History of the Wetsuit: “I just wanted to be warm”

Yesterday the water here in Southern California dropped a full ten degrees overnight. It went from a bathing suit 66 to a freezing, it-hurts 56 degrees.

According to the lifeguards this is due to the last big-wave swell. It came in with a strong wind and in a few days had blown away the top cover of the ocean, revealing the cold depths.

It was pretty crazy, though, because the cold switch happened overnight. Yesterday it was warm and this morning it was freezing.

56 is so col that not a single person was in the water. Yet the temperature change happened so fast that people were still walking up in boardshorts ready to go out.

I went out and immediately left the water. It hurt!

A few hours later I returned with my winter booties and full wetsuit. This left only my hands and head exposed and I was able to stay out surfing for a long time.

Occasionally, others would join me, then after 10 minutes retreat back to the shore.

This prompted me to learn about the history of the wetsuit and my first search revealed..

┬áJack O’Neill

You owe "The Cheese" a debt of gratitude. By developing the wetsuit, he allowed you to surf around the calendar and around the globe. His little shop in San Francisco is now a multimillion-dollar empire, but that wasn't why Jack O'Neill began. He just wanted to stay warm. "I'm just as surprised by this as anyone," O'Neill says. "I was just messing around with rubber."

full bio

History of the wetsuit

Before the wetsuit:

Surfers prepped for the frigid seas with frantic, almost tribal dances around beach fires, some taking to the water in wool sweaters (occasionally soaked in oil) and/or clunky, immobilizing scuba suits — anything to stave off impending numbness. Waveriding was commonly conservative; the rational being that not falling and thus staying dry was paramount to get radical. Enter┬áJack O’Neill, an inventive San Franciscan and window salesman by trade whose unwillingness to freeze his nuts off would revolutionize watergoing.

Following numerous aborted stabs at a functional, mobile suit, a bodysurfing friend who was working at a Bay Area pharmaceutical lab introduced O’Neill to a peculiar new rubber-like substance: neoprene. O’Neill quickly ordered heaps of the stuff, began hand sewing it together and, in 1952, started up San Francisco’s first surf shop along its Great Highway. Sales were brisker than the afternoon onshore winds that churned Ocean Beach. Later, he took to the road to market his invention, setting up ice-filled tanks in which he’d submerse his kids for hours to get the point across. Onlookers were stunned and overnight surfing became a year-round affair. O’Neill later moved his headquarters south to Santa Cruz, where both remain today.

full history

Back to O’Neill

Today, surfing is big business and the wetsuit industry is filled with competitors. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is good, but the O’Neill brand still stands for quality and is available in all the surf shops.

Which is pretty cool, a family company, the inventor of the wetsuit is still involved and still making the best. I think for my next wetsuit I will buy an O’Neill.

If you’re interested in learning more check out the cool website, or watch the video.

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