Before “eco” and “waterman” and the “surf industry”, there was Jack O’Neill. Businessman, pioneer, innovator, and entrepreneur are all fitting descriptions of the man who invented the surfing wetsuit, but they’re not words he uses to describe himself. No, Jack O’Neill is mostly a surfer.
Born in Denver, Colorado on March 17, 1923, Jack grew up on the west coast of the United States. First in Portland, Oregon, then in Southern California, before eventually settling down a little further north up the coast in San Francisco. Being a Northern California surfer in the ‘50s was rough. Aside from the rugged coastline and the general “surfers-are-punks-and-derelicts” stigma of the time, the Pacific Ocean water around San Francisco and Santa Cruz is bone chilling year round. Surfers were a small group in the early 1950’s—only the hard-core and thick-skinned. And if you did surf, it was for a very short time before hypothermia set in.
Jack was a surfer, and he wanted to surf longer. That desire spurred Jack, a window and skylight salesman during the time, to begin playing with the first wetsuit materials to create a barrier between the body and the ocean. The backbone of his prototypes was science—physics and the K factor of insulation played roles in developing those first suits built of unicellular foam material that Jack bought at a surplus store. Jack was the first to do it, and quickly became known as the pioneer of the wetsuit. The invention was monumental: it made it possible for surfing to truly be a year-round activity in cold water areas, and welcomed a new mass of people who previously didn’t surf. Those first suits led to more surfers, more fans, and the eventual acceptance of surfing in pop culture. O’Neill’s wetsuits and Jack’s simple desire to surf longer changed the face of surfing.
To sell his new invention, Jack opened surfing’s first surf shop in San Francisco in 1952. The shop and the wetsuits were a project of passion at a time when everyone thought Jack would just sell to five or ten of his surfing friends on the beach, and then be out of business. That didn’t matter to Jack: he was a surfer, running a surf shop, getting to surf every day, and constantly testing wetsuit designs. Surfing was a part of the job, and that was happiness.
Seven years after opening his doors on the Great Highway Jack relocated about ninety miles south to the budding surf community of Santa Cruz. A formula of consistent surf breaks and cold water made the town the quintessential proving grounds for wetsuits. Surfing was a whole new thing, and Jack’s shop was at the center of it. O’Neill became synonymous with surfing.
With the backbone of a great brand in place, O’Neill and his team went on to develop better, more effective wetsuits, plus modern surfing staples like the wetsuit boot, surf leash and board bag. As O’Neill the brand grew, fun was at the forefront for Jack with surfing being a way to spend the day. “It’s been my whole life, surfing.”
Beginning in the mid 1980’s, Jack began efforts to raise environmental and ocean awareness, building on the principle that the ocean is our life and the heart of surfing, and it is therefore every surfer’s responsibility to do what he can to protect it. He would take kids from every walk of life out on the ocean to teach them about waves and tides, fish and plankton. In 1996, Jack founded the highly celebrated O’Neill Sea Odyssey, an environmental program that educates children about the importance of looking after the ocean.
Accolades have piled up over the years for Jack. For his contributions to surfing—environmentally and culturally—he was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, and earned the 2000 SIMA Waterman of the Year award. The list of accolades goes on.
Jack still resides in Santa Cruz with his family, holding court at his iconic cliff house, enjoying the ocean and all that his brand has done for it.
Questions and Answers with Jack
Before the wetsuit, how did surfers stay warm on the beach?
The main thing was making fires on the beach—hang out on the beach, grab driftwood and build fires. You would grab a tire from the gas station and throw it on the fire. When you got out of the water, your capillaries would close and your skin would be almost numb, and then you’d stand in front of a fire and it felt really good.
What was the inspiration for creating the first wetsuit?
I was cold.
Did you have any science background that helped you create the first wetsuit?
Probably physics, and the K factor for insulation.
Did you ever imagine the surf industry would become what it is today?
No. When I opened my first shop in San Francisco, one of the surfers off the beaches said to me “Hey O’Neill, you’re going to sell to the 5 guys on the beach, and then you are going to be out of business.”
The terms maverick and pioneer have been thrown around a lot to describe you. Did you ever consider yourself to be a maverick or pioneer?
Mostly just a surfer.
You’ve lived in Santa Cruz since 1959, what do you think is so special about Santa Cruz?
The surfing. I think it’s one of the best spots on the coast and has a number of good breaks.
What’s the most impressive thing that you’ve witnessed in the ocean?
What does surfing mean to you?
I would work downtown all day, get all screwed up, and then I’d go jump in the ocean and everything was ok.
No, surfing was a very necessary part of my day—to jump in the ocean and relax. Opening my own shop was great. We’d be out testing suits and boards all day, but it was part of my business. I never felt guilty about it. Surfing was part of my work, and it was great.You surfed and bodysurfed for hobby, and then it became a business. Did that ever take the fun out of it?
How important do you feel sustainability, and the use of recycled products, plays in the marketing of surf products?
I think surfers as a whole are doing pretty much everything to keep the ocean clean. They’ve been in enough trouble with pollution and it making you sick, so they are very conscious of it. They want it clean. The O’Neill Sea Odyssey has taken more than 60,000 kids out on field trips. One of the main things we do is teach these kids that the ocean is alive, and we’ve got to take care of it.
Over the years have you had any favorite Team O’Neill riders?
Too many to mention.
How do you view what the surfers are doing on the waves today?
They are doing things on waves today that we never imagined. It’s come a long way.
What do you think when you hear “60 Years of Innovation”?
Well, it’s been a great trip. In the beginning we’d look for someone to surf with. Now we have too many people to surf with. I take blame for making it crowded. It’s been great. It’s been my whole life—Surfing.
What are your thoughts on the tagline “Damn it, we did it first”?
For a long time we didn’t have any competition so we were really able to develop our product. Then it got to a point when competitors would start copying our suits, but they weren’t very good copiers.
Any thoughts on O’Neill’s tagline “First Name in the Water?”
It’s just a fact.
Find out more about the Jack story with his new book: It’s Always Summer on the Inside