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Jack O'Neill talks about business, new book

Jack O'Neill, the founder of
Jack O'Neill, the founder of O'Neill Wetsuits, at his home in Santa Cruz on Friday. Photo by Tim Willey.
By Shelby Stanger
October 25, 2010 12:39 PM

Wetsuit inventor and pioneering waterman Jack O’Neill hosted a rare press conference at his home Friday on Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz, Calif.

 

Jack, who is almost 90 years old, is coming out with a 256-page book, "It’s Always Summer on the Inside" written by surf author and Jack’s close friend, Drew Kampion. The book talks about the brand, Jack’s invention of the wetsuit, and Jack’s adventurous life.

 

Besides Jack, the book features other surfing icons including Jack’s son Pat O’Neill, Robby Naish, Shaun Tomson, Tom Curren, Jordy Smith, John John Florence, Martin Potter, Ken Skindog Collins, Dane Kealoha, Aaron Wright, Al Mackinnon, Pat Mulhern , Randy French, Jim Philips, Frank “Tapu” Freitas, Jack, Lalanne, and Fred van Dyke, to name a few.

 

It will retail for about $40 and will be released this spring at select retail accounts and online.

 

Listening to Jack, he is as enthusiastic about the ocean as he must have been when opened his first surf shop in 1952. He looks like a pirate Santa Claus with a long grey beard, piercing blue eyes, and warm smile that contrast an intimidating patch on his left eye (an accident while testing his son’s invention of the surf leash.)

 

At the conference, Jack shared stories about how he created the first wetsuit after getting fired from a job, and shared adventures with his hot air balloon.

 

Born in Colorado and raised in Portland then California, Jack worked as a lumberjack, served in the Army Air Corps and then moved to San Francisco in 1949 before opening the first surf shop.

 

He was working as a detail man for architectural aluminum and skylights in downtown San Francisco, and had gone bodysurfing at lunchtime.

 

“I was showing the clients how to finish up a job, and I leaned over the drawings – those original and very expensive drawings (at the time there were no computers) – and water poured out of my nose… all over the drawings. So I lost my job, and that’s when I decided to buy a load of balsa wood,” he said.

 

After Jack opened the first surf shop in San Francisco in 1952, and started making surfboards, he started experimenting with wetsuits. “I’d get ice cream headaches in the surf and wanted to stay warm,” he said.

 

A World War II army wetsuit ripped in the surf or filled with water, making it dangerous to wear swimming in rough surf. Jack found some unicellular foam at an army surplus store and bonded them like a diaper to wear under a bun-hugger bathing suit. “I put that foam in under the suit and that felt good,” he said.

 

On page 2: Jack's ocean advocacy

 

 

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