Jack O'Neill: the inventor of the modern wetsuit

Legendary surf icon Jack O'Neill changed the sport of surfing forever when he decided to give surfers a protection against 50°F (10°C) waters. Discover his most inspiring quotations.

Jack O'Neill (1923-2017) is often called the inventor of the modern wetsuit. The man who designed the surfers' second skin so that they could stay in cold waters for hours.

O'Neill was born in Denver, Colorado. He served in the US Navy in World War II and then moved to Northern California where he began bodysurfing in the early 1940s.

He tried everything to stay warm in the frigid waters. His first prototype was a vest made of foam and plastic. It was not perfect, but it was a start, and it was better than suffering at the hand of the low water temperatures.

"We could only stay in for about a half hour," O'Neill once told. So, despite all negativism and doubts, the young experimentalist went ahead with his business idea.

Initially, surfers thought that Jack was the "clown of surfing." Real surfers would never wear a silly neoprene suit. But they all changed their mind in a matter of months.

The wetsuit went on to become the most important item in the surfer's equipment. Without it, surf sessions are cut short by hypothermia.

The eyepatch-wearing surf legend was a continuous innovator. O'Neill was also one of the first to open a surf store in the San Francisco area. He named it simply "Surf Shop."

The friendly, laid-back character also developed a special interest in oceanography and marine education. His O'Neill Sea Odyssey catamaran helps students understand the fragile relationship between the oceans, humans and the surrounding environment.

Jack O'Neill did many things in life. He was a lifeguard, windsurfer, salesman, sailor, huckster, flyer, fisherman, and a trailblazer. Nevertheless, one thing he always believed in was that it's always summer on the inside.

In other words, O'Neill allowed us surf more, to surf longer. Take a look at his most famous quotes:


When I started, "surf" was a dirty word. The city thought those guys out there were a bunch of bums. They threatened to arrest them.

I had a surfer friend who wanted to work for the police, and when he went to the station, the chief took one look at the surfboard on his car and said, 'Policemen don't surf.'

I just wanted to surf longer. I just worked on something to make it last longer.

I remember going to sleep at night. You see that wave, that wall of water, and that tube. It's something with being close to nature like that, pretty hard to beat.

Guys were using sweaters from the Goodwill. I remember one guy got a jumper from the Goodwill and sprayed it with Thompson's water seal, and he set out there in an oil slick."

Surfing, for me, was kind of a therapy - jump in the ocean and feel alright again. You just get one wave, and everything's okay.

All my friends said: 'O'Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business.'

When we started wetsuits, they used to laugh at us. But Then they could see that the first in with the wetsuit was the last out.

We didn't have any money to put in advertising, so we've always been very nice to the press, and they've been very nice to us.

Nobody is more surprised than I am about what's happened.

It's been a hell of a ride. Long may it continue.

Santa Cruz is the center of surfing.

The three most important things in life: surf, surf, and surf.

I'm not much into business; I'm into the ocean.

I'm just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer.

The kids surfing today are doing things we never dreamed about.

The main thing with this house [Pleasure Point, CA] is a surf out there. In a spot like this, you can look out, see when it's not too crowded, and grab your board and jump out to get a few waves.

Over half of our oxygen comes from the ocean. I think if the ocean goes, we do too.

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


Explore the best surfing quotes of all time.