RIP Jack O’Neill: Surfer Legend & Businessman is Mourned

Today the surfing world mourns the passing of one of their greats. Jack O’Neill, a Santa Cruz local icon passed away at the age of 94, leaving a great personal and professional legacy as the creator of O’Neill, a much-loved California brand and export, and as a champion of environmental stewardship and education.

Newcomers or visitors to Santa Cruz will notice the mural. A large, outdoor retaining wall at the beach near the entrance to the wharf commemorates the life and work of Jack O’Neill—body surfer, inventor, waterman. His was a good one. There’s a smile on his face in every scene.

It wasn’t without its hardships and losses, however. The dust jacket of his biography features a magnificently Eastwood-like close up of his face sporting the eye patch that seemed to be a genius marketing ploy to those who didn’t know him but consumed his brand all over the world—simply, eponymously, O’Neill. He lost the eye out on the water, testing a leash prototype that snapped back too hard. He didn’t give it much thought, put on the patch, and never looked back.Impressively gifted with grit. And drive.

There are a lot of valuable lessons in the story of how O’Neill grew his brand for entrepreneurs, or anyone in business, anywhere.

I’m just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer.

Jack O’Neill

Here are some of our  favorites.

  • He relocated his growing family to Santa Cruz from up the coast in Ocean Beach, San Francisco for the surfing. It was the only place he could surf every day, and test wetsuits.
  • He relentlessly tested and re-tested his designs; he was never satisfied. There was always something that could be improved, or tweaked.
  • He had his friends and family test his designs and incorporated their feedback into improvements. He never thought he’d be making wetsuits one at a time for anyone other than his close circle of crazy friends who liked to surf in cold water, but he never stopped. Later, he’d give suits and sponsorship to talented young surfers, and it wasn’t long before everyone wanted one. A different kind of feedback.
  • O’Neill learned from his failures along the way, and always celebrated happy accidents.
  • He involved his kids in the business, even when they were young. When he was utterly broke and needed to test prototypes, they could surf all day and fish for their dinner. To promote his innovation, a product that never existed before, he had the kids wear prototypes and lie around like sea lions in an exhibition—a delightfully shocking sight for anyone who hadn’t yet seen a wetsuit.
  • He had worked at 40 jobs before he finally chucked it all and in 1952, opened his first, and the world’s first, surf shop in his garage, where he rented surf boards. But each of those jobs had taught him something of value that he put to use in the first wetsuit designs, from industrial sewing technologies and architectural drafting to marketing and advertising.
  • He pushed the boundaries of pop culture in his advertisements and brilliantly engaged the market with humor. One full-page color ad in Surfer magazine in 1970 featured a gorgeous, blonde, and topless surfer girl.


Perhaps most important, O’Neill was driven to create the first wetsuit by his need. He was the first to say that all he ever wanted was to be in the water and be in it as long as possible. In seeking to please himself and a small, local cadre of friends, he opened up a whole world of cold water surfing for enthusiasts all over the world.

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