He's not the only one, Two Rules. Get 'er down.

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fartpaddler commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 9:29am

just arrived at work to find my copy of mp untold sitting here on my desk....
opened the packaging, did a quick flick, looks unreal.....

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Blowin commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 2:12pm

Just scanned it at the airport.

Paid for it about 30 seconds later.

Looks awesome.

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toneranger commented Monday, 10 Aug 2015 at 5:42pm

thanks for the confirmation stu.i read the first book,so i'll have to buy the second just to check that photo

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fartpaddler commented Tuesday, 18 Aug 2015 at 12:19pm

have been reading this gem and loving it.....
I must say, I've never really had role models, but this guy is as close as an 'idol' as I have ever had, I'm a bit in awe of him and i'm not sure why...maybe its the ghostly mysterio aura he seemed to have that has grabbed me?
I can just see his legend growing and growing....
off topic, I read a bit last night and in one of the stories somebody (cant remember who) mentioned that he 'still uses MP's padding technique to this day'.....anybody familiar with this 'technique'? why it was special? why he was such a paddling machine? I know he had long arms....

udo's picture
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udo commented Tuesday, 18 Aug 2015 at 2:37pm

Got an idea that his paddling technique is similar to the Nick Carroll technique , any one read NCs correct paddling book ?

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velocityjohnno commented Tuesday, 18 Aug 2015 at 2:31pm

Thank you everyone for the wonderful tales. Michael was a competitive middle distance swimming champion I think, fartpaddler; that will have helped.

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wally commented Tuesday, 18 Aug 2015 at 8:38pm

Paddling.
I remember Jeff Hakman talking about when Rabbit and MP and other Gold Coast surfers arrived on the North Shore. And Hakman was known as Mr. Muscle, so he would not have been a paddling slouch.
He said these guys were unbelievable paddlers and just got so many waves. There seemed to be a lot of burning going on. But Hakman said, on the North Shore you normally paddle out and wait, it wasn't until Hakman lived on the Gold Coast and experienced the common heavy sweep, that he realised why these Gold Coast blokes were such exceptional paddlers.

udo's picture
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udo commented Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020 at 10:21pm

The Undisputed King of Kirra

udo's picture
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udo commented Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020 at 10:23pm

The Undisputed King of Kirra.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxWpiTmqpKw

dr-surf's picture
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dr-surf commented Thursday, 29 Oct 2020 at 8:23am

MP was Outstanding. But to me what Seperated Him from mere Mortals was his ability to Catch the Cresting Wave on the Outer Banks at Duranbah. His Paddling was So Elite he could Paddle On and Carve the Face of the Unbroken wave until it Moved Onto the Inner Banks. MP Waited until the Last Moment to Ultimately Go Left or Right in the Barrel Zone. No One Else could do it. Simple.