Seventy-five years on the ride, Jack O’Neill ’49
is still tight in the curl.
surf, which breaks on the coast round the bay, extends to about
150 yards from the shore, within which space the surges of the sea,
accumulating from the shallowness of the water, are dashed against
the beach with prodigious violence. Whenever, from stormy weather
or an extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is
increased to its utmost heights, the islanders choose that time
for this amusement:
Twenty or 30 of them, taking each a long narrow board rounded at
the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet,
they plunge under, and suffering it to roll over them, they rise
again beyond it and make the best of their way, by swimming, out
As soon as they have gained, by these repeated efforts, the smooth
water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their boards
and prepare for their return. Their first object is to place themselves
on the summit of the largest wave, by which they are driven along
with amazing rapidity toward the shore.
The boldness with which we saw them perform these difficult maneuvers
was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.
So wrote Captain King, successor to Captain Cook, on a typically
tropical day in March of 1779, somewhere off the coast of the Big
Island of Hawaii. To most of his fellow European sailors, few of
whom could even swim, let alone ride the turquoise waves, he’e
nalu—surfing—seemed more demented than da kine.
But adventurous (and usually royal) Polynesians had already been
ripping big lefts and rights for centuries. Scratched into the hard
black lava of Hawaii, 12th-century petroglyphs show surfers in the
curl—perfectly picturing the sport that is today both a fixture
on almost every coastline around the world and a universal symbol
for the sun-drenched, care-free, forever-young life of the beach.
Hang ten, petroglyph dudes—the only thing missing
is the O’Neill logo.
Let’s go surfin’ now; everybody’s learnin’
The ocean cost Jack O’Neill his job. At least the pint of
the Pacific that was still inside his head. He was fresh off the
Bluff, business degree in hand, selling commercial aluminum windows
and skylights. That was after the job selling parking meters.
It was 1950 in San Francisco, and on his lunch hours Jack would
join the tiny and but-little-understood crew of loonies who went
surfing at Ocean Beach. Loonies who could, at least briefly, stand
the near-hypothermic water temperature.
So Jack hurries back from a surfing session and begins to look over
the drawings for a big job. This is in the days pre-personal computer,
when such drawings were executed laboriously, expensively and one-at-a-time.
And Jack leans over for a closer look, and the seawater drains out
of his sinuses onto the drawing, ruining it. Swiftly, he is unemployed.
At the time, he remembers, it didn’t seem like the luckiest
break of his life. He had a wife, Marge, and a growing family to
But then the ocean gave Jack his future.
“All I knew was that I didn’t want another job,”
O’Neill says. “I just wanted to surf. I’d get
all screwed-up working, jump in the ocean, catch that first wave
and everything would be alright again. I knew I wanted to surf and
be among good friends. So I got a load of balsa wood to make boards
and opened up the Surf Shop.”
that he doesn’t say a surf shop. This was so early
in the sport’s growth that O’Neill was able to register
the now-generic name “Surf Shop”—although he had
no money to police it. At that time, in all of California, only
two other stores sold surfboards. His shop was in a double garage,
and Jack made surfboards when he wasn’t surfing—which
is what he was doing most of the time. Since he first learned to
let the waves carry his laughing body toward the shore as a little
kid in L.A., the ocean had given O’Neill his greatest pleasures,
his deepest peace, his most intense connection to the natural world.
And the ocean, at least at this latitude, had always given him one
serious case of the shivers. O’Neill, a tireless tinkerer,
tried everything to stay warm. He prowled San Francisco’s
many WW II surplus stores. He bought an old rubber Frogman suit,
which immediately fell apart in the pounding waves. O’Neill
remembers surfing buddies who wore wool sweaters into the surf—sweaters
which immediately soaked with water and soon weighed more than the
original sheep. One guy put on a Navy uniform, sprayed it with Thompson’s
Water Seal, and hit the water—thereby creating the kind of
oil slick that would draw international media attention today.
Then, one day in 1952, Jack ran across a sheet of unicellular foam
in a surplus store. He knew it was an effective insulator that might
hold up in the salt water.
“I thought that if I put the foam between me and the water,”
he says, “I might be able to trap body heat.”
So, pragmatically, he stuffed his bathing suit with the foam and
went surfing. It worked; he was—at least strategically located
parts of him were—warm. The next step was to cut
the foam into a vest and wrap it with plastic to increase the insulation.
The vest drew laughter from his surfing pals.
