Santa Cruz paid tribute today to one of its most famous and iconic citizens, Jack O’Neill, who passed away June 2, 2017 at age 92. The huge paddleout event took place beginning at 11am near Pleasure Point, and an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 surfers surfers paddled out to form a huge circle in the ocean. 83 boats plus thousands more shared their respects from the nearby shoreline, with a total turnout estimated at 6,000.
Jack O’Neill was born on March 27, 1923 in Denver and moved with his family to Long Beach, where he began his love of the sea, and bodysurfing in particular. He served as a Navy pilot during World War II and received a degree in business from the University of Portland in Oregon. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s, where he continued enjoying time in the cold, 50 degree water.
As an avid bodysurfer, the Pacific Ocean made him focus his attention on finding clothing that could keep him in the water longer. Until the wetsuit was invented and made commercially available, Mr. O’Neill and his fellow surfers had been braving the cold by wearing long underwear or sweaters coated with oily sealant. Some tried stuffing flexible polyvinyl chloride into their swim trunks to help stay in the water longer.
While working as a draftsman, taxi driver and fire extinguisher salesman in San Francisco to pay the bills, he experimented with various materials and eventually manufactured the first neoprene wetsuit. He opened his first shop (aptly named “Surf Shop”) in San Francisco in 1952 in a converted garage. The shop was located about 100 yards from his favorite bodysurfing spot and it was where he began selling his first crude neoprene vests.
With success in San Francisco, in 1959, O’Neill moved to Santa Cruz and opened up his second shop. By the late 1970’s, O’Neill had established himself as the world’s largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer. To promote his wetsuits, he recruited surfers to model his apparel and designed seductive advertisements. At trade shows, he would dress his children in wetsuits and dunk them in ice baths to demonstrate the suits. His surf brand grew and was ultimately recognizable across the globe.
Jack O’Neil was recognized by with for his pirate-like patch over his left eye. It was in Santa Cruz in 1972 where a surfboard struck him there while he was riding a wave at The Hook and he lost his eye.
Despite his accomplishments in the surfing industry, O’Neill considered his proudest achievement to be a marine and environmental education program for children that he established. The O’Neill Sea Odyssey shuttled youngsters on his catamaran to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the ocean.
An avid outdoorsman, he was also an aviator and a hot-air balloonist and invented a sailing craft that could travel over sand on wheels.
“Jack was an American Original”, said Connor Avery, who paddled out to honor Jack. “I’ve met him several times and he’s always been such a great guy and truly an inspiration. Surfing wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Jack O’Neil’s first wife died in 1972. He is survived by his second wife, Noriko; his daughters, Cathi, Bridget and Shawne; his sons, Pat, Tim and Jack Jr.; and six grandchildren. Another son, Mike, died in 2012.