Wetsuit & Surfing Pioneer Jack O’Neill Passes Away at 94
Jack O’Neill Tribute
Jack O’Neill: surfer, entrepreneur, and beloved friend and family member, passed away in his home in Santa Cruz, California, at the age of 94. O’Neill’s name is synonymous with surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, water skiing, canyoning, river rafting, sea and river rescue, and just about every other form of water-recreation and emergency rescue. Though O’Neill did not invent the wetsuit, Jack was the first person to recognize its versatility and value, as well as the first to begin mass marketing wetsuits. As a result, wetsuits are synonymous with the name “O’Neill.”
How It All Began
In 1952, O’Neill began making wetsuits out of a garage in Santa Cruz, California. Within a decade, Jack O’Neill wetsuit was the biggest name in the industry. Sixty-five years later, O’Neill still remains the most recognizable name in wetsuits. However, Jack O’Neill did not have an easy path. Though he was a Navy pilot in WWII and earned a business degree from the University of Portland in Oregon, Jack was forced to work menial and unrewarding jobs while his fledgling company struggled to take hold. To make ends meet, O’Neill worked as a taxi driver, a fire extinguisher salesman and a draftsman. Eventually, however, the concept of a wetsuit took off and O’Neill’s company found a niche in just about every water-recreation industry in the world. But, even after his business began to boom, O’Neill made sacrifices to do what he loved, sacrifices to the surf gods that just added to the allure and mystique of his legacy. In 1972, using an early leash prototype with very little stretch, went down while riding a swell at the Hook. The leash snapped his board back into his left eye damaging it irreparably. O’Neill lost the eye and gained the nickname One-Eyed Jack.
For the Love of It
While Jack O’Neill worked extremely hard by most accounts, he worked to subsidize his play. An avid surfer from a young age, O’Neill was in love with a form of recreation that still hadn’t quite taken hold on the mainland when he began. At the time, most surfers were still in Hawaii, where the water is notoriously warm year round.
Surfing in California, however, can be a different matter altogether, especially in the winter and early spring months. As the New York Times reported in its obituary for O’Neill, “Necessity was the mother of [the wetsuit’s] invention. [O’Neill] was turning blue from ocean temperatures that even on balmy summer afternoons might barely flirt with 60 degrees.”
While surfing would probably have exploded in popularity on the mainland with or without Jack O’Neill — the surfer or his wetsuit, — suffice it to say, just about anyone who has remained warm in cold water loves and adores what Jack did for water recreation. The death of Jack O’Neill is sad and painful for family and friends and a loss for nearly all water recreation industries.