Thousands ‘Paddle Out’ To Honor Wetsuit Magnate

Surfing lost a founding father on June 2. The Santa Cruz, Calif., wetsuit innovator Jack O’Neill’s passing triggered what many are calling the largest paddle-out memorial in the sport’s history.

jack o'neil death paddle surf out
Jack O’Neill; photo O’Neill

Nearly 4,000 surfers paddled into the sea Sunday to pay homage to Jack O’Neill, an early innovator and brand founder of the surfing industry. Surfers paddled into a giant circle in front of O’Neill’s cliffside home in Pleasure Point, Calif., to remember the man who gave them the wetsuit.

O’Neill, Promoter Of The Wetsuit

During the 1940s and ‘50s, surfers had little time to surf at famous peaks like Steamer Lane before they had to warm up on land. The frigid water usually forced them back quickly, so surf sessions were short.

Then came the wetsuit.

O’Neill, a Denver, Colo., native, grew up in Southern California and set up his first surf shop in San Francisco in 1952. That’s where he began to experiment with different materials for wetsuits.

O’Neill’s First Suits

After O’Neill opened his small shop, he commercialized the neoprene wetsuit, now a common fixture among water sports enthusiasts.

“An unlikely source, Jack’s inspiration came from the neoprene flooring of a DC-3 passenger plane,” reported The Inertia. “The first wetsuit prototype was created in 1951 by a Berkeley physicist; however, it was Jack O’Neill who commercialized them.”

The suits formed a foundation of the surfwear brand O’Neill. By the 1980s, O’Neill was a household name among surfers, divers, and frequent beachgoers. Today, the brand sells clothing, swimwear, wetsuits, and beach accessories in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Modern wetsuits are mostly made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber that holds water inside a wetsuit. Body heat warms the water, and a surfer can stay immersed for hours without too much discomfort.

Now, various thicknesses and styles of wetsuits are worn in cool or cold waters. Northern California’s surf ranges from the mid to upper 50s.

A Memorial At Sea

Sunday, thousands of surfers raised their linked hands and howled into the burning fog off Pleasure Point near Eastside Santa Cruz.

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At some sections, the great circle was 15 to 25 surfers deep. Paddle outs are traditions watermen and women use by forming a circle in the ocean to send off a fellow surfer.

Surfers around the world joined those in California, paddling out in groups large and small across the globe.

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In California, cheers from the half-mile circle hissed across the water. Legendary pro surfer and former world champion Shaun Tomson recited the wetsuit founder’s famous words: “The three most important things in life are to surf, surf, surf.”

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