Pat O’Neill was barely out of diapers in 1952 when his father Jack took him down to the San Francisco Cow Palace for a Sports and Boat Show. This time, though, wetting his pants was exactly what dad wanted.
“My dad put me, my brothers and my sisters on giant blocks of ice for everyone to see,” recalls Pat, who’s now president of O’Neill International. “It was a pretty impressive demonstration.”
At first glance, it looked as if Papa Jack was demonstrating some new method of punishment for hyperactive children. But it didn’t take long for the crowd to catch on. The kids were each outfitted in curious-looking suits made of rubber–gas-blown, closed-cell neoprene rubber, to be exact. And even though they were sitting on ice, the kids were having a grand old time. Jack O’Neill’s insulating “wetsuits” stole the show, and encouraged the San Francisco beach boy to claim that from now on, it would always be “summer on the inside.”
In 1952, surfing in California was still the domain of rugged, hard men. The almost year-round cold temperature of the Pacific made the sport for the most part a frigid, lonely pursuit. The nuttiest of the bunch lived in Northern California’s Santa Cruz, for whom ice cream headaches were a way of life. Fellow wetsuit pioneer and Dive and Surf/Body Glove founder Bobby Meistrell, who lived and surfed Santa Cruz from 1950 to 1952, remembers the looks he and his friends used to receive at Steamer Lane.
“People thought we were crazy sons of a gun, and we were. I can still feel the chill in my bones when I think about it. All we had were those wool sweaters to keep us warm, which were pretty meaningless. We’d last for three or four waves, then go lie on the warm sand to heat up and then give it another go. People thought we were nuts. They’d practically move to the other side of the street when we walked by with our boards. But we were the only ones around back then.”
But by the end of 1952 word was spreading about Jack O’Neill’s amazing new wetsuits. Unlike the rubber “frogman” suits of the era, which simply waterproofed insulating clothing worn underneath, O’Neill’s neoprene rubber (discovered being used as carpet cushioning on a DC-3 passenger airplane) provided totally immersible insulation. Months later, the Meistrell brothers followed “suit,” joining O’Neill in the production of simple neoprene jackets and “short johns” (named after “farmer john” long underwear) and the sport took its first steps toward realizing the dream of an endless summer.
The significance of this development on surf culture cannot be overplayed. Before the wetsuit, a viable surf lifestyle existed only on the beaches of Waikiki. For the rest of the world’s sparse surfing population, the sport was either a seasonal activity or a stunt. The growing popularity of the wetsuit, however, provided the opportunity for year-round participation–and non-stop devotion. In many ways, more than even the light, mass-produced foam surfboard it was the wetsuit that contributed to worldwide development of the surfing lifestyle, as suddenly it was actually possible to surf every day, regardless of the weather, water-temp or proximity to Diamond Head.