The rise and fall and rise of Tony Eltherington
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”.