Surfing world icon Jack O'Neill who pioneered wetsuit dies

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Jack O'Neill, a Northern California surfing world icon who pioneered the wetsuit, has died.

O'Neill's died of natural causes Friday at his Santa Cruz, California home, his family said in a statement. He was 94.

The eye-patch wearing ocean lover died peacefully, surrounded by family in his oceanfront home of more than 50 years, waves lapping at his deck. He began wearing a black eye patch after his surfboard hit his left eye while riding a wave.

O'Neill moved with his wife to San Francisco's Ocean Beach neighborhood in the early 1950s. Looking to surf longer in the frigid Northern California ocean, he began experimenting with various materials until he invented the first neoprene wetsuit.

O'Neill said at the time his friends didn't have much faith in his invention.

"All my friends said, 'O'Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business,'" he would remark, according to his family.

He opened a surf shop in San Francisco but in 1959 moved his growing family 75 miles south to Santa Cruz, where he opened his second shop to cater to the city's growing surf scene.

By the 1980s, O'Neill had become the world's largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer and the O'Neill surf brand had reached Australia, Europe, Japan and other corners of the globe.

He considered O'Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program for children, his proudest achievement. Founded in 1996, it has taken nearly 100,000 school-aged children in his personal Team O'Neill catamaran to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the ocean.

"The ocean is alive and we've got to take care of it," O'Neill said about the program. "There is no doubt in my mind that the O'Neil Sea Odyssey is the best thing I've ever done."

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