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RIP Jack O’Neill

Surf shop and wetsuit pioneer passes away at 94

The surf world mourns yet another iconic figure this week as Jack O’Neill, one of the first to sell surf-specific wetsuits, and founder of one of the world’s first surf shops, has passed away in Santa Cruz. He was 94 years old.

O’Neill hung a shingle on a small building in lonely, fogbound Ocean Beach, San Francisco way back in 1952. “Surf Shop” it read simply, a concept that hadn’t really caught on yet in Southern California, let alone in the chilly Bay Area. Shortly after, O’Neill began tinkering with making foam rubber wetsuit vests to keep himself a little warmer bodysurfing in Northern California.

In 1959, O’Neill opened a second Surf Shop in Santa Cruz. In the early ’60s, O’Neill’s wetsuits began to catch on, and by the end of the decade he was the industry’s most dominant force, outpacing Redondo Beach’s Body Glove wetsuits who’d arrived at the technology at about the same time.

His success was partly a result of shrewd marketing (he used to cart his kids to trade shows and dunk them in ice baths while wearing his wetsuit prototypes), partly a result of great ideas (he introduced the nylon jersey lining that made neoprene wearable against bare skin in the early ’60s; by 1970 he’d made the first fullsuit), and partly due to terrific timing. O’Neill’s fortunes grew along with the country’s blossoming interest in surfing and surf culture. His wetsuits opened surfing to temperate climates across the country, and within a couple decades, the guy who’d first began selling surfboards in San Francisco, of all places, was a household name nationwide.

A surfing accident in 1971 took O’Neill’s eye, and helped elevate his mythic figure status, as he donned an eye patch and took on a bearded pirate look. His staring face became a hugely popular logo for the brand.

O’Neill was also one of the least-known, and least-talked-about titans of the surf world. He rarely gave interviews, preferring instead to drift around in hot air balloons stamped with the company logo, spend time on the famed O’Neill catamaran in the Santa Cruz harbor, and watch the point surf from his home on Santa Cruz’s East Cliff Drive.

My first wetsuit was an O’Neill. Neon yellow with a blue hood. Chances are, your first wetsuit was also an O’Neill. Printed somewhere inside the suit would have been the classic O’Neill slogan: “It’s always summer on the inside.” Always thought was the coolest line in surfing.

Thanks Jack. From all of us.