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The surfing wetsuit turns 60

The surfing wetsuit turns 60

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Jack O'Neill recalls Northern California waters so frigid that winter surf sessions barely lasted an hour before the ice cream headaches hit and forced many surfers to end their sessions, no matter how good the waves.

After leaving the ocean, O'Neill and his friends would burn old tires on the beach to thaw their numb bodies.

"I was just looking for ways to keep warm," O'Neill said.

Surfers had few wintertime options until O'Neill created the first surfing wetsuit, which celebrated its 60 birthday this year. His invention – a short-sleeved neoprene vest -- prompted teasing from surfers, but ultimately allowed them to last longer in the chilly water.

The guys in the line up would crack jokes about the weird thing he was wearing. O'Neill remembers a friend saying: "You're going to sell to five guys on the beach, and you're going to be out of business."

O'Neil landed in the surf business after his career took an unexpected turn. In the early 1950s, he held an office job in San Francisco and returned to his desk one day after a surf session, his sinuses still filled with salt water. He bent over some documents and water gushed from his nose, drenching the paperwork. The mishap, he says, prompted his boss to fire him shortly after.

So he bought some balsa wood and began building surfboards. In 1952, he opened the first surf shop, in San Francisco. To this day, O'Neill still holds the trademark to the word "surf shop" but never sought legal action after the throngs of surf shops opened through the decades.

The O'Neill brand would evolve into one of the largest surf companies in the world, with the Irvine-based La Jolla Group acting as licensee for the company's clothing division. His creation allowed the masses to comfortably surf year around the globe and spawned a more than $100-million wetsuit industry.

"He wasn't trying to get rich or make money, the surf industry didn't exist," said Brian Kilpatrick, director of marketing communications of O'Neill's wetsuit division.

At the same time he opened his surf shop, O'Neill also had been wracking his brain trying to find ways to stay in the water longer.

His first attempt was with PVC foam, which he put inside his bathing bottoms. Next came a vest. He put plastic on the outside so the water would run off the surface, instead of getting suctioned into the foam, but the creation wouldn't last long in the ocean. Another problem: The fit was suffocating and restricted movement.

A friend working in a lab suggested using a material called neoprene instead. O'Neill was experimented with the product and came up with the first wetsuit vest. In the fifties, there wasn't a big market for this new creation, especially in Northern California, where you often could go a month without seeing another surfer in the water.

Word spread about this innovation. No surfing magazines existed, so O'Neill got creative by putting his children in the suits on top of ice blocks in front of sports trade shows to show how they would withstand the cold, Kilpatrick said.

Manhattan Beach-based Body Glove started experimenting with neoprene in 1953. But with few surf companies in the market, O'Neill had years to perfect the wetsuit.

O'Neill expanded the vest to a beaver-tail jacket and long johns, then to a spring suit with a vest top and short legs, and the full suit followed.

"There was no competition in the 50s, no one even thought of it," Kilpatrick said. "We were virtually unchallenged."

Dick Metz, who has been surfing since before wetsuits hit the scene, remembers leaving Laguna Beach to attend school in Santa Barbara. Metz and his surfer friends would go to the surplus store and buy army wool sweaters to wear in the water.

"When they were wet, they would get real heavy," said Metz, founder of the Surfing Heritage Foundation. "But it kept the wind off you. Even if they were wet, they'd keep you warm to some degree."

Those were the days before leashes, so surfers had to swim after their boards as the waves washed them to shore and soaking wet wool sweater dragged them down.

News of the wetsuit spread by word of mouth along the California coast, and surfers started calling O'Neill from places like South Africa, Australia and Europe. O'Neill created the first full suit, called the "Animal Skin." It would remain the best selling wetsuit for the next 30 years.

Metz said two things spurred more people to surf: the creation of lighter surfboards and the wetsuit.

"With the advent of the wetsuit, along with the evolution of the surfboard, you can surf any place now. Guys are surfing in Antarctica and Canada," Metz said. "The equipment has allowed the sport to grow. Wetsuit and surfboard allowed the masses to enjoy it."

In the 60s, Gidget, the Beach Boys, surf magazines and movies hit the scene, sending more surfers in the water – and more surfers trying to keep warm in the ocean. In 1970, Costa-Mesa based Rip Curl started putting out wetsuits, and by the 1980s pretty much every surf company made a version of the wetsuit.

