Surfing’s Maverick

Jack O’Neill, 1923-2017

Surfing and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill at his cliffside home in Santa Cruz, April 2012.
Surfing and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill at his cliffside home in Santa Cruz, April 2012.

Let’s get one thing straight: Despite what Jack O’Neill often claimed, he did not invent the wetsuit. Credit for the wetsuit goes to Hugh Bradner, a Berkeley physicist who was advising the Navy after World War II. To protect the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams from cold water and underwater explosions, Bradner came up with the wetsuit, using flexible neoprene as an insulator and shock absorber. Not much of a businessman, Bradner chose not to patent his idea. That opened the door for more entrepreneurial sorts — including O’Neill, who died in June at 94.

What O’Neill did was to see a market for the wetsuit in surfing — and to fill that market with sales savvy and personal panache. A sailor, pilot, hot-air balloonist and dedicated environmentalist, he embodied the fun-hog lifestyle. He was an enthusiastic promoter in a sport that sometimes shunned publicity: He and his wife dressed up their six kids in little wetsuits and tossed them into tubs of ice water at trade shows. He improved on Bradner’s design, introducing useful advances alongside some gimmicks. His eponymous company, started in the 1950s, became by the 1970s a leading producer of wetsuits and, later, surf wear.

More than a thousand surfers gathered at a “paddleout” near Santa Cruz in July to honor O’Neill’s memory.
More than a thousand surfers gathered at a “paddleout” near Santa Cruz in July to honor O’Neill’s memory.

With his bushy beard and unruly mop of hair, O’Neill acquired one more distinctive feature through another seminal, if indirect, contribution to surf history. His son Pat, carrying on the family’s inquisitive legacy in the early 1970s, tied surgical tubing to his board as a way to avoid long swims to the beach after every wipeout. Jack, testing Pat’s idea, had a board snap back into his face, costing him his left eye. Pat wisely looked for less elastic material for what became the surf leash, another invention that revolutionized surfing.

Jack turned personal misfortune into a branding opportunity, adorning O’Neill ads with his grizzled visage as the bearded, eye-patched, genial pirate of the surf world. As a backup marketing pitch, he turned to that old standby, sex. Few surfers of a certain generation can forget the O’Neill ads in the surf magazines that featured a topless blonde woman slipping out of a wetsuit, accompanied by the catchphrase, “It’s always summer on the inside.” Jack later used that as the title of his memoir.

O’Neill also was an outlier in basing his firm in Santa Cruz, far from the Southern California base of the rest of the surf industry. Santa Cruz has since famously staked claim to the title of “Surf City,” to the point of filing lawsuits against rival Huntington Beach. Santa Cruz couldn’t remotely claim that title without the wetsuit. And without the wetsuit, surfing in California would be limited to a few months in summer, or to a few hardy souls willing to brave brief winter go-outs in between hypothermic thawings before a bonfire on the beach. California certainly wouldn’t have the hundreds of thousands of surfers it now has — including me in Santa Barbara, where there is little surf in summertime. Would I surf in the winter if I didn’t have four millimeters of neoprene insulation? No way.

The wetsuit helped shift the epicenter of surf culture, and the surf industry, transplanting this Hawaiian Polynesian pastime and identifying it with Gidget, “Beach Blanket Bingo,” and the Beach Boys. The wetsuit has since spread surfing to every corner of the world, making it one of the greatest innovations in surfing in the last century.

O’Neill sold surfing to people far from the tropical waters that birthed the sport — but it wasn’t just what he did. It was how he did it. O’Neill’s swashbuckling style tapped into surfing’s romantic roots, going back to the original Hawaiian hedonists and running through surfing’s deep countercultural, subversive image in modern California. O’Neill surfed. He had fun. As the surf industry grew into a multibillion-dollar global enterprise, O’Neill made surfers feel they weren’t handing over their money to a corporation run by clean-cut bean counters more accustomed to business suits and dress shoes than surf trunks and flip flops. So, Jack O’Neill didn’t invent the wetsuit. He did, however, help surfing save its soul. That seems like enough.

Peter Westwick is a research professor in history at USC and Director of the Aerospace History Project at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.  He received his BA in physics and PhD in history from Berkeley.  He is the author of Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004, and The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974, and editor of Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California, which was selected to Best Non-Fiction of 2012 by the LA Public Library. In 2013 he co-authored, with Peter Neushul, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, an LA Times bestseller.
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