Jack O’Neill, surf legend behind the modern wetsuit, dies

Jack O’Neill, the eye patch-wearing surfing pioneer who helped invent the wetsuit and created one of the world’s best-known surf brands, has died at the age of 94.

O’Neill – who went on in later life to champion marine environmental causes – died of natural causes on Friday at his oceanfront home in Santa Cruz, California, his family said in a statement. He was 94.

The ocean lover wanted to be able to surf longer in the frigid northern California ocean and experimented with various materials to create a lining that made the first neoprene wetsuit wearable.

His death comes a week after California lost another of its treasures: Surfer magazine founder John Severson at age 83. His magazine, which started out as simply a promotional pamphlet for his surf films, became required reading for surfers in the 1960s and carried spellbinding images and tales to an audience starved of such rich media.

O’Neill’s wetsuit discovery came about after he moved with his wife to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighbourhood in the early 1950s.

O’Neill said that 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.

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