While most surfers praise the invention of the wetsuit, others blame O'Neill for sending more people out in the water.

"I get accused of making it too busy, making it crowded," O'Neill said. "Guys like to have their own waves."

The wetsuit industry has grown into a major chunk of the surfing industry. Wetsuit sales in surf shops increased to $110.4 million in 2010, a 24.5 percent jump from 2008, according to the bi-annual Surf Industry Manufacturing Association Retail Distribution study in 2010, the last year data is available. Nearly 50 percent of the total sales in 2010 were on the West Coast.

"The increase in sales of wetsuits could be credited to the record low temperatures in Southern California during the year, as well as the evolutionary innovation and technology used in wetsuits the past two years," the report said.

The bulk of the sales were from full wetsuits, and an average 139 full suits sold per store at an average price of $217, according to the study.

Sixty years after creating the wetsuit, O'Neill enjoys the semi-retired life in Santa Cruz, where his house overlooks the Pacific Ocean. He is 89 and very active in the company, especially the wetsuit division, which is based in Santa Cruz and continues to maintain more than half the market share in the wetsuit industry.

In 1991, O'Neil was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach, and in 1998 joined the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. In 2000, he was named the Surf Industry Manufacturing Industry's Waterman of the Year.

The evolution of the wetsuit continues, as the big surf brands compete to make the warmest, lightest, most flexible suits on the market.

Here are some recent innovations in wetsuit development:

O'NEILL

The Psycho Series with TechnoButter is the latest invention released fall of this year. It is 30 percent lighter than previous suits, and has 20 percent less water absorption, allowing it to dry faster. Jersey on the outside is quick dry and extremely lightweight. The suit is up for a SIMA Image Award Feb. 7 at The Grove in Anaheim. Retail ranges from $300 to $570, depending on model.

RIP CURL

In 2009 the Costa Mesa-based brand introduced the first battery-operated, heated wetsuit with their H Bomb, but high costs caused the company to take the full suit off the market; now only the H Bomb vest – which works under a regular wetsuit – is available. Retail: $300.

In 2011, Rip Curl introduced the Flash Bomb wetsuit, which has a lining that wicks the water from the inside of the suit within seconds of being exposed to the air, locking moisture into the suit and quickly draining it out. The suit becomes dry and warm to the touch within 30 minutes, and is touted as the "World's Fastest Drying Wetsuit." The Flash Bomb won last year's SIMA Image Award for Wetsuit of the Year, and is up for the award again this year. Retail: $400, a Flashbomb plus is $500.

BILLABONG

With more surfers going to big-wave extremes, Irvine-based Billabong teamed up in 2011 with former world tour surfer Shane Dorian to develop the Billabong V1 wetsuit, which helps propel a surfer to the water's surface after getting pulled under water. The idea came from a near-drowning incident at Mavericks in Northern California.

After a wipeout, the surfer pulls an attached ripcord, which sets off a carbon dioxide cartridge that inflates an airbag in the back of the suit. The surfer then rises to the water's surface in a few seconds. Billabong worked with a company that makes military survival gear to create the Billabong V1 wetsuits. The wetsuit is not available to the general public, but is made for big-wave surfers.

PATAGONIA

The Ventura-based company made headlines when it debuted a wetsuit lined with wool a few years back, and in November the company broke ground again by announcing an environmentally-friendly wetsuit created with renewable biorubber instead of the fossil-based neoprene used for most other suits. Patagonia teamed with Yulex Corp., a clean technology firm, to make the suit from 60 percent guayule, a plant-based material. The goal is to make a suit made out of 100 percent plant materials. Currently, the biorubber suits are available in Japan, but by spring 2013 customers will be able to order the suits from the Ventura plant, with a global rollout to follow.

Also, Patagonia announced on Dec. 10 the creation of a portable self-inflation vest for big-wave surfers. The company teamed with surfer Kohl Christensen for ideas and testing. The vest can be worn under various types of wetsuits, features an air-release valve, and allows a surfer to paddle and swim when it's fully inflated. The vest still it the test phase and not available in stores yet.

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com or 714-796-7942


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