There’s a photo of a young Mike Eaton at Palos Verdes Cove in cutoffs, with a wooden surfboard. Nothing special about that except the shot was taken in 1948, and the board is a twin-fin, and, to my knowledge the first photo of a board with multiple fins in existence.
Without reading the caption on the photo, I could easily pick out Eaton by that canary that swallowed the cat grin he forever wore.
Twenty-one years after Mike posed with that pioneering design, he helped launch a revolution by making twin-fins under the Bing Surfboards label. One of those boards that helped set everything in motion was one made for the 1969 World Surfing Champion, Rolf Aurness.
Eaton was not the originator of any significant design, but he was the one who brought both the twin-fin and the Campbell Brothers’ Bonzer to the fore. And Mike was an advanced board builder, a great surfer, especially in waves over 10 feet, a long-distance paddler and someone admired by everyone who knew him.
I am saddened to use the past tense in describing him, but longtime Eaton friend, admirer and protégé Peter Townend, a former World Surfing Champion, just informed me of the passing.
While Mike and I didn’t see each other often, I always relished our time together, and he always made me feel like I was a special friend to him.
We first met when I interviewed him for a surfing magazine. A few weeks later he called to take me for a ride in the hotrod he built. Next, he took me up in the glider he built. The last time we hung out for any length of time was when he offered to take me surfing on a new Bonzer he was working on. He loaned me one of those boards and we traded waves for a few hours at Sunset Cliffs.
It was a calm summer day with a somewhat junky 3- to 4-foot swell running when he and I and his friend, Ace, showed up to ride an empty peak. He was well into his 60s by then, but possessed the stoke and agility of a teenager, scampering down the rocks, paddling out and quickly dropping into a wave before Ace and I were even in the lineup.
It didn’t seem to matter to him if he was riding a wave or if it was one of us, he seemed to enjoy every second in the water.
I don’t think I ever saw Eaton when he wasn’t revealing stoke through his omnipresent smile. This, I believe, came from a deep well of childlike curiosity that kept him forever exploring the newness of life. His brilliant mind was aided by his love of knowledge and a humility that allowed others to take center stage.
Mike Eaton had seen surfboards go from wood to foam to short, to multi-finned, to concave bottoms and to long again. As the world changed around him, he kept pace with or led the charge into the next phase. At this writing, I don’t have any of the details on cause of death or arrangements for a paddle-out to celebrate his life.
I know many of you out there will want to be present to say aloha to a man who has influenced us all in so many ways. I’ll let you know as soon as I know.
The surfing world has lost one of its greatest practitioners and the world in general is a sadder place without the one and only Mike Eaton smiling at us and letting us know everything will be okay.