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O'Neill Wetsuits and Clothing

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In the 1950's, Jack O’Neill opened his first surf shop in a garage across the Great Highway in San Francisco. There he sold his first wetsuits - a few vests he made from gluing together pieces of closed cell foam. Surfing in the 1950s meant short sessions due to the cold water temperatures. Surfers tried anything to stay warm. Cold and sick of cutting his sessions short at Ocean Beach, Jack embarked on a mission to create a surf suit.

Before opening the surf shop, on his lunchbreaks, the window and skylight salesman would brave the chill waters with nothing more than a pair of bunhuggers borrowed from a nearby pool and maybe an old bathing cap from the secondhand store. Some of the the surfers tried wool sweaters and even soaked them with oil so they'd repel water, but the comfort level was not high, and after a half hour or so in the surf, they'd gather around a driftwood-and-tire fire and listen to their teeth rattle.

The better possibility, thought O'Neill, was flexible plastic foam, one of many technological developments to emerge from World War II (O'Neill served in the Army Air Corps). Sandwiching the porous material between thin sheets of plastic, Jack stuffed it into his trunks and discovered that at least part of him stayed warm. The stuff was hard to work with and almost impossible to weld together, but he started to get interested.

When he discovered neoprene foam carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane, he knew he was on to something. O’Neill found neoprene to be a good insulator, was buoyant, and it had more tensile strength. Out of his surf shop, he shaped a few balsa surfboards and sold accessories like paraffin wax as well as his first neoprene vests. When the vests started selling, Jack decided to go into the wetsuit business. With the material problem much improved, Jack soon developed designs for the short john, long john, spring suits, long-sleeved-beaver-tailed jacket and full suit wetsuits. His friends laughed. They asked him what he planned to do for business after the handful of surfers in the area had bought one. Jack said he'd cross that bridge when he got there.

Since then, O'Neill has made countless improvements to the design and quality of the wetsuit. His son Pat was a pioneer in developing the surf board leash, affectionately known as the "kook cord" back then. Using materials such as nylon lines, suction cups and surgical tubing, Pat found ways to prevent his board from crashing into the cliffs and breaking in half.

Today, O'Neill is one of the worldwide leaders in the wetsuit industry. Jack has also developed the O'Neill Sea Odyssey program - a free, educational cruise aboard the Team O'Neill catamaran that acquaints kids with the microbiology of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, which begins at Jack O'Neill's doorstep.

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