The rise and fall and rise of Tony Eltherington

Matt George
Swellnet Dispatch

The significance of Tony Eltherington is that he exists at all.

Eltherington, a fixture and a controller at Burleigh Heads for most of his young life, a media darling, enjoying a bevy of female fans due to his good looks, quit contests at the height of his competitive powers back in the 70’s, turned his back on Burleigh and completely immersed himself into the Indonesian boat captain lifestyle.

Australian surfers are renown for their Indonesian exploration and adventures and mayhem, but none more than Tony Eltherington, who took the Australian credo of “Have a go” as far as anyone could take it.

The following is a timeline of the extraordinary sequence of events that has indelibly woven him into the very fabric of the Australian and Indonesian surfing history.

1956: Tony Raymond Eltherington is born a butchers son at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Despite the spanking, Eltherington, breathing normally, does not cry.  

1960: Possessing a preternatural skill at the helm of the family sailboat, at four years old Eltherington is recognised by most citizens of Southport as one of the best sailor/navigators in town. A skill he would maintain all his life.

1963: Dodging sharks after school on a 10 foot Balsa surfboard, seven year old old Eltherington is now paddling down his backyard creek, out into the ocean, then a mile south to the Southport beach breaks to surf and then back home in time for dinner. Doctors warn his parents about the unnatural width and power of Eltherington’s shoulders for a boy his age.

1967: At eleven years old, Eltherington is fighting his way into the lineup at Burleigh Heads. He is surfing elbow to elbow with grown-ups Michael Petersen, Peter Drouyn, Paul Neilsen, Keith Paul, Wayne Deane, Dick Van Straalen and world champion to be, Rabbit Bartholomew. Eltherington is so good a surfer that he is deemed exempt from the traditional hazing of young surfers and is treated as a peer.

1968: Eltherington, now twelve, enters his first contest at Duranbah surfing against fifteen year olds. He wins a case of Coca-Cola.

1969: The Doris Day show, a global television phenomenom, is number one in the world, as is Day’s long standing pop hit 'Que Sera, Sera'. Eltherington, with a shock of blond hair, good looks and a love for the song, is given the nickname 'Doris' by Paul Neilsen. It sticks for the rest of Eltherington’s life. However, Eltherington gets his comeuppance when he nicknames the older Nielsen 'Smelly'. It also sticks for life.

1970: Eltherington, fifteen, chops up an old longboard and shapes his first surfboard with cooking utensils from his mother’s kitchen. The board is so beautiful he is not punished. Six years later Eltherington’s shapes are in high demand at the pre-eminent Brother’s Neilsen Gold Coast surf shop. He is paid six dollars per shape.

1972: On Christmas Eve, a sixteen year old Eltherington quits school, hitchhikes 4,347 kilometres to Western Australia and talks his way into a slot in the Australian Titles contest at Margaret River. The surf is huge. He loses his first heat against Mark Richards and almost drowns. But Eltherington, a goofyfoot, discovers the joys of going left for the first time in his life. He then hitchikes 4,347 kilometres home to the Gold Coast and receives a hero's welcome.  

1974: Ridden with tropical ailments, older legend Bobby Knight returns to the Gold Coast from Bali with tales of phantasmic lefthand waves. With immediate dreams to surf the place, eighteen year old Eltherington supplements his shaping income by washing dishes, fixing dings, and mowing lawns. Eltherington also takes time out to win the Queensland state titles.

1975: Eltherington, nineteen, wins the Queensland state titles for the second year in a row and leaves that night for Bali. With Bobby Knight, they hide their surfboards in a canoe, disguise themselves as fisherman to get past the surfers at Kuta Reef and proceed to surf the Bukit alone. A lifelong love affair with Indonesia is born. Filming for Hoole McCoy's Tubular Swells, surfing a red, 6’6” Lightning Bolt stinger design, Eltherington becomes a global surfing icon of flying blond hair and deep tubes.

1976: Surfing on his backhand, Eltherington, now twenty, easily defeats his regularfoot heroes Michael Petersen and Rabbit Bartholomew in competition at Burleigh Heads. He becomes depressed by the act.

(Photo Matt George)

1979: Eltherington defeats his demigod Wayne Lynch at Bells Beach. His depression is so complete this time that he skips the rest of the contest.

1981: Eltherington, now a Bali and North Shore veteran at twenty five years old, with a seventh place finish at the Pipeline Masters and global respect, builds his own 36 foot cutter sailboat. For the next nine years he sails and surfs the Great Barrier reef, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, New Guinea, and points beyond…alone. He develops unsurpassed navigational skills.

