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Jack O’Neill at 92: the man and the wetsuit

Surfing at Steamer Lane

Jack O’Neill is the founder of the first and most successful surfing wetsuit company in the world. He can afford to live anywhere that he wants. He chose Pleasure Point, a world-class surf break in the Santa Cruz-Capitola area of the California Coast. O’Neill moved to Santa Cruz in 1959 and has remained. says:

“Santa Cruz has great surf,” says O’Neill. “It’s the right latitude. It’s too cold up there (pointing toward San Francisco) and too cold down south (pointing to Monterey). It’s perfect.”

If you look back at all of the blog entries that I have written about Santa Cruz, you would have to conclude that I think it is perfect as well. However, it is a LOT more expensive to live there than it was in 1959.

O’Neill, from his house on the cliff above Pleasure Point, can still surf the waves with his mind. He suffered a stroke in 2005 and is 92 years old. He wears his iconic eye patch (he lost an eye surfing at Steamers Lane in 1972) and, according to the interviewer, has a gleam in his one good eye and a constant grin on his face.

O’Neill came to Santa Cruz for the warmer water and for business reasons. Santa Cruz in on a south-facing bit of coast, as are other great towns, like Santa Barbara. In the 1940s, O’Neill surfed and bodysurfed at Ocean Beach in San Francisco – a dangerous place with cold water and treacherous currents. There were no wetsuits then, so he would have to INVENT one.

In 1952, his pharmacist friend and fellow Kelly’s Cove bodysurfer, Harry Hind, turned him on to a compound originally developed by DuPont in 1930: neoprene. However, there were few surfers in San Francisco, and many more in Santa Cruz, where the surf was better.

He’d learned this on a number of surf trips to Santa Cruz. On one such occasion, he brought his whole family, including his wife, Marjorie, and five children; they camped out on the bluff above Pleasure Point — not far from his current home.

Read the story in, including O’Neill’s use of his 65-foot catamaran to create, in 1996, Sea Odyssey, a free program that, as of 2014, has had 75,000 enrollees — fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from all over California.

“Teaching kids about the ocean — that it needs to be taken care of — that really works,” he says. O’Neill has received hundreds of letters from grateful participants, some of which adorn the walls of his house. “That is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says of Sea Odyssey.

You can get an idea of what Jack O’Neill means to Santa Cruz by visiting five places that the author describes in detail: the original surf shop, the Jack O’Neill Lounge, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (image below), O’Neill Yacht Charters, and the O’Neill Surf Shop.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

-Bill at

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