You owe “The Cheese” a debt of gratitude. By developing the wetsuit, he allowed you to surf around the calendar and around the globe. His little shop in San Francisco is now a multimillion-dollar empire, but that wasn’t why Jack O’Neill began. He just wanted to stay warm. “I’m just as surprised by this as anyone,” O’Neill says. “I was just messing around with rubber.”
Jack O’Neill was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1923 and was raised in Portland, Oregon. Soon he and his family moved to Southern California. He wandered as a lad, working as a lumberjack, serving in the Army Air Corps and then moving to San Francisco in 1949. Living in San Francisco, O’Neill earned a living as a commercial fisherman, then sold architectural aluminum, fire extinguishers and skylights. He loved the ocean and sneaked away to it at every opportunity, even taking his lunch breaks down at Ocean Beach, bodysurfing in bathing trunks in the briny cold, often alone or with the odd diehard.
The O’Neill empire began when he began experimenting with materials that would prevent him from, quite literally, freezing his balls off. He began by stuffing flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC) into bathing trunks “borrowed” from the Sutro Baths or Fleishacker Pool. Those worked well enough for Jack to begin a family with his wife, Marge. But early wetsuit technology took a huge step forward when O’Neill saw neoprene carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger jet.
In 1952, O’Neill opened one of California’s first surf shops, which he called “Surf Shop.” He still has the original business license for that shop. If he wanted to get ornery, he could go after every subsequent place that has called itself a surf shop, but he is a nice guy. O’Neill’s first surf shop was in a garage on San Francisco’s Great Highway, about a hundred yards from his favorite bodysurfing spot. The shop offered balsa surfboards, paraffin wax and the first crude neoprene vests. People told him he’d sell to the few surf bums on the beach and a couple of tourists, and he would be out of business. O’Neill just wanted to support his growing family.
In 1959, he relocated the Surf Shop 90 miles down the coast to Santa Cruz, where the sun was warmer and the waves were better. He opened his second surf shop on the beach at Cowell’s, where the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel now stands. O’Neill was still basically supporting his family, but he was perfectly positioned for the surf boom that was right around the corner.
In the early ’60s, everybody was “goin’ surfing” and many needed wetsuits to do it. O’Neill solved two big problems — how to keep the neoprene from tearing and how to make wetsuits easier to slip on and off — with one simple solution: laminating elastic nylon jersey to the surface of the closed-cell neoprene foam. That development, combined with the introduction of the zigzag stitch, was a huge leap forward. As business boomed, O’Neill relocated to a large manufacturing facility on the southeast side of town and put all six of his children to work.
In 1971, O’Neill became one of the first victims of the surf leash (just invented, ironically enough, by his son Pat), when he lost his eye while surfing The Hook in Santa Cruz. O’Neill’s bearded mug, now buoyed by a piratical eye patch, became the new O’Neill logo, one that would be recognized the world over.
By 1980, O’Neill Surf Shop had morphed into a thriving international company, dominating the world’s wetsuit market and becoming one of the leaders in beach lifestyle sportswear in the United States, Japan, Australia and Europe. In 1985, he became chairman of the board of O’Neill, Inc. and son Pat assumed the chief executive officer position. Growing up with his dad’s company, Pat had played an increasingly active role over the years, most visibly as the man behind Team O’Neill, which began in the ’70s with Shaun Tomson, Reno Abellira, Dane Kealoha, Joey Buran. They made guest appearances around the world. Accruing experience and maturity as he went, Pat emerged as an excellent businessman, manager and marketing strategist. Today, O’Neill is the best-selling wetsuit brand in the world, as well as one of the top sportswear brands, and O’Neill International has licensees and distributorships in more than 67 countries.
Meanwhile, with the company’s day-to-day operations in good hands, Jack has been freed up to surf, sail and work at a variety of projects. He is a patron of a school for dyslexic kids (like him), and he’s been working actively to save the white shark from extinction. But his favorite job has to be welcoming school kids aboard the Team O’Neill catamaran for a cruise on Monterey Bay. O’Neill’s Sea Odyssey program, making several trips a week, acquaints kids with the microbiology of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary and the realities of our living and endangered oceans.
“As I see it, we’ve gotten a lot from the ocean, in more ways than one,” says O’Neill. “I mean, the ocean has been very comforting to me through the years. When you get all screwed up, and you jump in the ocean, everything’s alright again. And economically, we’ve gotten an awful lot, and I think we have the facilities to put something back, and I think doing it through our Sea Odyssey program, we can do the most good with the amount of dollars we can put into it. And it’s very pleasant to work with the kids. They learn so fast, and they’re really sincere. I think they’re going to take a lot of good ideas away with them, about the ocean — that it’s alive and that it’s important that it stays alive.”
That ocean begins right out of the portholes in O’Neill’s Pleasure Point home. There, he keeps in touch with the business, entertains international visitors and functions as the family kahuna and grandpa. Inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, O’Neill still surfs, cruises around town in one of his ‘57 Jags and occasionally takes his hot-air balloon up for a ride over the bay. When he does, his son Tim pilots the recovery boat and puts it right under O’Neill’s descent, so the man who invented the wetsuit doesn’t get wet.
Before Jack O’Neill, surfing in Northern California’s chilly waters was a rugged sport practiced by hardy men. It was he who kept searching for a practical way to keep warm, and it was he who worked persistently to develop the modern neoprene wetsuit, one of the most important innovations in surfing history. Other individuals have also contributed to the evolution of the wetsuit, but Jack O’Neill is the man perhaps most responsible for surfing’s endless summer. — Drew Kampion and Ben Marcus, December 2000.