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Monday 19 February 2018

Wetsuit pioneer and surf world legend Jack O'Neill dies at 94

Jack O'Neill suits up before windsurfing off Santa Cruz, California, in 1982 (The Santa Cruz Sentinel/AP)
Jack O'Neill suits up before windsurfing off Santa Cruz, California, in 1982 (The Santa Cruz Sentinel/AP)
Jack O'Neill pioneered the wetsuit (The Santa Cruz Sentinel/AP)

Jack O'Neill, the Northern California surfing world icon who pioneered the wetsuit, has died at 94.

O'Neill died of natural causes on Friday at his Santa Cruz home, his family said.

The eye-patch wearing ocean lover died peacefully, surrounded by family in his oceanfront home of more than 50 years, waves lapping at his deck.

He began wearing a black eye patch after his surfboard hit his left eye while riding a wave.

O'Neill moved with his wife to San Francisco's Ocean Beach neighbourhood in the early 1950s.

Looking to surf longer in the frigid Northern California ocean, he began experimenting with various materials until he invented the first neoprene wetsuit.

O'Neill said at the time his friends did not 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.

He opened a surf shop in San Francisco but in 1959 moved his growing family 75 miles south to Santa Cruz, where he opened his second shop to cater to the city's growing surf scene.

By the 1980s O'Neill had become the world's largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer and the O'Neill surf brand had reached Australia, Europe, Japan and other corners of the globe.

He considered O'Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education programme for children, his proudest achievement.

Founded in 1996, it has taken nearly 100,000 school-aged children in his personal Team O'Neill catamaran to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the ocean.

"The ocean is alive and we've got to take care of it," O'Neill said about the programme.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the O'Neil Sea Odyssey is the best thing I've ever done."


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