Jack O’Neill, one of the first inventors of the wetsuit, has passed away. The 94-year-old died Friday morning, June 2 of natural causes. According to the family at the time of his passing he was “as soulful and encouraging as always, reiterating his love for his family, appreciation for a life well lived, his hopes for his friends and the oceans he loved.”
Jack O’Neill’s bearded face and trademarked eyepatch (the result of a surfing accident), became the iconic image synonymous with the O’Neill surf brand.
Getting his start in San Francisco building surfboards in the early 1950s, O’Neill sold equipment out of his surf shop to a very small community.
“All my friends said, ‘O’Neill: you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business’” Jack said in an interview about his surf shop. But it was his tireless research and development into what would become the modern day wetsuit, that launched his business.
At the time, seeking to spend longer sessions in the cold waters of Ocean Beach San Francisco, he tinkered with various materials including wool sweaters (which became heavy, wet and smelly), plastic sheathed sweaters (which were tight and restricted) and also, according to one source, petroleum jelly (very slippery). Then, at the suggestion of a friend, O’Neill tried a new material called neoprene.
He moved operations to the wave-rich coast of Santa Cruz 90 minutes to the south. His inventions included a vest made of the new material that proved to keep off some of the chill. After that he expanded, making beavertail jackets and long john wetsuits. In the 1970s he replaced the two-piece design with a single, one piece full suit.
O’Neill also created, grew and headed a global clothing empire before selling the licensing to another company. O’Neill at one time sponsored Dane Kealoha, Shaun Tomson and John John Florence. The brand has for many years sponsored marquee rider Jordy Smith.
Jack O’Neill was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991. His son Pat continues to run O’Neill Wetsuits.
Jack is survived by his wife Noriko, daughters Cathi, Bridget and Shawne, sons Pat, Tim (Lisa) and Jack Jr., and grandchildren Uma, Riley, Connor, Bridget, Phoenix and Kodiak.