“They always laughed,” O’Neill remembers, duplicating
the response. “They laughed at every stage of development
of the wetsuit. They laughed every time.” And, every time,
they came quietly one by one to buy from Jack.
Not long after he made and sold the first vests, he discovered a
relatively obscure synthetic rubber developed in 1937. Called neoprene,
it’s chief use was as an industrial insulator. Jack liked
its greater strength and stretchiness, and its softer feel. He created
his first official wetsuit, the “Short John,” sort of
a vest with shorts attached, and began selling it for $25. Soon,
for ten bucks more, the “Long John” was available. Each
suit came with a full page of instructions on how to put it on and
take it off—which, essentially, required a small bucket of
talcum powder and a skillset that would enable you to understudy
for Harry Houdini.
The laughter echoes down the years. “The guys here in Santa
Cruz said ‘Sure, five guys on the beach will buy one, then
you’re out of business,’” O’Neill says.
“Surfers from down south would say ‘Maybe you clowns
up here need wetsuits, but down there we’re too cool to wear
them.’ I just kept surfing, kept making the suits and kept
And he kept improving them.
“I’d be out surfing and thinking about how to improve
the suit, how to change the cut and the pattern and how to glue
them together,” Jack remembers. “Just trying to sew
neoprene together was a challenge. Trying to figure out how to glue
nylon to neoprene was really tough. But, little by little, we got
there. That’s what it takes, I think…when you are doing
something you really love, it’s easy to get immersed in it.”
By 1959, O’Neill had moved his growing family and his surf
business to Santa Cruz, a quiet fishing and farming town 75 miles
south of San Francisco. What strategic business principle led him
to relocate? Simply the fact that Santa Cruz was his favorite place
to surf. A place that, legend has it, saw its first hot rides in
1881, when two visiting Hawaiian princes caught the waves on 15-foot
redwood planks. (The legendary Duke Kahanamoku, father of modern
surfing, may have surfed Santa Cruz in 1885. The first official
record of surfing in California comes from Redondo Beach in 1907).
Jack opened a shop in an abandoned real estate office on a one-lane
road, next to the Dream Inn. He kept tinkering, kept surfing, kept
selling, kept dreaming. He came up with an advertising slogan for
his wetsuits that also described the O’Neill state of mind:
“It’s always summer on the inside.” By the early
1960s, most of the surfers riding the breaks of Northern California
were wearing O’Neill’s wetsuits. And far out in the
ocean of public consciousness, the seventh wave of all seventh waves
was just beginning to crest.
They’re anglin’ in Laguna and in Cerro Azul;
They’re kickin’ out in Dohini too;
I tell you surfin’s runnin’ wild, it’s gettin’
bigger every day;
From Hawaii to the shores of Peru…
The ocean took Jack O’Neill’s left eye and most of his
hearing. It gave him happiness, freedom and wealth (listed in order
of importance, one can sense, to Jack O’Neill). In his view,
he got a very fair deal.
He lost his eye in the early ‘70s, when, paddling in from
surfing in front of his house, something—he still has no idea
what—hit him in the eye. The impact destroyed his iris and
his sight. It didn’t make much of a dent in his vision. He
simply put on the now-famous eye patch, and inadvertently created
an image that is part pirate, part revolutionary, part surf bum—and,
from its ubiquitous appearance on wetsuits and clothing, amazingly
well-known around the planet.
His hearing was a different story. He lost much of his hearing slowly,
from the effects of too much cold water and cold wind. “Surfer’s
ear” irreparably closes the ear canals, so now O’Neill
wears twin hearing aids.
But that’s getting ahead of the wave. In life, as in surfing,
timing is everything. And for Jack O’Neill, who spent much
of his first decade in the business just trying to explain what
surfboards and wetsuits were, fate was once more getting ready to
drop onto the face.
Beginning around 1962, and centering on Malibu, California, the
world discovered surfing. The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the movies
(Gidget, Frankie, Annette), fat-striped surfer shirts, Woody stationwagons—suddenly,
surf culture was everywhere. Not that many more people actually
surfed. But from Des Moines to Dublin, Portland to Paris,
people were dreaming of the sun, the beach, huaraches and a pair
of baggies, going on surfari and rippin’ the curl.
