“Make some noise for Jack!” Brian Kilpatrick yelled into his microphone, as a circle of 3,000-plus surfers, stand-up paddle boarders and kayakers screamed and cheered, splashing seawater into the air.
A few thousand more watched from beaches nearby and lined East Cliff Drive on either side of the late Jack O’Neill’s famous waterfront house on Sunday morning, July 9. Huddled around the swarm of water lovers were more than 60 boats—among them the Team O’Neill catamaran, where speakers rallied the celebratory crowd, with a PA system that had, earlier in the day, blasted a mix of island, Hawaiian and rock music.
“Very few people truly carve out their own path in this world, and Jack did exactly that,” said Kilpatrick, vice president of marketing for O’Neill, the eponymous company named after its founder, the beloved wetsuit innovator, who died last month.
The crowd was so large it was difficult to take in.
“A few weeks ago, Huntington Beach tried to set the record for biggest paddle-out,” fitness trainer Rocky Snyder told the gathering—referring to the other “Surf City,” one that maintains a longstanding rivalry with Santa Cruz over who truly deserves the title.
“You guys over here broke them,” he said gesturing to one fifth of the crowd with his arm, before spreading his hand out across the horizon. “You guys shattered them!”
Snyder then referenced Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” a 1999 bestseller. “I had Wednesdays with Jack,” he said.
Snyder assured the crowd that every single gift anyone bought O’Neill was still somewhere in that house. And he marveled at O’Neill, who loved his trampoline so much that he still insisted on jumping on it at age 94. “Incredibly frightening, but there you go,” Snyder said.
O’Neill had been an avid surfer, bodysurfer, sailor and balloonist. One of his proudest achievements, though, was starting the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a nonprofit that takes children out on the Team O’Neill catamaran for field trips to learn about marine biology, navigation and conservation.
Shortly before the 11 a.m. proceedings started in the waters off Pleasure Point, an orange Coast Guard helicopter circled over the crowd, flying 50 yards over the water, and shimmied from side to side. A thick fog burned off during the brief ceremony, clearing the marine layer, to reveal crisp blue skies.
Around noon, surfers began paddling under the catamaran—some for “good luck” and others just for fun. Before surfers began paddling back to land, Kilpatrick announced that a patch of O’Neill’s property on the cliff next to his old house would become Jack O’Neill Park.
After the speakers finished, those in the water began tossing their flowers into the surf. Aboard the catamaran, Assemblymember Mark Stone took his purple lay off his shoulders and stripped the orchid flowers from the necklace, careful not to let the string fall into the water.
“He’s one of the iconic watermen of our age and any age,” Stone said, of O’Neill. “And obviously, he invented the wetsuit, but he also created a surf culture in places where there wasn’t one previously.”
O’Neill’s family is asking friends and fans to make any memorial contributions to oneillseaodyssey.org.