1983: Skeptically married, daughter Taryn is born. The pride of Eltherington’s life. Eltherington continues to sail and surf alone for the next seven years, tuning his perfect wave, gun surfboards to what Dick Van Straalen calls “a Stradivarius level”. Not for the timid, Eltherington’s wicked looking boards are also impossibly thin and narrow, due to his otherworldly paddling abilities.

1994: Acrimoniously divorced, Eltherington opens a surf shop and with a new girlfriend has two more children, Jarrah and Madeline. Also the pride of his life. The surf shop does great. The relationship does not.

1998: Married to his girlfriend now, Eltherington sails with her and the kids to Grajagan to "live and surf in peace”. Terrified of jungle life, his wife kidnaps the kids and escapes without a word under the cover of night. Citing the need for his children’s “proper Western education”,  Eltherington does not pursue.

1998-2003: Eltherington embarks on a boozy, almighty, very public tear through Indonesia and Bali. It culiminates in a 2003 motorcycle crash that crushes his lower jaw and skull and almost takes his life. After a painful recovery, Eltherington gives up drinking and turns his thoughts toward exotic salvage work.

2003: In Benoa Harbor, Bali, an astonished Martin Daly meets a very sober Eltherington who is hard at work at salvage. On impulse, Daly offers Eltherington a job skippering one of his new Mentawai surf charter fleet. Eltherington accepts. On the flight that night to Padang, Daly, well aware of Eltherington’s past behavior, is overheard saying, “I think I just made the biggest mistake of my life”.

2011: For the next nine years Eltherington splits his time between faithful, impeccable service with Daly’s world famous fleet and reconnecting with his children. The highlights of Eltherington’s service with Daly include dynamic aid work after the 2004 tsunami and surfing with Wayne Lynch again. To whom Tony, after thirty years of guilt, was able to apologise to for defeating him at Bells Beach in 1979. The two become fast friends.

2012: Eltherington buys a 65 foot surf charter boat, names it the Raja Wali, and maps out a two-fold plan: to offer surf charters to a “discrete and discerning clientele, who may be interested in Indonesian surfing”, and to work in co-ordination with an associate’s hospital plane to form a non-profit maritime/aviation aid operation throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

April 18th, 2013: On a local surf charter, South African surfer Brett Archibald falls overboard at 2:15am in the middle of the Mentawai Strait. He is not discovered missing until late the next morning. The Mentawai charter fleet is mobilised for search and rescue. But after some hours, Archibald is given up for lost. Tony Eltherington, skippering his boat, refuses to lose hope. Using his local knowledge of the waters and currents, Eltherington finds Archibald after his 27 hour ordeal of treading water surrounded by sharks. Australian media declares Eltherington a national hero for his, “Miraculous needle in a haystack rescue”.

Today, Tony Eltherington’s charter business is thriving. When asked what he's been doing Tony replies, “I’m just surfing, chartering, and spending time with my children, mate. I think I have finally found complete happiness”.

//MATT GEORGE

Comments

dandandan's picture
dandandan's picture
dandandan commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 3:21pm

I read this a few years ago in a Magic Wave or some other Indo based mag. It was accompanied with some wonderful photos of Doris surfing some big, beautiful waves and some of his incredibly refined surfboards. Love it.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 3:38pm

Whilst most keyboards have a capital key, Matt George's obviously has a hyperbole / poetic licence / embellishment/ utterly fanciful bullshit key that it appears , Mr George is unable to disable from its continued distortion of any topic he chooses to discus.

No doubt Mr Eltherington's achievements are extraordinary and he seems like a straight up fella from what little time I've spent with him, but please - do we really need Matt George's obsession with deifying every character in surfing to gain an insight into the man ?

Doris sleeps.....Like an angel.

PS Best of luck to you Mr Eltherington. Got to admire those that follow their hearts.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 6:33pm

Tubular Swells was a Hoole and McCoy film, I believe.

Laurie McGinness

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 6:53pm

Fuck, of course it is. How did that slip through?

Thanks for the heads up BB.

abc-od's picture
abc-od's picture
abc-od commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 6:44pm

I dont mind the George brothers in small, irregular doses, but it's really a style from another age. More specifically, before the internet when surf magazines and their editors backslapped anything and anyone that was pro surf, and slapped down anyone who questioned otherwise.

Still, I'll take this small dose and raise it in a toast to Doris. Keep on sailin'.

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 7:32pm

Shared quite a few beers with Doris in the Mentawai's he is quite the character a true salty sea dog, he is like Indo's Keith Richards, he also has quite an appetite for the Indo girls.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 7:56pm

Im not really in a position to indulge my appetites , but Ive got to admit a definite appreciation of Indonesian woman.

