Does This Look Like a Man Who Needed a Wetsuit?

Remembering Jack O'Neill, one of surfing's greatest pioneers

By Reuben Brody

Does This Look Like a Man Who Needed a Wetsuit?
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07 June 2017

With his signature eye patch and a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, Jack O’Neill was always one of surfing's most recognizable faces.

On June 2, 2017, at the ripe and well-earned age of 94, he passed away from natural causes in his Santa Cruz home.

O'Neill was born in Denver in 1923. When he was a teenager he moved to Long Beach, California with his family, where he began to bodysurf. He served in the Navy during World War II, and later received a degree in business from the University of Portland.

O’Neill is often credited as the inventor of the neoprene wetsuit, which his namesake company still sells to this day. As O’Neill told KSBW in 1999: “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.”

The real history is slightly more nuanced. The neoprene wetsuit was actually invented by military scientist, Hugh Bradner, who was working with rubber diving suits to help with both his abalone dives and to assist the military’s nascent scuba program. Up until then all suits were rubber-made “dry suits” that kept the person dry within. Neoprene, a polymer fabric that was invented by DuPont in 1930 to winterize fuel hoses, makes for a true wetsuit: it allows water to enter and then leverages body heat to warm it.

According to World in the Curl, Bradner may have designed the first suit, but he didn’t patent his work, and it was quickly adapted to surfing by both O’Neill and Dive N’ Surf, which would later become Body Glove. Neither O’Neill nor Body Glove patented the wetsuit, but their work in adapting the material to its use as a surfing essential was a key moment in the sport's evolution.

At first, surfers were reluctant to wear them. But O’Neill (and his status as a surfing icon) helped change that, thanks in part to another important invention: the leash. An invention of his son Pat, it was an errant leash that caused Jack’s board to snap back and claim his left eye in 1971. The affable pirate look became synonymous with his wetsuit company, and helped make the gear seem cool.

By then O’Neill had opened two stores. The first opened in San Francisco in the 1950s, and it was simply called “Surf Shop.” The second came later, in Santa Cruz. His company's quick success helped O’Neill found his own philanthropic venture, O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education organization that includes a catamaran and building in Santa Cruz and has hosted more than 100,000 school-aged children over the decades.

“The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it,” O’Neill said of OSO. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Photos via O'Neill

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