Jack helped pull this wave like a full moon. He staged some of the
earliest surfing contests. He was all over the Bay Area, renting
high school auditoriums to show the now-famous Bruce Brown film
“The Endless Summer,” about a worldwide quest for the
“The kids making surf movies in those days were friends,”
Jack says. “Bruce Brown used to sleep in our driveway in his
car, and I’d arrange the places to show the film and he’d
narrate it, and we’d do the promotions with the wetsuits and
the boards and split the take. He did pretty well with that movie.”
The rest of popular surf culture, including the music, didn’t
make much of an impression on O’Neill, it seems. He was too
busy surfing. Jack’s complete historical take on the Beach
Boys: “Nice kids. But I never got into the music that much.
A lot more people were talking and singing about surfing than were
really doing it.” Jack O’Neill spent most of surfing’s
glory years either working the floor at a trade show, working on
wetsuit designs or working the breaks off Pleasure Point.
Like Bruce Brown, he did pretty well. The business kept growing
and growing. Jack graduated from the local boat show circuit—where
he would fill a wading pool with ice and have his kids sit in it
to demonstrate what a wetsuit would do—to creating a stir
by flying his big red “O’Neill” hot air balloon
under Golden Gate Bridge. (In 1971, O’Neill was the first
person to fly a balloon over Hawaii.)
He began to license his name and his Long John Surfer buccaneer/dude
image and logo to other companies that made beachwear. For better
or worse, O’Neill was one of the originators of the trend
that leads to today, when it’s hard to imagine any product
without a logo prominently displayed on its surface. As the idealized
vision of the California lifestyle (which only a small group of
people like Jack O’Neill actually lived) was marketed around
the world, O’Neill was right there with it, on it and out
in front of it.
If everybody had an ocean; all across the USA;
Then everybody’d be surfin’; like Californ-I-A…
The ocean gave Jack O’Neill his fortune. Pat O’Neill,
third of Jack’s seven children and president/CEO of O’Neill,
leans forward in his chair and ticks off a few of the numbers that
add up to one very successful family-owned business: the lion’s
share of the world wetsuit market for over 40 years; 360,000 wetsuits
sold each year; number four in domestic sales of surfing apparel;
number one in Europe and Japan; a hefty chunk of the $1.5 billion
annual surf hardgoods/softgoods market. O’Neill products are
sold in 67 countries around the world. The company sponsors professional
surfers (some of whom now sign seven-figure deals), windsurfers,
waterskiers, wakeboarders and more. One of their best-known wetsuit
designs, the “Animal,” hangs in three museums.
Pat O’Neill is Jack O’Neill minus 30 years and the trademark
eyepatch. Same smarts and business acumen under the same laid-back
I’d-rather-be-surfing demeanor. Same openness, same easy-going
friendliness. He spends nearly an hour showing a visitor around
the O’Neill headquarters, populated everywhere by staffers
who are young, energetic and creative—no matter how old they
are. From the bleached, sun-worn guy who gets paid to surf 40 hours
a week to the sleek, tailored national sales manager (who is roaming
the halls looking for a lunchtime surfing partner), everyone at
O’Neill seems to be having an extremely good time—a
legacy straight from Jack.
Pat and his sister Bridget run the company these days. Each of O’Neill’s
six children with his wife Marge, who died in 1973, all grew up
in the ocean and have all have been involved in the business. (Jack’s
seventh and youngest, 11-year-old Jack Jr.…so far he just
surfs.) The oldest, Kathleen, set up the company’s computer
system. Mike helps design wetsuits. Shawne, a former world-champion
windsurfer, consults from Maui. Tim runs the family’s yacht
sales and charter business.
Growing up, Jack made everybody work, but they surfed and sailed
and skateboarded without provocation. Pat, a champion surfer himself
(and, notably, the inventor in the late ‘60s of the ankle
leash that is now a feature of every surfboard), remembers working
on the night crew out of high school, making wetsuits from 4 p.m.
till 1 a.m. He worked his way up through almost every job in the
The ocean gave them their memories. “We all grew up on the
water,” Pat says. “Jack used to take my older brother
and me out surfing when we were little—all three of us on
one board. It was great. To this day, Jack is truly my best friend.
We still go surfing and hang out. I know he’s 75, but we’ve
kind of stopped counting. He looks younger and younger every time
I see him! He takes great care of himself. He meditates; he’s
into a lot of spiritual pursuits, and he’s set up a non-profit
organization that he devotes a lot of time and resources to, expanding
kids’ knowledge and appreciation for the ocean. Plus he’s
always got a few wild projects going!”