How could you not ?

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 10:07am

Well yeah my wife Javanese.

I was just trying to put it in nice words somehow his on-land lifestyle :D

lapuntadelfin's picture
lapuntadelfin's picture
lapuntadelfin commented Thursday, 27 Apr 2017 at 10:28pm

Whilst we are fact checking, Doris was not "skippering his boat" when Archibald was found. He was skippering the Barrenjoey, a boat owned and operated by John and Belinda McGroder. A detail that in no way diminishes his effort in finding that guy alive.

MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 8:28am

I also heard that the South African guy who was rescued by the Barrenjoey crew later wrote a book about it, did a few TV interviews and made some $$$ out of it but did not compensate or reward any of the Barrenjoey crew. Great work to Doris and the Barrenjoey crew for finding the guy

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 8:48am
saltman's picture
saltman's picture
saltman commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 4:46pm

saffa by nature

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 1:54am

"1998: Married to his girlfriend now, Eltherington sails with her and the kids to Grajagan to "live and surf in peace”. Terrified of jungle life, his wife kidnaps the kids and escapes without a word under the cover of night. Citing the need for his children’s “proper Western education”, Eltherington does not pursue."(Unquote )

Im certain that this occured previous to 1998 . I was on his boat in g.land june "98 , so was Peter Crawford , Haha !

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 5:31am

Sounds as though the story has a few holes in it.......glug glug glug.......

simba

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 11:16am

Is this story also printed in surfers journal ?
It was over a year ago think i read a similar article.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 11:18am

Yep. Though there were a few changes.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 3:47pm

2014:
"The Waterman of the Year Award was won by Tony ‘Doris’ Eltherington following his miracle rescue of South African surfer Brett Archibald, who had fallen overboard off Indonesia and considered lost at sea.
Eltherington, who pioneered surfing in many parts of Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean and is synonymous with the surf charter industry, also won the Peter Troy Lifestyle Award for the person who has given their life over to surfing and in doing so has enriched the surfing culture around him."
http://www.goldcoastbulletin.com.au/sport/local-sport/gold-coast-photogr...

https://www.surfingaustralia.com/p/previous-awards-winners

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 7:32pm

1990: two surfers come in from onshore 3ft slop at Scarborough with a battered single fin. "Piece of shit, I couldn't snap it." "Ah, throw it in the bin." A scrawny teen in a mate's borrowed diving wetsuit overhears, and says, "I'll have it!" A first surfboard is attained, for free. The teen's mates dub it 'The Beast', and the number of the beast is 6'6". It is a Brothers Nielsen White Pointer, shaped by Tony Eltherington. Pretty soon, it's paddling into solid juice Down South. It paddles in early, and the tight pintail holds into the power and the barrelly sections. The teen grows older, and keeps coming back to the board.

2014: another teen calls out "Dad, give me a go of it!" and the two swap boards, handing leggies over as they float out the back. Leggie attached, he paddles around in a quiet lineup full of friends on Tony's creation. He paddles in, and rides a right down the line.
"What do you think?" the father asks.
"Goes pretty good."

Thank you, Tony.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Friday, 28 Apr 2017 at 8:43pm

Nice

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Saturday, 29 Apr 2017 at 8:38am

A worthy addition to the story VJ. 

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Monday, 1 May 2017 at 9:40am

Got to know an expat on the Bukit this year who runs a great little Warung in Padang Padang called Cempaka (his Balinese wife is a great cook). He was telling me Tony rolls up every now and again gets plastered and takes over the place - all in good humour. Many can't handle him as he is unwieldy and old school once he has had a few (look at the jugs on that one they are sensational to which she replied... they are aren' they) with a few Bintangs under his belt, but Justin thought he was hilarious. Real old Aussie Dinosaur amongst the zillion brazilians which is another topic. Apparently one of the Arab flyers did a deal that if you can get 5 people together you get a ticket from Rio return for $2,500 - $500 each. I think you can guess the rest.

evosurfer's picture
evosurfer's picture
evosurfer commented Monday, 1 May 2017 at 2:32pm

I can confirm the Bukit is flooded with Brazzos 9 out of 10 surfers out Ulus
are them just out of control. They sure are making the most of return $500
tickets. Can also confirm that Cempaka has great food.

IF im not surfing im racing

seaguts's picture
seaguts's picture
seaguts commented Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 5:43pm

Snuck out of benoa in pacific streets at midnight surfed deserts at 6 to 8 with 4 guys for 2 days .They broke the mould .

Bjs