by Corky Carroll
Today I would like to continue with my “surfing’s most interesting people” series that I started a couple of months ago. These are profiles on people whom I have met over the mega-zillion years that I have been involved in surfing that are ones that I have found to be more interesting than most, for one reason or another. People that I would love to sit down and have a conversation with that didn’t center around current surfing events.
One of those, and also one of my favorite guys from the surfing world, is the late great Jack O’Neill. Let me give you some background on the dude in case you don’t already know who he is.
Jack was one of the very early surfing pioneers in the San Francisco/Santa Cruz area of Northern California. Having been born in Denver and then serving in the Navy during WW2 he wound up settling in that area. He had body surfed there during the 1940’s. He opened a surf shop on what was called “the Great Highway” in San Francisco in 1952.
Shortly after that he began experimenting with trying to develop some sort of gear to help keep warm while surfing the frigid waters up there. His first attempt was made with foam and plastic, but he soon started working with neoprene rubber. Local surfers were skeptical at first. Only at first though, as soon as he had a version that actually worked they flocked to it. It is widely accepted that he was one of the first to get the whole surfing wetsuit industry on the map. I know that the Meistrell brothers from Redondo Beach had a lot to do with that too.
Jack later moved to Santa Cruz and opened a little shop right next to the pier. This is where I first met him in about 1960, on my first trip up there. He sold me some resin to repair my board, super cool and friendly guy.
During the surfing boom of the 1960’s Jack’s company grew to prominence in the surfing industry with clothing being added to the wetsuits. “O’Neill” became a solid brand. During those years Jack’s kids became involved in the business and would steer it through the decades.
O.k., now about who Jack really was. This was one of the real colorful characters in surfing. Huge personality. He had an old convertible Jaguar sportscar that he would cruise around Santa Cruz in and was about as big of a local celebrity as there was there, at that time. Well, probably of all time. Jack was one of those “bigger than life” kinda people that when you saw him go by you would go, “wow, there goes Jack O’Neill.” And everybody would look and go, “yeah!!!”
Besides surfing Jack had a love of flying hot air balloons. He had one with a huge “O’Neill” logo on it that he would fly under the Golden Gate bridge and during all sorts of events. He was kinda the local version of the Goodyear blimp.
In 1971, when the first versions of the modern “surf leash” were first being experimented with, he lost an eye in a leash related surfing accident. The early versions were attached to the nose of your board with a suction cup and to your wrist. The material was surgical tubing that would stretch to the next time zone. Jack lost his board and the leash stretched really far, sending his board back to him at Mach speed with the pointed nose first. Hit him in the eye, could have killed him.
After that he wore an eye patch, which totally added to the “look” of the character that he was. He was now “the king of the land of the one eyed jacks.” Classic Jack.
He lived in a moss green house on the cliff overlooking a surf spot called “Wild Hook,” on the southern side of Santa Cruz, near Capitola. The windows were round ports like on a ship. I had the fortune to have been invited to dinner a few times over the years and it was always a great evening with a ton of laughing going on. He would say the best thing about his house was he could look out the window and see when the surf was good and not crowded and jump in within minute or two and catch it perfectly. I had grown up in Surfside with the same advantage. We would say we were two lucky dudes.
Always known for good quotes too. Some of his most memorable ones were, “It’s always summer on the inside.” “I’m not into business, I am into surfing.” “I had a friend who used to try to surf in a sweater that he treated with water sealer. He would sit out there in an oil slick.” “The three most important things in life are surf, surf and surf.” “I just wanted to make something that would let me surf longer.” My favorite was, “Surfing is like therapy, you paddle out and everything is all right again.” I have always felt like that. If I am angry or bummed out about something I can always paddle out and sit outside for a little bit and let all the negative vibes wash away.
With Jack you didn’t usually talk about what was going on “in surfing” so to speak. But more about life as a couple of surfers who were riding through it with eyes wide open and the love of all things funny. He was one of those people that I always looked forward to seeing and who was always happy and welcoming when I came around. A true surfing pioneer.