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Jack O’Neill, surf legend behind the modern wetsuit, dies

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Californian who later went on to fight for the health of the worlds oceans dies at home aged 94

Jack ONeill, the eye patch-wearing surfing pioneer who helped invent the wetsuit and created one of the worlds best-known surf brands, has died at the age of 94.

ONeill who went on in later life to champion marine environmental causes died of natural causes on Friday at his oceanfront home in Santa Cruz, California, his family said in a statement. He was 94.

The ocean lover wanted to be able to surf longer in the frigid northern California ocean and experimented with various materials to create a lining that made the first neoprene wetsuit wearable.

Current
Current world no.2 and ONeill team rider Jordy Smith of South Africa competes at Bells Beach, Australia, in April this year. Photograph: Kelly Cestari

His death comes a week after California lost another of its treasures: Surfer magazine founder John Severson at age 83. His magazine, which started out as simply a promotional pamphlet for his surf films, became required reading for surfers in the 1960s and carried spellbinding images and tales to an audience starved of such rich media.

ONeills wetsuit discovery came about after he moved with his wife to San Franciscos Ocean Beach neighbourhood in the early 1950s.

ONeill said that at the time his friends didnt have much faith in his invention. All my friends said, ONeill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business, he would remark, according to his family.

In San Francisco he opened one of the areas first surf shops but in 1959 moved his growing family 75 miles (120km) south to Santa Cruz, where he opened his second shop to cater to the citys growing surf scene. The surfing accident in which he lost an eye came about in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, ONeill had become the worlds largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer and the ONeill surf brand had reached Australia, Europe, Japan and other corners of the globe.

He considered ONeill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program for children, his proudest achievement. Founded in 1996, it has taken nearly 100,000 school-aged children in his personal Team ONeill catamaran to the Monterey bay national marine sanctuary to learn about the ocean.

The ocean is alive and weve got to take care of it, ONeill said about the program. There is no doubt in my mind that the ONeil Sea Odyssey is the best thing Ive ever done.

Associated Press contributed to this report

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/03/jack-oneill-surf-legend-wetsuit-dies-california

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