The Surf Tribe Remembers Jack O’Neill

By Domenica Berman

Over 3,000 surfers paddled out to remember Jack O’Neill (Joe White).

On July 9th over 3,000 people took to the water at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz and 5,000 to 6,000 onlookers crowded the cliffs, stairs, trees and wherever else they could find a view of the spectacle. I even saw a kid on top of a tiki. Everyone was there to honor Jack O’Neill, founder of O’Neill wetsuits, who died on June 2nd at age 94. Whether they knew him personally, through his influence in the surf world, or just through the brand, people flocked to his home break for a celebratory paddle out to commemorate a life well lived.

The Jack O’Neill memorial paddle out broke the world record for largest paddle out of any kind. Previously the record was held by a June 2017 paddle out in Huntington Beach which was merely a sixth of the size. Not only was this paddle out massive, paddle outs were held concurrently in Belgium, Holland, Australia, the U.K., France, Canada and South Africa in honor of this beloved surf icon.   

Of course the goal of the event was not to set records, but to honor a true pioneer in the surf industry. Jack helped invent the wetsuit when no other companies were even entertaining the idea (except maybe Body Glove). He used synthetic rubber technologies that were created at UC Berkeley for deep sea diving to create his neoprene suits that are still used today.

In a 1999 interview Jack said, “Guys were using sweaters from the Goodwill. I remember one guy got a jumper from the Goodwill and sprayed it with Thompson’s water seal and he sat out there in an oil slick.”

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and for Jack it was the drive to get in the ocean, regardless of the water temperature, and be able to stay out long enough to get in a solid session that drove him to invent his cozy neoprene suits. He opened his first “surf shop,” a term he coined himself, in 1952 out of a garage. Through the decades, his business continued to expand, moving to larger spaces in Santa Cruz.

Sign announcing the paddle out (O’Neill).

Pros and amateurs alike credit Jack with allowing them to get into the sport, especially in colder climates. His stomping grounds were Central and Northern California which can get quite chilly in the winter and pretty much require wetsuits all year round. The technology has gotten so advanced now people are basically surfing everywhere, even Alaska and Antarctica, which must have made Jack happy as he was a nature enthusiast. As the O’Neill motto goes, “It’s always summer on the inside.”

As surfers can attest, the ocean creates an immensely powerful connection with nature, to your own self and the people with whom you share the experience. As members of the O’Neill family and crew shared stories, a common theme kept coming up – that everyone is connected and the ocean creates this beautiful place for us to connect and share a common passion.

Alexa Thornton, longtime surfer and ocean enthusiast, summed up the idea of this bond quite nicely after participating in the paddle out. “The relationship between family isn’t just blood but what connects you to one another. I know I will always have a blood family on land but when it comes to sharing a special moment or emotion we have our water family. A family that is connected through the energy of the ocean. We are related through the soul and momentum of the water.”

The ocean is not only an incredible way to connect interpersonally but it also carries an innate capacity for us to connect and heal ourselves. In an interview Jack discussed the healing powers of the ocean; “I’ve felt this in my own life, but there are also researchers interested in studying the way ocean therapy affects the brain and its pathways. It’s proven therapeutic for people with physical and mental disabilities, for veterans returning from war, for everyone. I think in the next 30 years we’ll see the potential of that power become fully realized.”

Jack would’ve been stoked and honored to know that four adaptive athletes from the High Fives Foundation participated in the paddle out. These athletes have all had spinal cord injuries and are choosing to heal themselves by regaining strength and pursuing water sports. Many of them were previously accomplished skiers and snowboarders and the ocean provides a relatively gentle re-entry into action sports and a potentially very healing, meditative experience which Jack completely understood and honored.

When Jack and his family first moved to Santa Cruz, surfers didn’t have the greatest reputation. They were thought of as dirty bums who couldn’t hold a job and definitely weren’t ambitious businesspeople. Jack sought to break this stereotype by befriending people from all walks of life, whether they were beach bums who lived in their cars, or wealthy engineers and entrepreneurs. He lead by example and created a new image of surfing and surfers. He was using his influence for good until the end and his legacy will no doubt continue to inspire younger generations.

After a stroke in 2005 he took a step back from some of his responsibilities on the business side and started working on community and environmental projects to protect and champion his ocean playground and sacred space. He started the O’Neill Sea Odyssey Program in 1996, which is a non-profit that provides lessons in ocean preservation, marine science and navigation in Monterey Bay on the company’s 65-foot research catamaran. He also advocated for Santa Cruz, which as a result was named one of four World Surfing Reserves in the world. This designation will help protect the town’s 23 celebrated surf breaks from overdevelopment and pollution.

Although Jack wanted his products to be the best quality and was a driven entrepreneur, he also remained humble through his success. Michael Burns, an O’Neill representative for 25 years, said he thinks Jack was a bit surprised by the success of his wetsuits. He was creating something that he needed and people he knew wanted, but had no idea the breadth wetsuits’ popularity would reach. In 2002 Jack was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and wore a tuxedo and flip flops to receive his award.

Many years ago, Jack decided to replace the main staircase in his house with a trampoline and would use it to transport himself from floor to floor. He was very active and adventurous, an avid sailor and aviator and one of the pioneers of recreational hot air balloon flying.

Towards the end of his life Jack remained active, enjoying the nature around him. He often road his bike around Santa Cruz and up into his 90s was still jumping on his trampoline on occasion. According to Burns, he would still sit on his porch watching the waves and “mind surfing” into his last days. In Jack’s words, “It’s been a hell of a ride and long may it continue.”

A group of High Fives adaptive athletes prepares get in the water (Tyler Drogin).

Surfers surround the Sea Odyssey Catamaran (O’Neill).

About 5,000 onlookers crowded the cliffs at Pleasure Point (Josh Pearlman).

A surfer makes his way to the paddle out area (Josh Pearlman).

Outrigger canoe cheering a Coast Guard helicopter (O’Neill).