Pioneering surfing icon Jack O'Neill dies aged 94

Eye-patch wearing ocean lover dies of natural causes aged 94 having invented the first neoprene wetsuit in the 1950s

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 10:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 12:02am

Jack O’Neill, a Northern California surfing icon who pioneered the wetsuit, has died aged 94.

O’Neill’s died of natural causes on Friday at his Santa Cruz, California home, his family said in a statement.

The eye-patch wearing ocean lover died peacefully, surrounded by family in his oceanfront home of more than 50 years, waves lapping at his deck. He began wearing a black eye patch after his surfboard hit his left eye while riding a wave.

O’Neill moved with his wife to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighbourhood in the early 1950s. Looking to surf longer in the frigid Northern California ocean, he began experimenting with various materials until he invented the first neoprene wetsuit.

“All my friends said, ‘O’Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business,’” he would remark, according to his family.

He opened a surf shop in San Francisco, but in 1959 moved his growing family 75 miles south to Santa Cruz, where he opened his second shop to cater to the city’s growing surf scene.

By the 1980s, O’Neill had become the world’s largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer and the O’Neill surf brand had reached Australia, Europe, Japan and other corners of the globe.

He considered O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education programme for children, his proudest achievement.

Founded in 1996, it has taken nearly 100,000 school-aged children in his personal Team O’Neill catamaran to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the ocean.

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