SignOn San  -- The Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Ageless wonder paddles 32 miles in 10 hours
By Terry Rodgers

August 28, 2000

Brian Zeller
La Jollan was
overall winner

Dylan Jones
Winner of
stock division

MANHATTAN BEACH -- Stubble-cheeked watermen with Tarzan physiques were choked with emotion as they watched him bravely paddle the final exhausting yards to the sandy shoreline.

The old man had not conquered the sea; no one can do that. But with guts and unbreakable resolve he'd endured the ocean's deceptive currents and slapping swells for more than 10 hours.

Mike Eaton, a 65-year-old surfing legend and great-grandfather from San Diego, received a hero's welcome yesterday after becoming the oldest paddleboard racer in history to cross from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier, a distance of 32 miles.

In the standings, Eaton's 10-hour, 4-minute marathon paddle was last among the 53 finishers of the Catalina Classic. But his courageous finish put him first in the hearts of hundreds who witnessed his record-breaking feat.

"This gives me goose bumps," said paddleboard racer Katie Kingerly of San Diego as she watched Eaton, her friend and mentor, approach the two red buoys that serve as the finish line.

The organizers of the race normally stop the event at 3 p.m., but they held it open an hour longer when word came from Eaton's support boat that he wasn't quitting.

Staggering ashore, Eaton looked like a Rottweiler that had just survived a hurricane. But, quickly sensing his accomplishment and the relief of completing what some call "the paddle race from hell," he broke into a grin as wide as the Coronado bridge.

"Mission accomplished," he said. "I did it, by God. I'm proud I did it."

When asked at which point in the race he knew he'd finish, Eaton shot back a quick response: "When I started."

The previous age-record holder was Bob Hogan, who started the Catalina Classic in 1955. Hogan, a paddleboarding legend, made the crossing five times. But his fastest personal record came in 1995 when, at age 63, he finished with a time of 7:44.

"It will be up to the historians to argue who's (age-record) standard is the best, Hogan's or Eaton's," said Craig Hummer, who was the beach announcer and commentator for the event.

Eaton, a surfboard shaper from Point Loma who also makes custom paddleboards -- a cross between a surfboard and a kayak -- wasn't the only San Diegan to turn in a stellar performance.

Two lifeguards -- one from San Diego and the other from Los Angeles County -- were the first-place finishers in this year's race, the 25th time the Catalina Classic, the premier paddleboard race in the United States, has been held.

The overall winner in the unlimited division (paddleboards of any length or weight) was Brian Zeller, 30, a lifeguard at Children's Pool in La Jolla. He finished in 5:29:57.

Zeller said his strategy was to stick as close as possible to Tim Gair, last year's winner who also set the record for the fastest time at 5:02. Gair, who has dominated the sport for the past three years, was the odds-on favorite.

In the first 10 miles, Gair and Zeller sprinted away from the rest of the top contenders. The two continued their duel into the 15-mile mark, when Zeller gradually took a 100-yard lead.

Gair eventually closed the gap and caught Zeller. Then, about seven miles from the finish, Zeller pulled ahead again.

"I didn't feel like I had a chance of winning it," said Zeller. "I expected him to come blasting past me at the last minute."

The winner of the stock division (boards no longer than 12 feet and at least 20 pounds) was Dylan Jones, 25, a Malibu-based surfer who spends his winters in San Diego as a student at UCSD.

Jones finished in 6:18:01.

Earlier this summer, Jones won the U.S. Paddleboard Championship, a 16-mile race from Cabrillo Beach to the Hermosa Beach pier; he also took first in the Tommy Zahn Memorial, a 12-mile race from Zuma Beach to Malibu.

"I felt strong," he said. "I didn't go out too hard at first. I just set my pace."

Equipped with a portable Global Positioning System (GPS) that gave him constant readings on his location and speed, Jones was able to maintain a pace of just under 5 mph for the entire race.

When he first felt fatigue, he doubled his effort.

"That's when the race is won," he said.

Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.