As chairman of the board, Jack trusts his kids to run the show at
O’Neill, but never doubt that he knows everything that’s
going on. The company is still leading the industry, with innovations
like wetsuits so stretchy and easy to put on they don’t even
require zippers, and a new “slam welder” that bonds
neoprene without stitches or glue.
O’Neill credits his success to luck and a certain one-track-mindedness—“No
one is more surprised by all of this than me,” he is fond
of saying—but he’s been a businessman and promoter going
all the way back to his days on the Bluff.
After a tour in the Navy, Jack chose University of Portland “because
my friends were going there.” He began as an engineering major,
but soon found that the studying required didn’t fit well
with his schedule of working and playing.
“Engineering really interested me,” O’Neill remembers,
“but I had trouble keeping up with the homework. I just didn’t
have the time! I remember Brother Godfrey told me he would pass
me in calculus if I would just drop the class! I had some outstanding
teachers—Father Fogarty in ergonomics and Father Rigley in
English stand out. The business degree was a little easier to come
O’Neill admits to a fair amount of playing during his college
days, but he also spent a lot of time working. He drove a taxi,
he was a longshoreman cargo checker. In the summers he was a commercial
fisherman and a lifeguard. After a couple years of accounting classes,
he set up a tax business with classmate Ivan McCollovich that eventually
got too busy for them to handle. He went in with UP students Bill
Coughlin and Hugh McGinnis, bought an old plane and a banner and
got into the aerial advertising business for awhile.
“I took a lot of good basic business concepts away from UP,”
Jack says. “After that, it was just a matter of getting out
and doing things.”
At Huntington and Malibu they’re shootin’ the pier;
At Rincon they’re walkin’ the nose;
We’re going on surfari to the islands this year;
So if you’re comin’ get ready to go…
The ocean gave Jack O’Neill and his family good health, a
bright future, even a kind of wild love. His non-profit organization,
O’Neill Sea Odyssey, is working to return the favor. The two-year-old
program offers educational cruises to groups of grade school kids
from all over central California. The idea is to promote awareness
and an appreciation for the wonders of the huge Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
The classes earn their experience aboard the 65-foot Team O’Neill
sailing catamaran by proposing and completing a community service
The huge, high-tech boat is just one of O’Neill’s fleet.
There is the beautiful Marie Celine, a 60-foot wooden coastal schooner.
(It’s a long way from the first little sailboat he bought
while he was a student on the Bluff—which he promptly ran
into the railroad bridge and capsized into the chilly Willamette.)
And then there is the “family” boat, a luxurious 80-foot,
six-stateroom power catamaran that boasts 1200-horsepower engines.
It’s typical of Jack that he is far less interested in the
opulence of this boat than he is in its ability to pull the wave-making
“machine” he wants to design and build—so it will
be possible to surf behind the boat as it screams along, bound for
whatever island strikes his fancy.
Also typically O’Neill-esque is the generous offer by Pat
to take the time to drive a visitor down to the harbor in order
to meet Jack for a Sea Odyssey cruise. Arriving at the boat at the
same time as 40 very excited fourth-graders, Pat nods back up the
road and says “Here comes Jack.” And down the drive
to the marina turns O’Neill in his cream-colored 1957 Jaguar
XK-140, looking for all the world as though Bluebeard had retired
to the English countryside.
There are other guests on the boat this day: two respected marine
engineers and the Santa Cruz city manager. Jack has brought these
people together to discuss another of his many projects, an artificial
reef that would be tethered to the bottom of the ocean in front
of the town of Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz. The reef, a huge
rubber bladder, would protect a badly eroded stretch of the fragile
coastline along with its marine inhabitants from the relentless
waves. This eco-friendly project would be the first of its kind
in the world. And if, as Jack admits later in the day with a twinkle
in his eye, the artificial reef would set up a sweet little surfing
break as well, then that’s just icing on the curl.
The meeting turns into an impromptu design session on the stern,
as the boat plies the cold waters of the bay. Now and then Jack
leans close in to hear something he’s missed. The kids are
busy learning about pollution and navigation and about marine life,
from the resurgent sea otters (“sea otter fur has one million
hairs per square inch”) to the multitudes of plankton (gathered
by the kids and displayed on the boat’s bigscreen video microscope)
to the ever-present sea lions (“sea lions bark at strangers
just like dogs”). In the distance, wetsuited surfers work
the breaks in front of a large roller coaster on shore. Sunshafts
slant down onto the gray-green ocean. All is right in Jack O’Neill’s
When the cruise is over—after the sleek white catamaran has
been docked among the rusty, hardworked fishing boats; after Jack
has talked with the kids and answered an explosion of questions;
after the marine engineers have left to pursue the idea of Jack’s
reef—he drives his visitor to his beachfront home, phoning
ahead to ask his personal assistant to “throw together”
a late lunch, which turns out to be an artistic spread of fresh
fruit and gorgeous salads that would shame most restaurants.
