Take a minute to think about the spots you usually surf. Now think about whether you’d surf there without a wetsuit, and how long you could hang. It narrows it down, doesn’t it?

An early wetsuit experiment. Lapels and padded shoulders? Photo courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library


The Inertia

It’s been 60 years since Jack O’Neill invented the surfing wetsuit and gave surfers the ability to spend more time in the water and surf colder temperatures comfortably. Wetsuits also made it possible to surf where you couldn’t surf before, because it was just too cold. Take a minute to think about the spots you usually surf, and the length of time you spend in the water. Now think about whether you’d surf there without a wetsuit, and how long you could hang. It narrows it down, doesn’t it? (I’m assuming that anyone who doesn’t own or use a wetsuit wouldn’t bother to read this post anyway.)

Three individuals began developing the wetsuit in the early 1950’s; Hugh Bradner, Jack O’Neill, and Willard Bascom. Bradner and O’Neill were located in the San Francisco Bay Area where water temps hover in the 50’s, while Bascom worked in down in San Diego as an engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. All three were all experimenting with neoprene, a magical material with cell-closed air bubbles that was discovered to be an excellent insulating material for water use.

Physicist Hugh Bradner of University of California Berkeley was experimenting with wetsuit design for the purpose of fabricating a deep-sea diving suit. He first came up with a full-bodied two-piece suit. The U.S. military also had their baggy ‘dry suit’ design for divers, but was in no way equipped for surfing.

It was during this decade, 1950-1960 when innovation in surfing skyrocketed, and surfing culture hitting mainstream. The wetsuit, polyurethane surfboard and surf wax were invented.  The Endless Summer, SURFER Magazine and Gidget all appeared on the scene. And it all blew up, fast.

It was the experimentation with neoprene, combined with the explosion of surf culture that led to the quick development of the surfing wetsuit. And once it had arrived, the wetsuit was in demand.

In 1952 O’Neill opened one of California’s first surf shops in San Francisco, California and began manufacturing wetsuits under the brand name O’Neill with the tagline “It’s Always Summer on the Inside.” O’Neill himself had been employed as a commercial fisherman and enjoys recreation around the water, including sailing and surfing. By 1959 the company outgrew the shop, and O’Neill was relocated to a larger space down the coast in Santa Cruz.

But inventing the wetsuit and opening one of the first surf shops in California was only a few of Jack O’Neill’s milestones as a waterman. Today O’Neill is an advocate and a philanthropist of harnessing the ocean’s therapeutic ability and applying that to mental illnesses, PTSD and beyond. He was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, and was named SIMA’S Waterman of the year in 2000. His son Pat even invented the surf leash in the early 1970’s. At 89 years old, O’Neill is still living on the bluffs in Santa Cruz and wears an eye patch across his left eye from a surfing accident that gives him the genuine appearance of a true pioneer, of someone who has explored and has tested the limits.

Over the past 60 years the wetsuit has come a long way, but the purpose is all the same. No matter whether you’re surfing San Francisco or Alaska, surfers just want to catch more waves and stay in the water longer. Next time you put on your neoprene wetsuit to extend your surfing session or even just to step foot in the water, tell it “Happy 60th Anniversary.”