Read all about Jack O’Neill, the legendary pioneer in the world of surfing who made the world’s first wetsuit. How much did his company earn?
One-eyed Jack O’Neill is a legend who turned the tides of surfing culture when he created the wetsuit for commercial sale. He founded the company O’Neill, the leading brand for wetsuits. Ever since he opened his first surf shop in 1952, Jack’s legacy lives on as people worldwide celebrate and embrace surfing culture, whether it means the actual sport, or the fashion and lifestyle behind it.
Jack O’Neil was celebrated as a pioneer and even though his claim to have invented the wetsuit is controversial, respect has to be given to a man who has turned a garage ‘project’ into a multi-million brand, O’Neill.
By the time Jack O’Neill died the world of surfing has turned into a $7 Billion dollar a year industry, and Jack was no doubt instrumental in turning this into a reality.
O’Neill has come a long way. Apart from wetsuits, it now sells beachwear, sandals, dresses, and even snow wear.
Up until he died in 2017, Jack O’Neill lived in a beach house in Santa Cruz. His house can be seen in this video, caught by a tourist visiting Santa Cruz. Beach houses in Santa Cruz can go as high as $3.5 to 4 Million dollars.
Though he was born in Denver, Colorado, Jack O’Neill grew up in Oregon and Southern California. It was here that he discovered body surfing in the 1930’s. Body surfing is known to be the purest form of riding a wave. Body surfing is defined as the art and sport of riding a wave without the assistance of any buoyant device such as a surfboard or a bodyboard.
When World War II came, Jack joined the U.S Navy to be a fighter pilot. After the war, he moved to Northern California.
After World War II, Jack moved to Northern California where he notes that the waters have dropped down 10 degrees Celsius. In a 2010 interview with Trip TV, he said that the waters would be so cold that they induce ‘ice cream headaches’ (probably pertaining to brain freeze), and that one would need a ‘baby girl’s hat or something’. He really wanted to find a way to be able to be in the water longer. Jack and his friends initially tried to cope with the chilly waters of Northern California by soaking sweaters in oily sealants. But not only did this not work in keeping them warm, it weighed them down too.
Jack’s ‘Eureka!’ moment came when he realised that one does not need to stay dry in order to stay warm. He discovered that when a thin layer of water is trapped between the skin and the suit, which was warmed by body heat, then this will make it possible for swimmers or surfers to stay in the water no matter the time of the year.
The material he needed in order to achieve this was neoprene. Also known as polychloroprene, Neoprene is a family of synthetic rubbers produced by the polymerization of chloroprene. It exhibits good chemical stability and maintains flexibility over a wide temperature range. Jack claims that he hit on the idea of using neoprene in wetsuits after seeing the material in the carpeting of an airplane.
This is the million-dollar question that has become the longest-running debate in the world of surfing. Jack O’Neill’s long-standing rival, Bob Meistrell (of Body Glove) from Redondo Beach in south of Los Angeles made competing claims that it was actually him and his brother Bill who came up with neoprene and invented the wetsuit.
They could have saved themselves a lot of time and money because neither of them actually invented it. The Meistrell’s top surfer and business partner Bev Morgan later revealed that he suggested neoprene to them after reading a paper made by Hugh Bradner, a physics professor from the University of California-Berkeley.
Bradner initially created neoprene for the Navy, who found the invention quite novel. A material that could get wet and still maintain body temperature. Yet the Navy didn’t really do much about neoprene and Bradner never patented the design. The ironic thing is that when the professor first tried to sell it, no one was really interested. Yet today, annual sales for wetsuits worldwide are estimated to be around $120 Million.
So Jack O’Neil may not have officially and technically invented neoprene. Yet he taught the market a very important lesson in business: While necessity may be the mother of invention, marketing is the engine of sales.
Soon after creating the wetsuit, Jack O’Neill opened his first surf shop on Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 1952. He opened a second shop seven years later when him and his family moved to Santa Cruz.
Jack O’Neill eventually developed a surfwear business that became internationally known. And he worked hard to market it. Surfer magazine says that in the early stages of his business, Jack would attend trade shows, dress his children in wetsuits and dunk them in ice baths.
Matt Warshaw, former editor for Surfer magazine and an author of surfing history and culture books says, “Of all the things that Jack is known for, I think his genius for marketing and promoting stood out.”
By the 1980’s the brand O’Neill had become global and Jack O’Neill himself had become the world’s largest recreational wetsuit maker.
O’Neill’s YouTube Channel released a video in 2010 entitled ‘The O’Neill Legacy’. The video shows how the brand Jack O’Neil had formed in his garage in 1952 has transformed into a culture and legacy of its own. And one thing that Jack is known to be is how he likes to take care of the environment he loves. In 1996, he founded the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program for children. He says that this is his proudest achievement. He tells Associated Press, “The ocean is alive, and we’ve got to take care of it. There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
In 1971, Jack’s son Pat invented the surf leash, a now-common feature in every surfboard. It is a urethane cord attached to the tail end of the surfboard, with the other end attached to the surfer’s ankle by a Velcro strap. This prevents the surfboard from being swept away by waves and allows the surfer to quickly recover his board.
Unfortunately, Jack got into a surf leash accident that year. The earlier designs’ surgical tubing allowed the leash to overstretch, which caused the surfboard to fly back towards the surfer. The leash snapped the board back into Jack’s eye after a wipeout.
