Thousands Of Surfers Pay Tribute To Wetsuit Pioneer O’Neill

SANTA CRUZ (KPIX 5) — A sea of surfers took to the waters off Santa Cruz Sunday, holding a massive paddle out in honor of local surf legend Jack O’Neill who died last month at the age of 94.

O’Neill’s pioneering work with wetsuits created a new way of life along the Northern California coast and launched the sport of surfing into the mainstream.

“It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before in history,” said Santa Cruz surfer Jerry Stolaroff. “It’s a history making event.”

Thousands of surfers from the area and many who traveled to the event from out of town participated in the event at Pleasure Point.

paddle out 2 Thousands Of Surfers Pay Tribute To Wetsuit Pioneer ONeill

Jack O’Neill Memorial Paddle Out (CBS)

“Historical moment today. Probably the largest paddle-out in history,” said another local surfer who calls herself “Pleasure Point Pam.”

“Jack O’Neil was a legend, in this sport, and in this town,” said surfer Don Zay.

It was what you might call a state funeral for a town known as “Surf City.”

“There’s never been anything like this, just like there’s never been anyone like Jack O’Neill,” said local surfer Jerry Stolaroff.

“He was the man,” said surfer and friend Mike Oshkar. “I worked for Jack in the 1980s, and I can tell you he was a true pioneer. First in the water, last out.”

O’Neill moved with his wife to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighborhood in the early 1950s.

Looking to surf longer in the frigid Northern California ocean, he began experimenting with various materials until he invented the first neoprene wetsuit.

“I mean, he invented the wetsuit over at the Hook. Came up with the idea and the prototype,” said Zay.

“Without Jack, I wouldn’t be in the water and any of these other people wouldn’t, because it was too cold,” said Oshkar.

And think about how many surfers can thank Jack O’Neill.

“Surfing changed my life, you know?” said Zay.

O’Neill’s invention took a niche, warm-water sport and transformed it into a global lifestyle.

Even some of the devoted surfers and O’Neill fans were shocked by the turn out.

“This is something I never thought I’d see,” said Stolaroff. “He was a lifestyle leader. He captured the imagination of a couple generations of youth.”

Without O’Neill, we wouldn’t know surfing as we do today and there wouldn’t be Santa Cruz as we know it.

So one by one, the surfers paddled out, said their goodbyes and rode back in — holding a Santa Cruz Sunday services on surfing’s holy water for the legend.

“There’s never been a town like Santa Cruz, where Jack O’Neill could live on a surf break like this!” said Stolaroff.

“I was thinking, ‘I wish you could see this!’ But I figured he already knows,” said Pleasure Point Pam. “So it’s a big tribute to him and shows the love everyone had for him.”

Some surfers offered up their tributes to O’Neill on camera.

“Just want to say we love you Jack. and we’ll remember you always, in our heart,” said Zay.

“Thank you Jack, for all the memories and make your wave never end. God bless you,” said Oshkar.

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