The surfer who invented the modern wetsuit
As an amateur surfer in Northern California in the early 1950s, Jack O’Neill experienced the same problem every winter: The water was just too cold. He and his friends had to end their surf sessions after an hour and huddle around burning tires on the beach to thaw their numb bodies. Fed up with the chill, O’Neill decided to create a new kind of insulated swimwear that would keep surfers warm. His first two designs—bathing bottoms filled with PVC foam, and a vest lined with plastic—were failures. Then in 1952 a pharmacist friend introduced him to an elastic compound called neoprene, and the modern wetsuit was born. The product quickly became an essential for surfers, who could now stay in the water for hours on end, and O’Neill’s namesake company grew into the world’s largest wetsuit supplier. The firm’s slogan captured the appeal of its signature product: “It’s always summer on the inside.”
Born in Denver, O’Neill “grew up in Oregon and Southern California, where he began body surfing in the late 1930s,” said the Los Angeles Times. After serving as a Navy pilot in World War II, he moved to San Francisco and opened a surf shop to sell his wetsuits. O’Neill proved to be a canny marketer, winning customers by “dressing his children in his wetsuits and dunking them in ice baths at trade shows.” News “spread by word of mouth along the California coast,” said the Orange County, Calif., Register, “and surfers started calling O’Neill from around the world.” With few competitors, O’Neill “had years to perfect” his wetsuit and establish his company as the market leader. He and his family moved down the coast to Santa Cruz, where he became an accomplished sailor.
O’Neill “lost the sight of his left eye” in 1972 in a surfing accident, said the San Francisco Chronicle. But he used the mishap to his advantage: He donned an eye patch and grew out his beard, and this piratical look became part of the O’Neill brand. O’Neill ceded control of the business to his son Pat in 1985, but stayed active. He founded an environmental education program in 1996 and went on to take nearly 100,000 children out to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary aboard his 65-foot catamaran. “I’m not much into business,” O’Neill said. “I’m into the ocean.”