Ever the marketing master, Jack turned this accident into an opportunity. Since that day, he donned a black eye patch which has become his trademark look. With his unruly thick head of hair, eye patch, beard and adventurous personality, Jack carried the of a pioneering, bad-ass pirate, which fit his brand and story perfectly. At one point, his ‘one-eyed’ face was even part of the O’Neill logo.
JACK O’NEILL AND THE NAME SURF SHOPThe term ‘surf shop’ is now so commonplace but it was Jack O’Neill who opened the world’s very first surf shop in 1952 out of his garage. The place was simply called “Surf Shop”. And while Jack trademarked the name ‘Surf Shop’, he never enforced his exclusivity against any of the hundreds of others using the same title. There are now surf shops all over the world from Bali, Australia, America and Europe. By not making the term solely his, Jack had also helped propagate the ‘surfing culture’ globally.
In 2017, on the 2nd of June, at the age of 94, Jack O’Neill died peacefully of natural causes at his Santa Cruz home with the waves lapping at his deck.
As a tribute and to pay respects to the legendary adventurer/inventor who revolutionised the way people swam and surfed, a worldwide paddle out was done on the 9th of July 2017. From the beaches of California, to Europe and Australia, surfers all over the world formed circles in the ocean in their surfboards, with some even wearing eye patches to commemorate Jack.
In 2019, two years after his death, the O’Neill company/family opened Jack O’Neill Restaurant in Santa Cruz. Following the brand’s tagline “It’s always summer inside”, the restaurant offers coastal cuisine and cocktails, giving a relaxed airy vibe with live music and ocean views.
Even posthumously, Jack O’Neill’s legacy lives on not just through surfing but via cuisine as well.
In 1972, O’Neill lost an eye after a surfboard snapped while he tested a leash prototype that his son created. He managed to make the accident work for him, of course, turning crisis into opportunity. O’Neill donned a black eye patch.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ONeill single-handedly opened up the possibility of surfing Northern and Central Californias cold water year-round with his industry-changing wetsuits. He lived out his days in his legendary moss green house perched over the ocean along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. Surfers affectionately refer to the surf spot where perfect waves roll up to ONeills steps as “Jacks.” “Its a sad day for surfing,” Mavericks big wave surfer Ken “Skindog” Collins said Friday. “Its sad news. You drive by Pleasure Point, and you see that house every time, and you get a little reflection of how much surfing means to this community. And what he brought to this community,” big wave surfer Peter Mel said. Sixty-five years ago, ONeill set up a small surf shop at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and revealed his neoprene prototype. He moved to Santa Cruz in 1959, during a time when the surfing scene was nothing like it is today, and set up another surf shop at Cowell Beach. “Guys were using sweaters from the Goodwill. I remember one guy got a jumper from the Goodwill and sprayed it with Thompsons water seal, and he set out there in an oil slick,” ONeill said in a 1999 interview. Surfers who braved frigid ocean water without wetsuits couldnt last for very long. While ONeills early wetsuits were eyed with skepticism, he continued experimenting with neoprene, a material that is still used today. His iconic pirate-like black eye patch was the result of a surfing accident when he fell while riding a wave at the Hook. ONeill lived for surfing and being close to nature. When he closed his eyes, he still saw wave sets forming. “I remember going to sleep at night. You see that wave, that wall of water, and that tube. Its something with being close to nature like that, pretty hard to beat,” ONeill said. ONeill said he always considered Santa Cruz as “the center of surfing,” outside Southern Californias warmer waters. In 1964 he created the ONeill surf team, giving up-and-coming young surfers new surfboards. ONeills family said he died of natural causes. Funeral arrangements and a paddle-out are pending.
Jack ONeill, the eye-patch wearing wetsuit pioneer who trail-blazed cold-water surfing, has died, friends confirmed to NBC local affiliate KSBW on Friday. He was 94.
The Big Chief Like most activities related to the ocean, sailing has been a lifelong passion for Jack, one which he imparted to his family early on. In 1974, not long after his first wife passed away, Jack moved with three of his children onto a 60-foot, full-gaff-rigged schooner named the Marie Celine, for a years-long journey to Mexico and back. Pat and sister Cathi O’Neill stayed behind to run the company. As author and close family friend Drew Kampion documented in his biography of Jack, It’s Always Summer on the Inside, that sail south was both about healing from their loss and expanding their horizons.
Manning the tiller while his loyal sailing companion Dave Wally operated the mainsheet, Jack felt the two stern ends of the 19-foot catamaran lift and the rush of water over its hulls as they caught the massive wave and began careening down its face, the two men holding on for their lives
1972: Jack O’Neill loses vision in his left eye while surfing a small swell at the Hook. He was using an early version of the leash, and when he fell off the wave, it snapped the board back and into his eye.
Keeping an eye on the waves breaking just beyond his living room, Jack continues the story of how he navigated his vessel into those tsunami waves in 1964. “We could see that wave up over the top of the mast, and the P-Cat has an 18-foot mast,” he says. “You need to have that wind coming out of the Northwest, from the outside, and get the wind in the sail, and that’ll get you on the big waves at Third Reef. And as you come into the lee of the cliff, you lose that wind, but you generate your own wind from surfing the wave.”
By 1968 he was launching balloons off of boats on the Monterey Bay and experimenting with different flight takeoff and landing techniques. At this point in our conversation, Jack and I begin watching home video on his laptop of a crew aboard the O’Neill catamaran when it was new, around 1983, scampering around the deck helping to launch Jack into the sky aboard his single-man hot air balloon. He was the first to pull off that maneuver, as well.
Does O’Neill still exist?
Who owns O Neill?
Where is Jack O Neill’s house?