One of surfing’s most influential innovators, Jack O’Neill, 94, died Friday at his long-time home on Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz, California. His death was announced by O’Neill, the wetsuit company that carried his name.
Born in Denver in 1923, O’Neill moved to Long Beach, California. O’Neill served in World War II before marrying Marjorie Bennett and moving to Ocean Beach in San Francisco. In 1952 he turned an oceanfront garage into a storefront and, with a straightforward practicality, called it Surf Shop.
Determined to find a way to surf longer in Ocean Beach’s notoriously frigid waters, O’Neill began making tops out of neoprene. According to Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, O’Neill first noticed the material when it was used as flooring in a DC-3 passenger plane. Together with Southern California surfer and diver Bev Morgan in Manhattan Beach, O’Neill became one of the first to make neoprene wetsuits.
In 1959 O’Neill moved to Santa Cruz and opened a second Surf Shop overlooking Cowell’s Beach, where countless surfers have experienced their first ride. Originally wetsuits were slow to catch on among surfers because they were difficult to put on and chafed severely. In the early 1960’s, O’Neill began laminating a thin layer of nylon to the inside of his suits, which made them more comfortable.
Though O’Neill also made surfboards in those early days in Santa Cruz, he became best known for his wetsuit innovations. His eponymous brand became the industry leader for surf wetsuits by the end of the 1960s as more surfers saw the benefits of O’Neill’s creations. In 1970 the company made the first full-suit, which was significantly warmer than the older two-piece and jacket-style suits. “It’s always summer on the inside,” ran one of the brand’s early marketing slogans.
By the 1980s, O’Neill had expanded into a global brand and, according to the company, had become the world’s largest recreational wetsuit producer. As the brand’s statement put it, “The surfing craze soon expanded way beyond California, and Jack rode that wave better and longer than almost anyone in the surf industry.”
Along the way, O’Neill became one of surfing’s most recognizable personalities. In 1971, he lost sight in his left eye after his board snapped back and hit him in the face. A stylized portrait of a bearded O’Neill with his eye patch became one of the brand’s distinctive trademarks. Throughout his long life, O’Neill continued to surf and he became a fixture around Santa Cruz cruising in his convertible Jaguar. He also traveled widely, flew airplanes and balloons, sailed and fished.
O’Neill founded the O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO) in 1996. The program brings ocean education to school children and includes boat trips to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a lab building in Santa Cruz harbor, and a coast-side classroom. “The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it. There’s no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done,” said O’Neill.
Among the many in the surfing community to pay tribute to O’Neill was 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson, who grew up surfing the famously cold waters of Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. “RIP Jack O’Neill — the man who turned winters into endless summers across the oceans from north to south. Surfing will miss you,” Tomson wrote on Twitter on Friday.