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A DEATH OF HER CHOOSING
OBERLIN MAGAZINE

  MAKING WAVES
PORTLAND MAGAZINE
GHOSTS IN THE CHAPEL
TRAVEL AND LEISURE
   
   
 

Making Waves
Seventy-five years on the ride, Jack O’Neill ’49 is still tight in the curl.

The 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 to sea.

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’ how…
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 think about.

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.”

Notice 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 selling them.”

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 perfect wave.

“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 company.

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 by.”

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 project.

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 world.

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 king.

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 with it.”
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 bright because—”

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 tomorrow.”

And it is.

—Song lyrics © 1962 Guild Music/BMI and 1963 Arc Music/BMI

   
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