Wetsuits are so incredibly cool. Tough, even. Not so much the thin, brittle wetsuit tops you might wear above trunks to fend off a lukewarm tropical breeze, but the five or six millimeter thick, hooded suits of neoprene armor that allow surfers to chase waves along the frozen shores of winter New England, the drizzly cold Pacific Northwest, or even closer to the poles—Iceland, Alaska, Antarctica.
Although, what might be even cooler, or at least tougher, is soaking a wool sweater in oil, then duct-taping it to your body as a means to fend off the cold water of San Francisco, at least for 20 or 30 minutes surf time, before retreating to a roaring fire on the beach, maybe a warming slug from a passed around whiskey bottle. Which is what surfers did before the wetsuit.
Jack O’Neill bridged that gap. Nobody really seems to agree on who exactly invented the surfing wetsuit, but it was O’Neill’s bearded, eye-patch wearing face, the visage of a noble pirate, that helped sell the idea to the world, at least as much as the performance of the early wetsuits themselves. He was a badass that inspired surfers around the world to tackle colder, bigger, more difficult surf. He helped inspire us to be our most badass selves, in other words.
Dude also lived one hell of a life.
Although, what might be even cooler, or at least tougher, is soaking a wool sweater in oil, then duct-taping it onto your body as a means to fend off the cold water of San Francisco, at least for 20 or 30 minutes surf time, before retreating to a roaring fire on the beach, maybe a warming slug from a passed around whiskey bottle.
O’Neill was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1923, but soon moved with his family to Long Beach, California. He started bodysurfing in the 1930s and quickly fell in love with the sea. He served as a pilot for the Navy during the Second World War, and after hostilities ended, O’Neill moved to Oregon to attend business classes at Portland State. Ventures to the Oregon coast introduced O’Neill to wilder and far colder waters than he ever experienced in Southern California and perhaps instilled a taste for the rugged coastlines of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
After graduating in 1949, O’Neill moved to San Francisco, California, working as a lifeguard, a longshoreman, and a taxi driver. He found a small but dedicated crew of brave surfers who tackled the punishing waves of Ocean Beach that broke in water as cold as 48 degrees in the winter, warming only to the mid-50s in the fall. For warmth, they’d try the sweater and booze technique, constantly on the verge of hypothermia. O’Neill joined their blue-lipped ranks, and in 1952 opened one of the first surf shops in California, simply named “Surf Shop” out of a beachfront garage.
Quickly, O’Neill realized there had to be a way to use technology to stay warm in the frigid sea. He began toying with making tops out of foam rubber, then abandoned that for the relatively new material of neoprene, an idea that came to him, he’d later say, after seeing an exposed strip of neoprene insulation in a passenger aircraft. By 1952, O’Neill was selling the beta version of the neoprene surfing wetsuit.
This is when the question of who actually invented the wetsuit becomes a little fuzzy.
A UC Berkeley physicist likely made the first neoprene wetsuit in 1951, and the Meistrell brothers, who founded Body Glove Wetsuits, started making dive and surf-specific neoprene suits in 1952 as well. It’s likely the Meistrells and O’Neill simply hit on the same idea at roughly the same time, but O’Neill’s popularity skyrocketed, while the Meistrell’s efforts remained a slow burn.
O’Neill moved 75 miles south to Santa Cruz in 1959, opened a second surf shop, and proceeded to build a surf company empire. His marketing genius and innovation pushed the O’Neill wetsuit far out in front of any competition and popularized the wetsuit around the world. Suddenly, surfers in coldwater places like South Africa, England, Chilé—you name it—were able to surf longer, explore their coastlines a bit more, and to make surfing a year-round adventure, rather than simply a summertime hobby.
Surfing remained O’Neill’s personal focus, outside of the business, as did pretty much any other seagoing activity he could pursue. While using an early form of the surfboard leash in 1971, invented by his son the previous year, O’Neill’s surfboard shot back at his face after wiping out at a break in Santa Cruz. The board destroyed his left eye. O’Neill wore an eyepatch for the rest of his life and astutely used his own tough-as-nails-looking face as a logo for the brand for years after the accident.
O’Neill was an accomplished sailor, in addition to being a surfing businessman, and would go on long-distance sailing cruises along the coast. He also continued flying, piloting hot air balloons over the Bay Area, sometimes painting the O’Neill logo on the balloon and alighting near surf contests as a kind of marketing gimmick. He’d even launch the balloon from the deck of his sailboat. Not content to sail only on the water, he invented the sandsailer, a wheeled craft with a sail he’d use to scoot around Central Californian beaches, pushed by the brisk afternoon winds, a smile plastered beneath his sand and salt-encrusted beard.
By 1980, he was selling more wetsuits than anyone else on earth and started to turn toward philanthropy. O’Neill founded the Sea Odyssey program in 1996, a scholastic program that brought schoolkids out on his massive sailing catamaran and sailed throughout Monterey Bay, teaching them about the ocean, sailing, and the importance of protecting the marine environment.
“The ocean is alive, and we’ve got to take care of it,” O’Neill said about the program. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
In the years before O’Neill died, at the age of 94 in 2017, his catamaran would often be seen cruising around Santa Cruz and Monterey, and he was a regular at surf competitions throughout Santa Cruz.
The tagline of O’Neill Wetsuits for many years was “It’s Always Summer on the Inside,” and that was O’Neill’s great gift to ocean lovers and explorers. His wetsuits and his inspiration as a coldwater surfing pioneer helped give all of us lovers of the wild sea the gift of a year-round summer, the ability to surf in inhospitably cold places. To be as badass as we can be.