Surf ing, wetsuit pioneer dies

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Teresa Watan­abe teresa.watan­abe @la­times.com Twit­ter: @tere­sawatan­abe The Associated Press con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Jack O’Neill helped pop­u­lar­ize year-round cold-wa­ter surf­ing.

Jack O’Neill, the Santa Cruz en­tre­pre­neur who opened one of the world’s first surf shops and pi­o­neered the neo­prene wetsuit that helped pop­u­lar­ize year-round cold­wa­ter surf­ing, has died. He was 94.

The one-eyed surf­ing icon, who cut a rak­ish fig­ure with his black eye patch and bushy beard, died peace­fully of nat­u­ral causes at his Santa Cruz home, waves lap­ping at his deck, his fam­ily said in a state­ment.

Known for his col­or­ful per­son­al­ity and mar­ket­ing ge­nius, O’Neill be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing in the early 1950s with ways to in­su­late swimwear so he could stay in the frigid North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wa­ters longer. Surfers at the time were us­ing sweaters sprayed with oily wa­ter sealant, he re­called in one in­ter­view.

He tin­kered with foam rub­ber but switched to neo­prene, which was light­weight and flex­i­ble. A UC Berke­ley physics pro­fes­sor, Hugh Brad­ner, had cre­ated a prototype wetsuit and tested it in icy Lake Ta­hoe in 1950.

O’Neill claims he hit on the idea of us­ing neo­prene in wet­suits af­ter see­ing the ma­te­rial in the car­pet­ing of an air­liner.

Be­fore his death in 2013, O’Neill’s chief ri­val, Bob Meistrell of Re­dondo Beach­based Body Glove In­ter­na­tional, also claimed to have pi­o­neered the wetsuit. O’Neill and Meistrell threat­ened each other with law­suits for decades.

Who ac­tu­ally in­vented the wetsuit has been de­scribed as the long­est-run­ning ar­gu­ment in surf­ing. What is not dis­puted is that O’Neill even­tu­ally de­vel­oped an in­ter­na­tion­ally known sur­fwear busi­ness af­ter open­ing a small surf shop on Ocean Beach in San Fran­cisco in 1952. Seven years later, he moved his fam­ily to Santa Cruz and opened a sec­ond shop.

He pro­moted his prod­ucts with in­no­va­tive ideas and mar­ket­ing flair — dress­ing his chil­dren in his wet­suits and dunk­ing them in ice baths at trade shows, ac­cord­ing to Surfer mag­a­zine. He also in­tro­duced the ny­lon jersey lin­ing that made neo­prene more com­fort­able against bare skin, the mag­a­zine said. And his trade­mark slo­gan cap­tured his brand’s elan: “It’s al­ways sum­mer on the in­side.”

By the 1980s, O’Neill had be­come the world’s largest recre­ational wetsuit maker, and the O’Neill surf brand had gone global.

Ever the ad­ven­turer, O’Neill also was an ac­com­plished sailor and avi­a­tor who flew hot-air bal­loons and in­vented the sand­sailer, a sail­boat on wheels that skirts the sand. He lost his eye in a surf­ing ac­ci­dent.

“Of all the things that Jack is known for, I think his ge­nius for mar­ket­ing and pro­mot­ing stood out,” surf­ing his­to­rian Matt War­shaw told the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle in 2012.

But O’Neill con­sid­ered O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram for chil­dren, his proudest achievement. The pro­gram, founded in 1996, has taken nearly 100,000 chil­dren to the Mon­terey Bay Na­tional Marine Sanc­tu­ary aboard his 65-foot re­search cata­ma­ran to learn about the ocean.

“The ocean is alive, and we’ve got to take care of it,” O’Neill said about the pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to the Associated Press. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

O’Neill was born in Den­ver and grew up in Ore­gon and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where he be­gan body surf­ing in the late 1930s, ac­cord­ing to the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Surf­ing. He moved to San Fran­cisco in 1949 and earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in lib­eral arts at San Fran­cisco State Univer­sity.

He and his wife, Mar­jorie, who died in 1973, raised six chil­dren.

Dan Coyro Associated Press

AD­VEN­TURER Jack O’Neill, shown in 1982, also in­vented the sand­sailer, a sail­boat on wheels that skirts the sand.

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