This weekend, all surfers around the world commemorated Jack O'Neill (1923-2017), the man who invented the wetsuit in 1952, which allowed water sports enthusiasts around the world to spend a lot longer in the cold water without worry.
This was also the case at Surfers Paradise in Knokke-Heist, where no fewer than 130 surfers sat on their surfboards in the sea, forming a large circle, in order to perform a small ceremony in honour of Jack, led by Frank Vanleenhove.
Everyone was given rose petals that were thrown into the air during the event.
Frank Vanleenhove : "I had the pleasure to meet Jack three times, each time at his home in Santa Cruz California. He was a very amiable and quiet man, obsessed with the sea and everything that has to do with surfing. He encouraged especially young surfers to surf as much as possible and to be concerned with nature and especially the ocean. His house alone is iconic: all wood, painted green and built against the cliff above the water overlooking various surf spots. A bit eccentric as he was, he had the ceiling of a room in his house removed in order to put a trampoline between the four walls on the ground floor so that he could jump up one floor...
His invention came about when, working in the aircraft industry, he worked with insulating material, which gave rise to the idea of making a surf vest out of that material, so that he too could go surfing a bit insulated and thus longer...Later, neoprene was added and he commercialised his invention. First to his surfing friends, then in his Santa Cruz surf shop, but the O'Neill name only really took off when he landed a huge order for diving suits for the US Navy...
With the rising popularity of surfing, clothing was later added, and today the family business that manufactures the wetsuits is still based in Santa Cruz.
I went surfing to Mexico with his son Pat O'Neill who runs the business from Santa Cruz during one of my visits. The last time we visited Jack was in 2014 at his home. There are many stories about his pirate-like look, and he told me the true story... When a surfer is paddling through the waves and a wave comes, you have to dive under the wave with your board. At that moment you open your eyes underwater to see how deep and how far you have to dive to get behind the wave. This is what Jack did during a surfing session until he caught an object in his left eye in a skipping wave, probably a piece of wood. This accident, however, became his trademark and Jack became famous all over the world: O'Neill, first name in the water.
When Surfers Paradise celebrated its 10th anniversary, he made sure we got a replica of the real statue in Santa Cruz, on our 20th anniversary we got a nice panel, and when we celebrated our quarter century he gave us a surfboard. So we are very grateful to him, and this 'paddle out' creates a special bond between all the surfers".
O'Neill, it's always summer on the inside! Thank you Jack !