Jack O’Neill, the legendary promoter of the neoprene wetsuit that makes it possible for surfers and divers to withstand cold water temperatures, has died at age 94.
O’Neill, known for his black leather eyepatch and bushy beard, was surrounded by family and friends when he died Friday in the small coastal community of Pleasure Point, California, according to the executive director of his nonprofit organization, O’Neill Sea Odyssey.
A spokesman for the company called O’Neill “an absolute titan of the surf industry.”
O’Neill started one of California’s first surf shops in a garage on the Great Highway in San Francisco in 1952. He is one of several people who claimed credit for inventing the wetsuit. Historians say Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner was most likely the original designer.
O’Neill started a surf gear company that marketed surfboards and wetsuits when the industry was still in its early stages. He is so closely identified with the sport, and with the Santa Cruz area where he lived, that his image appears on a 16-meter outdoor mural near the site of his first surf shop. The site of the shop, now the home of a cocktail lounge, is marked with a commemorative plaque.
O’Neill acquired his signature eye patch in the 1970s when a surfboard hit him in the face. The patch, combined with short, bushy hair and a spiky beard, made his image an unforgettable part of Santa Cruz surf culture.
His business turned into a family venture, with his son Pat claiming to have invented the surfboard leash (which attaches to the ankle to keep the board from washing away in the ocean waves) and his son Tim taking charge of O’Neill Sea Odyssey, which teaches marine and environmental care to young people.
O’Neill’s death was the second blow to the California surfing community in less than a week. John Severson, founder of Surfer magazine, died last week at age 83. Severson’s magazine blossomed in the 1960s along with the popularity of the sport and helped turn a tightly woven surf culture into a glamorous symbol of “the good life” in sunny California.