Jack O'Neill: The Innovator of Surf

Men's Health Magazine

When Jack O’Neill thinks back to San Francisco in the early 1950s, he remembers the ice-cream headaches. As a surfer in his late-20s, he was drawn to the waves like fog to the Bay. With that came the teeth-chattering chill of the Pacific Ocean, often 50 degrees or colder, slapping against his bare skin. He could only stay in there for an hour before his body and mind slowed from the cold and that headache set in.

O’Neill had a hunch that if he could model a suit after a Navy “frogman” get-up, which was made of thin rubber worn over long underwear, he’d be able to surf for hours. He hit the army surplus stores, where he stocked up on flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam and stuffed it into to his bathing suit. Then he fashioned a foam vest, which he covered with plastic to keep it dry. Through a series of trial and error, it worked. In 1952, the first primitive wet suit was born.

The recently released Jack O’Neill: It’s Always Summer on the Inside (Chronicle Books, $40), reflects on 60 years of surfboards and wet suits. O’Neill’s name has become as synonymous with surf wear and boards as the Beach Boys to surf music.

Because of the wet suit, surfers have ridden the waves off the East Coast, Alaska, and even the South Pole. What began as the world’s first “Surf Shop” in O’Neill’s garage expanded into his shops in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California and, in the ‘80s, went on to become a dominating international brand now sold in 47 countries.

O’Neill, himself, at 88, resembles the Grizzly Adams of surfing, with his wild, frosty beard. A black patch covers his left eye, a permanent reminder of a surfing accident that happened while testing a surf leash, created by his son, Pat. (All seven of his kids have been involved in the family business, and have helped improve upon the wet suit design).

Speaking from his home in Santa Cruz, O’Neill thinks back to his humble beginnings, and admits that the success was—and still is—a surprise to him. “I opened the shop to go surfing and have some friends to surf with,” he says. Then, it was rare to actually make money off surfing. Today, surfing is a $6.24 billion industry.  “This isn’t something that was planned,” says O’Neill. “It just happened.”

O’Neill still seems more surfer and free spirit than businessman. Rather than discuss the latest wet suit or even his book, he prefers to steer the conversation to the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a free program he began in 1996, which has taken 60,000 fourth, fifth and sixth graders on a sea-faring trip through Monterrey Bay, California, teaching them the importance of the ocean.

These days, he struggles with his hearing and his voice, weakened with age, is interrupted every so often by coughing fits. O’Neill doesn’t surf much anymore—it’s hard to jump up on the board, he says. When he talks about it, he becomes wistful. “Surfing is something . . .” he pauses, thinking. “Something very difficult to do without.”

Still, his house sits right on the shore in Santa Cruz, where he can watch the waves endlessly. “It’s a beautiful day,” he says, “and we’ve got some good surf.”

 

To read this story in Men's Health Magazine click here.

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