Jack O’Neill, founder of the iconic California surf brand, died of natural causes this week.
O’Neill was a pioneer in wetsuit technology and opened up the possibilities for surfing cold water year-round through his inventions.
O’Neill – An Innovator in Wetsuits
Originally from Denver, O’Neill settled in San Francisco after a serving as a pilot in the Naval Air Corps in the ’40s. O’Neill would bodysurf the very cold waters off Ocean Beach to relieve stress after a tough day on the job. Water temperatures were in the low 50s year-round. “Guys were using sweaters from the Goodwill. I remember one guy got a jumper from the Goodwill and sprayed it with Thompson’s water seal, and he set out there in an oil slick,” O’Neill said in a 1999 interview.
Jack eventually developed a deep love for surfing and wanted to find a solution. A friend and UCSF grad Harry Hind suggested that neoprene rubber would be a great insulator against the cold. He knew that a UC Berkeley engineer and others were tinkering with neoprene as an insulator for deep-sea diving. So, after tinkering with several different materials O’Neill decided to try the neoprene idea. He found a way to translate the UC Berkeley engineer’s idea into a clever vest solution to help surfers have longer sessions in the frigid water.
O’Neill eventually set up a small surf shop at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. It was there that he revealed his neoprene prototype. At the time, the surf market was not big. There were no surf magazines and at times you could go a month of surfing every day without seeing another surfer in the water. But O’Neill would not give up.
Instead, he got creative. To market his invention at trade shows, Jack would put his children in the suits on top of ice blocks in front of crowds to show how they could help them withstand the cold. He continues to experiment with Neoprene and went on to create a beaver tail jacket and long johns Then went on to design a spring suite and full suit.
The Move to Santa Cruz
Soon the idea of surfing with a wetsuit began to catch on. In 1959, he relocated his shop to Santa Cruz. Within 20 years of his first introduction, the O’Neill brand had become one of the most recognizable surfing companies in the world. Jack had put himself in a prime position as surfing would eventually become a $6-billion-a-year industry. Today O’Neill employs over 130 people in the US alone.
Still, O’Neill’s claim to fame was not just wetsuits. He was known to be one of the first to blow foam for surfboards instead of using balsa wood. He was also deeply committed to the ocean.
Sharing His Love for the Ocean
Jack was a huge advocate for the environment. To give back to the ocean he loved, O’Neill created projects like the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program. This program was designed using his 65-foot research catamaran to take kids out on Monterey Bay to teach them about ocean preservation. To date, the O’Neill Sea Odyssey has hosted nearly 100,000 children. “He was a very passionate advocate for the ocean and protection of the very fragile ecosystem that the ocean contains,” said Haifley, of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. “He believed very strongly in the need to protect the environment.”
Jack O’Neill was also key in gaining recognition for Santa Cruz as a World Surfing Reserve (one of only four spots in the world). This recognition helps protect the city’s 23 surf spots against threats from pollution and coastal development.
Jack lived out his days in famous green house looking out over the ocean along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. The surf spot in front of his home is affectionately named “Jack’s” by the locals. He has made a large impact on the community of Santa Cruz. In an interview with RedBull TV published this past December, O’Neill shared that “the three most important things in life are surf, surf and surf.”
O’Neill celebrated his 94th birthday on March 27. He passed away at home surrounded by family. We are thankful for his many contributions to what surfing is today.