Even if one is a very low-key monarch, it is, indeed, good to be
Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out;
Some honeys will be comin’ along;
We’re loadin’ up our Woody with the boards inside;
And headin’ out singin’ our song…
For more than 25 years, the ocean has been trying to take Jack O’Neill’s
house back. It hangs off the coast road on a small point of land—and
a few tons of very expensive concrete and rock. After all these
years, Jack and the ocean appear to have reached a truce.
In front of the house is a perfectly raked Zen rock garden. Behind
the house is the Pacific, breaking green and white over the shallows,
pushing up a nice set of waves known ‘round here as the O’Neill
Peaks. A wall of glass reveals an immense sweep of ocean, mottled
with changing light like the fur of a leopard seal. Distant pelicans
dive like falling stones.
The house is not large, and the decor is part ‘70s, part tugboat
and part playpen. Jack tore out the original three-story stairway,
replaced it with a spiral, and installed a trampoline in the bottom
of the stairwell (“best thing I ever put in”). This
is where he bounces, basement to roofdeck, to exercise and warm
up for his early morning surfing forays.
He goes down to the lower level, which is mainly rock pierced with
brass portholes (“those are works of art to me”), goes
through the steamroom and out the ship-hatchway door to the beach.
Rock steps lead into the water. He goes out early, before it gets
crowded—which it gets, of course, precisely because he developed
the wetsuit so more and more people could enjoy the water—and
does what he loves doing most.
“Oh yeah, I can sneak out and still catch a couple of waves,”
he says with a smile. “The kids out there surfing now are
pretty hot, but they usually cut me some slack.” His status
as legend, icon and totally cool, totally accessible local dude
guarantee him a pretty tasty spot on any wave he chooses. Local
kids knock on his door to borrow surfing wax or bum O’Neill
goodies, and he, unlike most capital-R rich guys, never isolates
himself from them. He does have one rule: nowhere in the area will
he let the company sell the wetsuit designs that bear his stylized
portrait as a logo.
“The last thing I want to do is paddle out to the surf and
see my face on every kid coming by!” he says.
In the evenings, he goes up to the roofdeck, stretches out in his
hammock and communes with the sunsets and the seagulls. He thinks
about waves and rides and new ideas. He thinks about surfing with
his grandkids. He looks at the ocean; he listens to the ocean. Under
duress, and with constant prodding from his visitor, he reflects
upon his success.
“Oh, I just got lucky,” he says. “My timing was
good and it was something that I was very interested in. I just
lived it. I’d surf, then go to bed at night thinking about
a ride and a wall of water, and how to make a suit that would let
you work with those forces. I just got into a pleasant rut and stayed
And that’s that. Jack O’Neill shows little interest
in talking about changing the world of watersports or carrying the
tiki torch of surf culture. He shows no interest in talking about
becoming wealthy and legendary. He cares most about family. He cares
almost as much about surfing.
“You can buy the biggest boat or the best toy, but you can’t
have as much fun as you can on a wave,” O’Neill says.
“It’s still the best activity I’ve run across.
I never get tired of it. You play on a wall of water; it’s
just you and the wave. All my life it’s helped me out when
I get uptight. I jump in the ocean rather than having a drink or
doing anything else.”
He cares about protecting his playground: “If people remember
me for anything I hope it’s for the O’Neill Sea Odyssey
program and what it teaches kids about the ocean. I hope more and
more people participate in that. We’ve learned so much. I
remember there used to be a sewer outflow off Pleasure Point. The
water was brown, but we liked surfing there because the water was
warm! We’ll never go back to that. Ecologically, we’re
going forward. The future for the ocean and ocean sports is very
And suddenly Jack O’Neill is quiet as he turns to look at
the sea, as though he has just received some private communication.
The sky goes steel blue as the horizon burns slowly orange.
“There’s a south swell coming up,” he says softly.
“The sets are straightening out. It’s going to be good
And it is.
—Song lyrics © 1962 Guild Music/BMI and 1963 Arc Music/BMI