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Thousands of Surfers ‘Paddled Out’ to Honor a Legendary Wetsuit Pioneer

Jack O’Neill died on June 2.

In the early 1950s, if you wanted to surf in the frigid waters off the coast of Northern California, you didn’t have many options—other than to dive in and bear it. Water temperatures don’t frequently rise above 60 degrees there, compared with around 70 in San Diego, meaning that long sessions of water sports could turn deeply uncomfortable.

Enter Jack O’Neill, who started making early neoprene foam wetsuits in 1952 and sold them from his famed Surf Shop in Santa Cruz to keep surfers warm while they rode the waves. The first suits just covered the torso, but later versions made by O’Neill in the 1960s were full-body affairs, and the development coincided with an explosion in the popularity of surfing, making O’Neill rich and famous in the process.

O’Neill died early last month at the age of 94, and on Sunday thousands of people across the world honored his passing with a surfing tradition known as a “paddle out,” in which surfers paddle out to sea and form a circle in memory of a loved one.

Up to 3,000 surfers participated in a paddle out in Santa Cruz alone (see above), while some 240 paddled out in Cornwall, in southern England (see below), and dozens of others did so near Sydney. (Paddle outs were also scheduled for locations in Canada, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.)

O’Neill had a beard and wore an eyepatch, a look that burnished his legend. According to The New York Times, he started surfing to escape the tedium of his day jobs, which included driving a cab and selling fire extinguishers.

Jack O'Neill.
Jack O’Neill. OSO/CC BY 3.0

“When you get all screwed up, and you jump in the ocean,” he once told surfline.com, “everything’s all right again.”