The Legacy of O’Neill

Surfing Icon Jack O'Neill at age 94

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Surfing legend Jack O’Neill and founder of the O’Neill surf brand, died of natural causes on June 2 at the age of 94 surrounded by family and friends in the comfort of his home in Santa Cruz, California.

O’Neill was recognized by his black eye patch and long beard and was often seen driving around Santa Cruz in his convertible Jaguar. Along with being a lifelong avid surfer, he was known as an airplane and hot air balloon pilot, sailor, fisherman, diver and world traveler.

“Jack was a titan of the surfing sport and paved the way for so many people,” said Brian Kilpatrick, vice president of marketing and communications at O’Neill Wetsuits. “Whenever someone puts on a wetsuit, you can’t help but think of him.”

Illustration by Anna McGrew
Illustration by Anna McGrew

His greatest impact on surfing was pioneering the wetsuit 60 years ago, allowing surfers the ability to combat cold water temperatures. Wetsuits evolved from various models and materials since the early 1950s, and O’Neill’s first model in the mid-1950s consisted of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam inside his bathing bottoms. He brought commercial success to his product after settling on neoprene, a type of flexible, synthetic rubber.

By the late 1950s, O’Neill sold surfboards and wetsuits in his surf shop down at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, where the Dream Inn stands today. His eye patch and long beard are displayed on the 55-foot mural portrait on the inn’s wall at Cowell Beach. He lost his left eye during a surfing incident when a board struck his eye socket.

O’Neill still holds the trademark to the name “surf shop,” which received a registered U.S. trademark. Although other companies began incorporating the name, he never sought legal action for its usage.

As worldwide interest in surfing exploded, so did the O’Neill surf brand. By 1980, it became the world’s largest ocean recreational wetsuit designer and manufacturer.

Even though O’Neill was most recognized for his accomplishments in the water, his credentials onshore have also had an impact. In 1996, he established the O’Neill Sea Odyssey — a marine and environmental education program for 4th to 6th grade youth — at the Santa Cruz Harbor. The program has educated over 94,000 students since it began. It provides up to 210 classes per year, concentrating on ocean food webs, marine ecology and the impact watershed pollution has on the ocean.

“Jack was a very curious individual who wanted to explore everything about the ocean,” said Dan Haifley, the executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey and a friend of O’Neill’s for 30 years. “He had a great spirit, very humble. He enjoyed his neighborhood and loved his family.” 

The O’Neill family will be hosting a memorial paddle out on July 9 at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz. The event will be open to the public.