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.