5 reasons Jack O’Neill was the ultimate surf pioneer

Surf icon Jack O’Neill passed away on Friday at the ripe age of 94. Wetsuit pioneer and founder of the surf brand O’Neill, he was a true trailblazer.

While many associate the patch-wearing silhouette as the symbol of his brand O’Neill, the man himself was more than just a founder: he had a very heavy hand in the course of the surf industry blossoming into what we know it as today.

It is a sad time for the surf industry with the passing of Jack O’Neill, but we can certainly look back at all the incredible things he did and the roads he paved the way for current day surfing. Rest in peace Jack O’Neill.

1. The wetsuit

A post shared by O'Neill (@oneillusa) on

It could be argued that there hasn’t been a more important invention for surf exploration and progression than the wetsuit. It’s allowed surfing to happen (and evolve) in climates surfers 60 years ago would never had dared to surf in. Plus, in O’Neill’s own infamous reasoning for creating the wetsuit, it’s allowed surfers to surf longer. Not much more that helps push surfing forward than surfers being able to surf more.

2. Surf shops

The first O’Neill Surf Shop.

Without surf shops, many of us surfers would have had no grounding as kids to get our hands on the latest copies of surf magazines, watch surf movies, buy gear and learn about surfing in general. We can all thank O’Neill for this one too, as he opened one of California’s first surf shops in 1952 and simply called it “Surf Shop”.

3. Surf companies

O’Neill Surf Company.

The O’Neill Surf Company was one of the first major surf companies in the world making something extremely necessary to surfing other than surfboards. Without the innovations that Jack O’Neill undertook to provide for his family and allow himself to surf longer (as he loved to say), the surf industry boom of the 1960s and 1970s may never have happened.

4. The surf leash

Jack O’Neill did not invent the surf leash. It was his son Pat who invented the surf leash in 1971, which could directly be pointed to Jack’s fostering nature as a father for surf innovation that he passed on to his children. Without that, Pat may never have come up with the idea for the initial “kook cord” that completely changed safety in surfing.

Jack O’Neill.

Ironically, the first prototype of the leash was the reason Jack eventually lost his eye. When surfing in Santa Cruz on a small day, the leash snapped the board back into his eye after a wipeout.

5. O’Neill Sea Odyssey

One of the first true waterman in California, Jack O’Neill loved the ocean and knew it needed to be preserved and shared. Which is why he founded the non-profit O’Neill Sea Odyssey in 1996 to provide free marine biology and habitat lessons for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The core of the program is centered around a trip on Team O’Neill’s 65-foot catamaran that teaches the children about marine biology, ecology and navigation.

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