A Surfing Legend: Jack O’Neill Surf History

jackposterIt was in Santa Cruz, in the 1950s and ’60s, that Jack O’Neill developed the modern surfing wetsuit, which helped open surfing in cold-water locations around the world.

In 1959, Jack opened his first surfing shop in Santa Cruz at the entrance to Cowell Beach. It was the first business ever to call itself a “Surf Shop” and it became a place where a tight-knit surfing community formed.

A nexus for the creation of modern surf culture, the “Surf Shop” also became a profitable business. O’Neill is now one of the best selling wet suit brands in the world as well as a top sportswear brand.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey

In 1996, Jack O’Neill founded the non-profit O’Neill Sea Odyssey. This organization has taught more than 65,000 4-6th graders about ocean ecology while sailing on Monterey Bay. When interviewed by the Santa Cruz Sentinel Jack said “I am thrilled with the fact that life has given me the opportunity to start the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a very effective program that brings awareness of the invaluable oceans to the next generation. Follow your bliss!”

Jack O’Neill (right) at the dedication ceremony March 25, 2013. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
Jack O’Neill (right) at the dedication ceremony March 25, 2013. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

O’Neill Honored

In recognition for his contributions to launching a California-born industry, the California State Historical Resources Commission made the 1959 “Surf Shop” location a Point of Historical Interest on May 31, 2012. A commemorative plaque and a temporary mural were put up near the old Surf Shop location and a dedication even was held in the parking lot for Cowell Beach in March 2013.

Speaking about the dedication, Jack said, “What started out as a way to catch as many waves as possible has turned into a life I could not have even dreamed up. I am grateful to all of you who have supported us along the way from our roots through 60 years.”

Students of the O’Neil Sea Odyssey program learn navigation basics. Photo courtesy of and © O’Neil Sea Odyssey.
Students of the O’Neil Sea Odyssey program learn navigation basics. Photo courtesy of and © O’Neil Sea Odyssey.
The temporary, and now gone, mural honoring Jack O’Neill and Santa Cruz surf history. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
The temporary, and now gone, mural honoring Jack O’Neill and Santa Cruz surf history. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
The permanent mural honoring Jack O’Neill and Santa Cruz surf history. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
The permanent mural honoring Jack O’Neill and Santa Cruz surf history. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
The cake at the March, 2013 dedication event.
The cake at the March, 2013 dedication event.

A permanent mural was placed next to the commemorative plaque in early January 2014. It is 55 feet long, 6 feet high and made of porcelain on steel. Made by KVO Industries of Santa Rosa, the mural was paid for by the O’Neill Company and the Dream Inn. The Dream Inn has also honored Jack’s legacy by opening “The Jack O’Neill Lounge” next to its Aquarius restaurant. Inside the lounge, the view, O’Neill memorabilia, and the french fries, are all quite good.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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