Jack O’Neill, the eye-patch wearing wetsuit pioneer who trail-blazed cold-water surfing, has died, friends confirmed to NBC local affiliate KSBW on Friday. He was 94.
O’Neill single-handedly opened up the possibility of surfing Northern and Central California’s cold water year-round with his industry-changing wetsuits.
He lived out his days in his legendary moss green house perched over the ocean along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. Surfers affectionately refer to the surf spot where perfect waves roll up to O’Neill’s steps as “Jack’s.”
“It’s a sad day for surfing,” Mavericks big wave surfer Ken “Skindog” Collins said Friday.
“It’s sad news. You drive by Pleasure Point, and you see that house every time, and you get a little reflection of how much surfing means to this community. And what he brought to this community,” big wave surfer Peter Mel said.
Sixty-five years ago, O’Neill set up a small surf shop at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and revealed his neoprene prototype. He moved to Santa Cruz in 1959, during a time when the surfing scene was nothing like it is today, and set up another surf shop at Cowell Beach.
“Guys were using sweaters from the Goodwill. I remember one guy got a jumper from the Goodwill and sprayed it with Thompson’s water seal, and he set out there in an oil slick,” O’Neill said in a 1999 interview.
Surfers who braved frigid ocean water without wetsuits couldn’t last for very long.
While O’Neill’s early wetsuits were eyed with skepticism, he continued experimenting with neoprene, a material that is still used today.
His iconic pirate-like black eye patch was the result of a surfing accident when he fell while riding a wave at the Hook.
O’Neill lived for surfing and being close to nature. When he closed his eyes, he still saw wave sets forming.
“I remember going to sleep at night. You see that wave, that wall of water, and that tube. It’s something with being close to nature like that, pretty hard to beat,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said he always considered Santa Cruz as “the center of surfing,” outside Southern California’s warmer waters. In 1964 he created the O’Neill surf team, giving up-and-coming young surfers new surfboards.
O’Neill’s family said he died of natural causes. Funeral arrangements and a paddle-out are pending.