Rubber skins that stretch like Flubber, zipperless
full-body envelopes insulating the wearer against extreme water and air temperatures, tough, long-lasting wetsuits that allow full freedom of movement with minimal resistance. All this was way, way beyond the imagination of young Jack O'Neill when he moved to San Francisco in 1952 and discovered the cold-water waves off Ocean Beach.

On his lunchbreak, the window and skylight salesman would brave the chill waters with nothing more than a pair of bunhuggers borrowed from nearby Fleishacker's pool and maybe an old bathing cap from the secondhand store. Some of the guys tried wool sweaters, too, even soaked them with oil so they'd repel water, but the comfort level was not high, and after a half hour or so in the surf, they'd gather around a driftwood-and-tire fire and listen to their teeth rattle.

The better possibility, thought O'Neill, was flexible plastic foam, one of many technological developments to emerge from World War II (O'Neill served in the Army Air Corps). Sandwiching the porous material between thin sheets of plastic, Jack stuffed it into his trunks and discovered that at least part of him stayed warm. The stuff was hard to work with and almost impossible to weld together, but he was starting to get interested. When he discovered neoprene foam carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane, he knew he was in business. Literally.

 

 

Sometime around 1952, Jack opened the first Surf Shop in a garage across the Great Highway. He shaped a few balsa surfboards and sold accessories like paraffin wax and a few vests he started gluing together from neoprene. When the vests started selling, Jack decided to go into the wetsuit business. His friends laughed. They asked him what he planned to do for business after the handful of surfers in the area had bought one. Jack said he'd cross that bridge when he got to it.

The Surf Shop became a local gathering place, and the number of surfers began to grow. O'Neill flew in talented surfer/shapers like Phil Edwards to make boards, and wetsuit sales climbed. Jack developed designs for a shorty and a long john, and eventually a long-sleeved beaver-tail jacket. Soon surfers were riding more waves, and riding them better, in large measure because they could now enjoy longer sessions in cold water, thanks to Jack's neoprene suits.

   

As Jack improved his wetsuits- new styles, features, accessories, etc., surfers' territories expanded. Northern California became a year-round surf zone. Guys were surfing New Hampshire and Rhode Island in January! Explorations and transplants opened up Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Meanwhile, divers, waterskiers, snow-skiers, and then windsurfers were wearing wetsuits. As business boomed, O'Neill relocated to 41st Avenue, where there was plenty of room for a large manufacturing facility, and he put all six kids to work: Mike helped dad design suits, Kathy got the whole operation computerized, Pat worked in promotion and organized Team O'Neill (marquee stars and hot young kids in a range of watersports), Bridget moved into a new sportswear division, Shawne tested and multi-tasked, and Tim ran all crews for ongoing product-testing expeditions and promotions, as O'Neill began to sponsor major competitions around the world.

By 1980, Jack O'Neill's surf shop had morphed into a thriving international company, dominating the world's wetsuit market and one of the leaders in beach lifestyle sportswear in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. In 1985, having run Team O'Neill for years and effectively coordinated the company's operations in Europe and Japan, Pat assumed the CEO position, freeing Jack to surf, sail, and work at a variety of environmental projects. Besides a strong interest in saving the great white shark from extinction, Jack has also developed the O'Neill Sea Odyssey program-a free, educational cruise aboard the Team O'Neill catamaran that acquaints kids with the microbiology of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, which begins at Jack O'Neill's doorstep.