Eaton’s passing follows fellow shaper Becker’s, by just 7 days

by Kevin Cody

Pioneer surfer and surfboard shaper Mike Eaton passed away at his home from a stroke on the Big Island of Hawaii last Thursday, at the age of 86.

Eaton’s death came just seven days after his childhood friend, Big Island neighbor and fellow South Bay surfer and shaper Phil Becker died of cancer, at the age of 81.

Eaton built boards for many of the world’s top surfers, among them Australian Peter “PT” Townend, surfing’s first world champion.

“I owed a lot to Mike,” Townend said upon learning of Eaton’s death. “He befriended me during my first winter on the North Shore in ’72. giving me the 7-foot-10 Bing pink Colorflow that I rode to the finals of the Duke at Sunset that year.”

Eaton also shaped boards for another ‘70s world champion, Jeff Hackman, of Palos Verdes.

“Hackman was sponsored by Surfboards Hawaii, but he liked Eaton’s boards better, so he had Eaton ghost shape his boards,” recalled Tim Ritter, director of the Hennessey Series Paddleboard Races. Eaton was also a highly regarded paddleboard shaper.

“What set Mike Eaton and Phil Becker apart from other shapers was their perfect rails, which come from shaping thousands of boards,” said Mike Purpus, of Hermosa Beach, another top ranked professional surfer during the ‘70s.  

Becker was the most prolific shaper in surfing history. Eaton was only one or two shapers behind him. During their four decades-long careers, and before shaping machines, Becker shaped over 130,000 boards, and Eaton over 50,000 boards. 

Mike Eaton paddles a board he shaped to the finish of the 32 mile Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race in 2005, at age 70. Easy Reader file photo

Eaton and Becker were among the few pioneer shapers from the ’50s balsa board era to transition to the polyurethane longboard era in the ‘60s. And among the still fewer longboard era shapers to transition to the shortboard era in the ‘70s. Then, in the ’80s, Eaton and Becker led the resurgence in longboarding and also introduced the midsize “fun board.”

Eaton and Becker grew up across the street from one another in Palos Verdes. Eaton learned to swim and to surf from the legendary Tom Blake, inventor of the hollow “kook box’ paddleboard and the surfboard skeg. Blake taught swimming at the Palos Verdes Swim Club (now the Palos Verdes Beach and Athletic Club).

Eaton’s first board was a “kook box” built by his uncle. He attached bicycle wheels to an Army surplus stretcher so he could wheel the 75-pound board down the trail to Bluff Cove.

After graduating from Redondo Union High School, Eaton joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Santa Cruz. One evening, at a Greg Noll surf movie, he met Santa Cruz surfer Jack O’Neil. (O’Neil claims to have invented the modern, neoprene wetsuit, a claim also made by Redondo Beach Dive N’ Surf owners Bob and Bill Meistrell. Eaton gave the nod to the Meistrell twins.)

Eaton shaped his first, balsa surfboards in O’Neil’s basement.

After leaving the Navy in 1957, Eaton returned home to Palos Verdes, where he applied for a job at Marineland.

“They asked if I knew how to train porpoises. I said, ‘As well as anyone else.’”

“I had a small sailboat. I’d sail to work, from my home in Palos Verdes to the Marineland Pier,” Eaton said in an 2019 interview with Boardroom Films. 

Mike Eaton, at age 65, holds up the Oldest Finisher’s trophy following the 2000 Catalina Classic. With him are Gibby Gibson, who co-founded the race in 1955 and Buddy Bohn, who resurrected the race in 1982. The trophy was carved by Bob Hogan, who previously held the oldest finisher’s title. Hogan completed the Classic in 1995, at age 63, four decades after having co-founded the race with Gibson. Photo by Kevin Cody

In 1968, Becker asked Eaton to join him in shaping for Rick Surfboards. At the same time Eaton started shaping for Bing Surfboards. The two surfboard factories were across the street from one another on Cypress Avenue, in Hermosa Beach.

In 1972, Bing sold to Gordon and Smith in San Diego. Eaton moved south and continued shaping Bing Boards until he opened his own shop 1978.

When not shaping surfboards and surfing, Eaton shaped and raced paddleboards. 

“Even paddling for a few miles gets you out on the water and divorces you from civilization,” he told Easy Reader in a 2000 interview, after competing in the 32 mile Catalina Classic. He first paddled the Classic in 1995 with his friend Bob Hogan, who had founded the race in 1955. Eaton was 60 and Hogan 63. Eaton paddled the Classic a second time, in 2000, when he was 65 because he wanted to be the oldest Classic finisher. But a few years later Skip Connor completed the race at age 67. So in 2005, at age 70, Eaton entered the Classic a third time.

Water conditions were rough and Eaton finished last, among 53 paddlers  

When asked about finishing last, he answered from the perspective of a lifelong waterman: “There are only two positions in the Catalina Classic. First and finish, you can make anything you want out of the stuff in the middle.” ER

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Written by: Kevin Cody

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