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78-year-old will race with 6 other Ski to Sea newbies

Charlie Eaton, of Seattle, is canoeist on veteran division team

Charlie Eaton
Charlie Eaton (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)
By Jaya Flanary Digital Editor/Designer

When teammates from Oldies But New-Bees gathered for the first time on April 23, canoeist Charlie Eaton, 78, was the oldest participant registered for this year’s Ski to Sea race.

One day later, a 79-year-old signed up.

But Eaton’s fellow racers, whose ages range from 57 to 78, didn’t let him forget he was the oldest of more than 2,000 participants that day.

“The race is on Saturday, right?” Eaton asked his teammates, who all yelled in unison: “Sunday!” and reminded him to put the May 28 event on his calendar.

Every member of Oldie But New-Bees is a Ski to Sea virgin. The team is a collection of friends of friends, who all met for the first time at team member Becky Brunk’s house in Bellingham that Sunday to talk race logistics.

photo  Team Oldies But New-Bees gather on a deck overlooking Bellingham Bay April 23 before going over race logistics. None of the team members, including Charlie Eaton, second from right in the top row, have ever raced in Ski to Sea before. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

“Once we’re wearing the wigs it’s gonna be obvious to everyone that we’re not very serious about this,” Eaton said. The team will also be decked out in black and yellow stripes, which Eaton said is “a signal that we’re not competitive.”

However, Eaton, who lives in Seattle, said he’s not nervous. He’s always tried to have a healthy lifestyle and stay in shape, and he’s proud that he’s one of the oldest participants.

Plus, he’s no newbie to canoeing.

“I’ve been on the water forever,” he said, recalling his years as a grad student at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. Eaton later became the owner and operator of a research vessel in Ballard’s Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle, where he worked for 40 years before retiring three years ago.

He was first approached by teammate Cally Huttar. “I don’t even think she knew about my youthful canoeing experience in Minnesota,” Eaton said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be great.’”

Eaton quickly picked his partner: Jim Lawerance of Friday Harbor, who he met in 1972 — or, 1970… or 1969. He doesn’t quite remember. But he does remember waving every time Lawerance passed back and forth on his little boat, until one day they met in town.

“We’ve had this incredible relationship ever since,” Eaton said. “As a matter of fact, [Lawerance] and his wife Lisa introduced my wife and I.”

The duo is borrowing a canoe from someone on San Juan Island who has raced in Ski to Sea “something like 20 times,” Eaton said. 

“We noticed there’s some duct tape on the bottom, which is a little scary,” Eaton laughed. “We practiced out on his pond, which isn’t the biggest pond in the world. But that’s about all we’ve done so far.” 

The canoe, an Old Town, is made of fiberglass and is very heavy, so they are worried about carrying it 50 yards when they make it to shore to send off the team’s cyclocross racer. “But we’ll do it,” Eaton said.

Eaton has never been in a race before, and for whatever reason, he’s spent part of his preparation watching videos of Ski to Sea participants swamping and crashing.

During the team gathering in April, members discussed safety protocol, river conditions and where rescue teams will be located on the big day, as well as what to bring for cramps (glucose bites and Gatorade), how long a flat tire may take to replace and how the bracelets work (a chip inside tracks the team’s time).

One team member called Ski to Sea “Type 2 Fun” — excited to do it, happy when it’s over, but during the race they’ll be thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this?”

After crossing the finish line, the team plans to gather again at Brunk’s house overlooking Bellingham Bay to “debrief.”

“Aren’t we a great team? I just love our team,” Eaton said to his teammates over lunch. “We should keep the team together next year.”

The Oldies But New-Bees agreed.

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