RIP Jack O’Neill, Inventor of the Wetsuit

Matt Rott

by on

Updated 23d ago

It’s been a bad week for the surf world. For the second time in the past seven days, we lost a legend of our sport with the passing of Jack O’Neill.

Jack was one of the early innovators of surf accessories. Not only are he and his son Pat credited with creating the first surfboard leash out of a piece of surgical tubing (which, ironically enough, ended up costing him his eye and leading to the eye patch), but Jack also invented the wetsuit, opening thousands of miles of “unsurfable” coastline to surfers who could not previously handle the cold.

Jack was born in Denver, Colorado and moved with his family to Long Beach, California. He acquired a love for the beach early in his youth in Southern California. He attended the University of Portland in Oregon, where he received a degree in business.

By the 50s Jack had both invented the first surfing and bodysurfing wetsuits and opened his first surf shop near Ocean Beach. He also coined “Surf Shop,” a term for which he later received a Registered US Trademark. At that time Jack famously remarked, “All my friends said, ‘O’Neill: you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business’”.

Inspired by the growing surf scene, Jack moved with his growing family 75 miles south to Santa Cruz, and opened his next surf shop there, where the Dream Inn stands today. Shortly thereafter he began making surfboards, promoting the first surf movies from Bruce Brown and producing wetsuits for the expanding population of surfers in Santa Cruz and throughout California.

The surfing craze soon expanded way beyond California, and Jack rode that wave better and longer than almost anyone in the surf industry. Jack viewed what he did as a passion, and was more surprised than anyone that the business grew to the point that it did.

By 1980 O’Neill had become a thriving international business and the world’s largest ocean recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer. As worldwide interest in surfing exploded, so did the O’Neill surf brand in Australia, Europe, Japan, and beyond.

For his proudest achievement, in 1996 Jack established O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), a marine and environmental education program using his personal Team O’Neill catamaran, taking over 30 children at a time into the newly designated Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, along with the dedication of a coast-side classroom and laboratory building in the Santa Cruz Harbour, which he built in 1965. Jack played an instrumental role in the development of the harbour.

Now over 20-years-old, the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program is one of the largest of its kind in the world, having hosted nearly 100,000 school-aged children. Remarking on OSO, Jack said, “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.”

Jack O’Neill was 94 when he passed away, adding yet another name to the growing list of surfing pioneers we have lost.

Cover shot: AP


Matt Rott

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