O'Neill: A Santa Cruz Icon
O’Neill wet suits and beachwear weren’t exactly born in Santa Cruz, but as far as most of the world is concerned, the O’Neill brand is synonymous with Santa Cruz and surfing legend.
The O’Neill wet-suit story began in 1952, when Jack O’Neill and his brother, Robert, opened their first surf shop in a garage across from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. While shaping balsa surfboards and selling accessories, the O’Neills experimented with solutions to a common surfer problem: frigid waters. Tired of being forced back to shore, blue-lipped and shivering after just 20 or 30 minutes riding the waves, they played with various materials and eventually designed a neoprene vest.
In 1959, Jack moved his shop 90 miles south to Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz. It quickly became a popular surf hangout, and O’Neill’s new wet suits began to sell like hotcakes. In the early 1960s, the company opened a warehouse for manufacturing on a larger scale. Santa Cruz soon became a major surf city, attracting wave riders to prime breaks at Steamer Lane, Pleasure Point, and the Hook. In 1965, O’Neill pioneered the first wet-suit boots, and, in 1971, Jack’s son invented the surf leash. By 1980, O’Neill stood at the top of the world wet-suit market. On June 2, 2017, Jack O’Neill passed away at the age of 94, in his longtime Pleasure Point residence overlooking the surf.