O'Neill has been the world's premiere wetsuit manufacturer since Jack O'Neill sold his first wetsuit in 1952. Over the years, Jack O'Neill experimented with designs and materials intended to keep him warm in the ocean. One day he walked out of his garage workshop and into the Pacific Ocean wearing his lightest and most functional design - a suit made of neoprene. His fabrication of this material into a wetsuit has allowed today's watersports enthusiasts a way to enjoy their specific sport, regardless of the water temperature.
Rubber skins that stretch like Flubber, zipperless full-body envelopes insulating the wearer against extreme water and air temperatures, tough, long-lasting wetsuits that allow full freedom of movement with minimal resistance. All this was way, way beyond the imagination of young Jack O'Neill when he moved to San Francisco 50 years ago and discovered the cold-water waves off Ocean Beach.
On his lunchbreak, the window and skylight salesman would brave the chill waters with nothing more than a pair of bunhuggers borrowed from nearby Fleishacker's pool and maybe an old bathing cap from the secondhand store. Some of the guys tried wool sweaters, too, even soaked them with oil so they'd repel water, but the comfort level was not high, and after a half hour or so in the surf, they'd gather around a driftwood-and-tire fire and listen to their teeth rattle.
The better possibility, thought O'Neill, was flexible plastic foam, one of many technological developments to emerge from World War II (O'Neill served in the Army Air Corps). Sandwiching the porous material between thin sheets of plastic, Jack stuffed it into his trunks and discovered that at least part of him stayed warm. The stuff was hard to work with and almost impossible to weld together, but he was starting to get interested. When he discovered neoprene foam carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane, he knew he was in business. Literally.
Sometime around 1952, Jack opened the first Surf Shop in a garage across the Great Highway. He shaped a few balsa surfboards and sold accessories like paraffin wax and a few vests he started gluing together from neoprene. When the vests started selling, Jack decided to go into the wetsuit business. His friends laughed. They asked him what he planned to do for business after the handful of surfers in the area had bought one. Jack said he'd cross that bridge when he got to it.
The Surf Shop became a local gathering place, and the number of surfers began to grow. O'Neill flew in talented surfer/shapers like Phil Edwards to make boards, and wetsuit sales climbed. Jack developed designs for a shorty and a long john, and eventually a long-sleeved beaver-tail jacket. Soon surfers were riding more waves, and riding them better, in large measure because they could now enjoy longer sessions in cold water, thanks to Jack's neoprene suits.
Looking to expand his market beyond the few Northern California surfers, Jack took his wetsuits to all the major boat shows in the 1950s. He'd get large tubs, fill them with blocks of ice, and have his three kids (soon to be six) sit around on them all day. The point got across: wetsuits keep you warm.
In 1959, Jack moved his growing operation 90 miles down the coast to the warmer,sunnier shores of Monterey Bay at Santa Cruz, where there were more surfers and better waves. By then surfboards, too, were being made out of foam (covered with fiberglass and resin), and Gidget had just hit theaters nationwide. Suddenly, hundreds of young people wanted to learn to surf, and O'Neill's Surf Shop, strategically situated on the sands at Cowells Beach, was where they came.
By then, O'Neill had solved two big problems (how to keep the neoprene from tearing, and how to make it easier to slip on and off) with one simple solution: laminating elastic nylon jersey to the surface of the closed-cell foam. That development, combined with the introduction of the zig-zag stitch, ushered in the era of the modern wetsuits of today.
As Jack improved his wetsuits- new styles, features, accessories, etc., surfers' territories expanded. Northern California became a year-round surf zone. Guys were surfing New Hampshire and Rhode Island in January! Explorations and transplants opened up Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Meanwhile, divers, waterskiers, snow-skiers, and then windsurfers were wearing wetsuits. As business boomed, O'Neill relocated to 41st Avenue, where there was plenty of room for a large manufacturing facility, and he put all six kids to work: Mike helped dad design suits, Kathy got the whole operation computerized, Pat worked in promotion and organized Team O'Neill (marquee stars and hot young kids in a range of watersports), Bridget moved into a new sportswear division, Shawne tested and multi-tasked, and Tim ran all crews for ongoing product-testing expeditions and promotions, as O'Neill began to sponsor major competitions around the world.
By 1980, Jack O'Neill's surf shop had morphed into a thriving international company, dominating the world's wetsuit market and one of the leaders in beach lifestyle sportswear in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. In 1985, having run Team O'Neill for years and effectively coordinated the company's operations in Europe and Japan, Pat assumed the CEO position, freeing Jack to surf, sail, and work at a variety of environmental projects. Besides a strong interest in saving the great white shark from extinction, Jack has also developed the O'Neill Sea Odyssey program-a free, educational cruise aboard the Team O'Neill catamaran that acquaints kids with the microbiology of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, which begins at Jack O'Neill's doorstep.
On July 30th, 1998, Jack was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame, in front of legendary Jack's Surf Shop. Jack's star takes its rightful place on the Walk of Fame near fellow legends of the sport like Bruce Brown, Dale Velzy, Phil Edwards, Shaun Tomson, and others. As the wetsuit "Godfather", it is a tribute he well deserves.
Today, O'Neill International has a network of 28 foreign distributorships. The best-selling wetsuits in the world have been joined by one of the top sportswear brands in the world. And Jack still surfs out in front of his home at Pleasure Point, cruises town in one of his '57 Jags, and occasionally takes a hot-air balloon up for a ride. Because pleasure is precisely the point. Especially when, as the saying goes, "It's always summer on the inside."