Jack O’Neill, a pioneer in wetsuit technology and founder of the iconic California surf brand, died of natural causes Friday at the age of 94, the Orange County Register reported.
Friends of the Santa Cruz local confirmed his death to Monterey news station KSBW 8 on Friday.
For those who don’t surf, O’Neill’s name is still recognizable as the popular surf brand with a wave-like logo seen on T-shirts, sweatshirts and board shorts, usually worn by anyone who can appreciate a beach-centered lifestyle.
For those who do surf, however, O’Neill was an innovator of the sport and a true soul surfer. He was known as the eye patch-wearing pioneer (his eye was injured in a surfing accident) who created one of the first neoprene-based wetsuits, which allowed surfers to remain in cold water much longer, according to the O.C. Register.
While others have claimed to have invented the wetsuit, it is O’Neill who is widely credited with expanding surf culture into the colder coastal areas of the world.
In 1952, O’Neill opened a small surf shop at Ocean Beach in San Francisco ― a first for the area ― and looked for ways to stay warm in Northern California’s chilly waters, San Francisco Gate reported. While working on the neoprene-based wetsuit, O’Neill moved his shop south to Santa Cruz.
“I thought that I’d have a little shop on the beach and some people to surf with. But I kept up on the neoprene wetsuit and I soon got letters from around the world ― people who were interested in staying warm in the water,” O’Neill said in a 2012 interview with surf news site Surfline.
“Nobody is more surprised than I am how it’s grown,” he said of his invention.
Surf brands and wetsuit makers still use neoprene. O’Neill, as a brand, has branched into men’s and women’s athletic wear, lifestyle clothing and swimsuits. In 1996, O’Neill, the surfer, founded the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a youth program that teaches environmental and marine conservation.
In an interview with RedBull TV published in December, O’Neill revealed what he values most: “The three most important things in life are surf, surf and surf.”
O’Neill celebrated his 94th birthday on March 27. He died at home surrounded by family, according to KSBW 8.