A new coffee-table book paints a vibrant portrait of one of surfing's original gear guys
May 14, 2012

It's Always Summer on the Inside, the title of Drew Kampion's outsized, rollicking biography of surfing pioneer Jack O'Neill, does double duty. It was also the advertising slogan for a late-1960s version of O'Neill's full-body wetsuit. Ever the shrewd marketer, O'Neill chose as one of his early models a voluptuous Santa Cruz, Calif., barmaid who, in a racy ad bearing that catchphrase that ran in Surfer magazine, was shown in the act of removing her suit. While "librarians rushed to cancel their subscriptions," Kampion writes, the image more than achieved its purpose.

O'Neill (right, circa 1977) was a board shaper, an entrepreneur and an innovator—an adrenaline addict with "balls twenty feet in diameter," according to one friend. But his claim to fame is the wetsuit, the neoprene breakthrough that kept surfers warm in waters that would otherwise have made them hypothermic. With his signature invention, O'Neill, now 89, has done more than anyone alive to expand the world of surfing.

It's a kick to track the wetsuit's evolution, from early two-piece Navy surplus diving suits to bulky garments stuffed with PVC foam to the "Tailored Thermal Barrier Suits" that resulted from O'Neill's early, mid-'50s experiments with neoprene. But the delight of this tome is the array of oral histories offered by O'Neill and his thrill-seeking contemporaries. Their colorful accounts are brought to life by a trove of terrific pictures of pioneering watermen surfing the rugged breaks of Northern California, from San Francisco's dangerous Ocean Beach (across from which O'Neill opened his first—the first, really—surf shop) to Steamer Lane and Cowell's in Santa Cruz.

The lineup at those breaks is far more crowded now than it was in O'Neill's heyday. And for that, he has no one to blame but himself.