Jack O’Neill: Surfer Who Invented Modern Wetsuit Dies at 94

Jack O'Neill, a Northern California surfing icon who invented the modern wetsuit, ultimately propelling the sport into a worldwide phenomenon, has died at 94.

O'Neill died of natural causes Friday at his Santa Cruz, California, home, his family said in a statement, with the ocean lapping at the decking of his waterfront residence.

The ocean lover died peacefully, surrounded by family. He began wearing his distinctive black eye patch after his board accidentally hit him in the eye while surfing.

O'Neill moved with his wife to San Francisco's Ocean Beach neighborhood in the early 1950s. Because he wanted to spend longer in the water in the frigid Northern California ocean, he began experimenting with various materials until he invented the first neoprene wetsuit.

Image: Jack O'Neill
Jack O'Neill suits up in the small craft harbor before windsurfing off Santa Cruz, Calif, in August 1982. Dan Coyro / AP

O'Neill said at the time his friends didn't have much faith in his invention, which ultimately changed the sport forever, enabling people to surf in places previously impossible, such as Scotland, Iceland and Norway.

"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. Today, the area's famous breaks, such as the world-renowned Steamer Lane, draw surfers from the world over.

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.

O'Neill's family says he died Friday, at home, of natural causes. Dan Coyro / AP

An avid environmentalist, he launched O'Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program for children — he considered this his proudest achievement. Founded in 1996, it has taken nearly 100,000 school-aged children in the 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 program. "There is no doubt in my mind that the O'Neil Sea Odyssey is the best thing I've ever done."