by Thomas Takao
Jack O'Neill began body surfing in Southern California while in grade school. He soon developed a special stoke for the sea. It could have disappeared if he wanted it to, but it didn't. This special relationship with the sea has lasted through the years. From it came a program for kids, wetsuits for surfers around the world, and surfboards.
Jack moved up to San Francisco in the late 40's and resumed body surfing in the cold waters of San Francisco. Switching to board surfing and the camaraderie of other surfers, Jack was hooked on the Surfing's lifestyle. "I started doing more board surfing than anything else" said Jack. Having worked as a salesman for a couple of companies. Jack O'Neill started his first Surf Shop in 1952, not far from the beach where he surfed.
He would load up on balsa from a local supplier and supply the Bay Area surfers with his boards. His only competitors were down south. The two other board builders were Dale Velzy and Hobie Alter. Jack was the only person doing wetsuits and surfboards so he coined the name Surf Shop, and was the first to do so.
In 1957 Mike Eaton was stationed in the Bay Area with the Coast Guard. During a surf movie that Greg Noll was showing, Mike and Jack started talking about board building and shaping. In the summer of 1957 Mike Eaton shaped a few boards for Jack in Santa Cruz.
During 1960 Jack was doing some of the shaping, but was more into wetsuit designs at this time. He would have Phil Edwards come up from Oceanside and shape some of the O'Neill boards. Jack still remembers Phil as being known as Numero Uno in the surfing community during the early 1960's. Another individual who Jack taught boardbuilding to was Don Hansen, Don was in the Army and stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey.
Doug Haut's first job in board building was with Jack O’neill, it was late 1959 to early 1960. Doug was part time help at the production factory, which was behind the show room on 41st Ave. Haut remembers doing the sanding and inlaying wooden skegs and any other odd jobs that were assigned to him. Some of the other guys working there were Joe Woods, and Tom Hoyt, they were doing the glassing.
Polyurethane foam was just starting to happen says Jack. "I was up here doing it while Hobie and Clark were doing it down there, Robertson and Sweet were into it too." Then as the 60's began, Clark Foam and Walker Foam were the main supplier of foam blanks. "We had the only Surf Shop in Northern California for years," says Jack. Jack O'Neill would eventually phase out of surfboards and concentrate on wetsuits.
Surf wetsuit were in the early stages of design development when Tony Mikus started surfing. He remembered only a few older surfers were able to have a custom beaver tail jacket made by Jack O’Neill. Tony tried one on back then and recalled "You needed cornstarch to get into those early wetsuit, because they did not have nylon lining."
As surfboard designs changed, so did surfing wetsuits. Through the years O'Neill wetsuit have provided warmth for many surfers. Looking back now, that concept can be traced back to the day when a young grade school kid went body surfing.
by Bonnie Cha
Courtesy of O’Neill International
In 1952, Jack opened his first surf shop in a garage across the Great Highway in San Francisco, a sand dune away from his favorite bodysurfing break. There he sold his first wetsuits, a few vest he made from gluing together pieces of neoprene. From that very garage Jack expanded the average playground from Streamer Lane to J-Bay, Antarctica those fun reef breaks off the coast of Iceland.
Thanks to Jack O’Neill,” Its always summer on the inside.” “Surfing in the 50’s was great,” says Jack. “You knew everybody and we all took turns on the waves.” But surfing in the 1950’s also meant short sessions due to the cold water temperatures, and surfers tried anything to stay warm. “I remember one guy that tried to keep warm with a navy jumper and he put Thompson’s Water Seal on it,” recalls Jack.
“He set out in an oil slick all by himself.” Cold and sick of cutting his sessions short at Ocean Beach, Jack embarked on a mission to create the surfing wetsuit. Jack soon became a regular at surplus stores collecting old WWII frogmen suits. “These suits consisted of a thin sheet of rubber, worn over something like a long underwear,” says Jack. “The air trapped in the underwear gave the insulation. But in the rough surf the suit would come apart at the waist entry, water would get in, displacing the air and making it hazardous.”
Working with different types of flexible foam, his first success was with polyvinylchloride (PVC). While it had good insulating properties, it was prone to a lot of wear and tear so he glued a sheet of plastic to the PVC and made a vest. Voila! his first surfing wetsuit. Yet, while PVC served it purpose, it was hard to work with and Jack went back to the drawing board. Jack finally struck gold with neoprene, which he discovered carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane.
It was a good insulator, buoyant, and easy to bond. Soon after Jack developed designs for the shorty, long john, and long-sleeved beaver-tailed jacket wetsuits. “I got a lot of laughs,” remembers Jack. “Surfers would come up from down south and I remember one of them saying, ‘Maybe you clowns up here need a suit but never us.’ I was just trying to do more surfing, have some surfing friends and get a little income.” Despite all the naysayers, the vests started to fly off the hangers and O’Neill was in business.
O’Neill Sea Odyssey offer a unique hands-on educational program to promote awareness and appreciation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Santuary and surrounding areas.
The three-hour program is based at the Santa Cruz Harbor in the O'Neill Sea Odyssey Education Center and aboard the 65-foot "Team O'Neill" catamaran. The students are taught the program in three'learning stations'.
Stations cover various topics including boat and ocean safety, sailing, navigation, marine life sampling and observation, ecology, and local history. Students also enter data into a database and observe information obtained by other classes.
The program is available to 4th through 8th grade groups free of charge through our nonprofit organizations. To participate in the programs, groups design and perform a project to benefit their communities.
The project component encourages children to give something back to their communities. At an impressionable age, it teaches them a sense of responsibility towards others and our fragile earth.