For Bob Meistrell, there was always something about the water.
After he and his brother, Bill, taught themselves to swim in a Missouri pond, one would man a bicycle pump on shore and the other would throw on a diving helmet fashioned from a five-gallon vegetable can, a pane of glass, a scoop of tar and — connecting to the pump — a garden hose.
A few decades later, the identical twins who moved to Southern California as teens started a company whose wet suits enabled surfers to stay in the water longer and more comfortably than they ever had. Their accomplishments at Redondo Beach-based Body Glove International helped draw millions to a relaxed lifestyle that was once the province of macho young men who warded off the chill with oil-drenched sweaters.
At 84, Bob Meistrell died June 16 aboard his 72-foot yacht Disappearance off Catalina Island, Calif., where he was planning to help run a paddleboard race. He suffered a heart attack, family members said.
Bill Meistrell died of Parkinson’s disease in 2006.
Bob Meistrell was an accomplished diver and diving teacher. He taught diving to celebrities, including Lloyd Bridges of TV’s “Sea Hunt.”
He also was excited about one-man submarines. Over the years, he and a partner built several subs named “Snooper,” using them to search for crashed airplanes, shipwrecks and, when hired by local agencies, sewer pipe leaks.
In 1975, Mr. Meistrell was poking around the seafloor off Palos Verdes, Calif., and discovered a 280-pound doughnut-shaped stone that, according to some scientists, resembled the kind of anchor used by Chinese sea vessels 2,000 years ago.
Robert Fischer Meistrell was born in Boonville, Mo., on July 31, 1928, and was hours younger than his brother.
When they were 4, their investment-banker father was murdered by a former business partner, Mr. Meistrell told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. The family moved west in the 1940s, landing in Manhattan Beach, Calif., when the twins were 16.
The boys took to the ocean immediately. This time, they had a real diving helmet — purchased from a neighbor for $25 after a previous owner had drowned in it.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Meistrell served in the Army at Fort Ord, Calif., during the Korean War. Meanwhile, the brothers’ tiny surfing world was set to explode.
In 1951, Hugh Bradner, a University of California at Berkeley physicist, was testing wet-suit materials for Navy divers. He came up with a two-piece suit made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber patented by DuPont, and tested it himself in icy Lake Tahoe. When the Navy rejected the idea, it became declassified, and Bev Morgan, a surfing buddy of Bill’s, found Bradner’s full report in a library at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In 1953, the brothers rounded up $1,800 and bought into Morgan’s Dive N’ Surf shop in Redondo Beach, where wet suits — however cumbersome and irritating — were slowly starting to sell.
“ ’50s surfers in general rejected the rubber suits as both uncomfortable and unmanly,” wrote Matt Warshaw in the 2003 Encyclopedia of Surfing, but the Meistrells persisted. They bought out Morgan and, like others along the beachfront, saw their sales rocket after the surfing movie “Gidget” was released in 1959.
“Surf movies, surf magazines, surf music — it all turned into a cultural expression that never calmed down,” said Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer’s Journal. With the development of wet suits and lighter surfboards, the sport’s popularity catapulted. In 1965, the Meistrells founded Body Glove.
It succeeded beyond “the wilder of our wilder dreams,” Bob Meistrell once said.
The company, owned almost entirely by family members, does more than $200 million in business annually, marketing not only wet suits but also swimsuits, snorkels, sportswear and niche items, such as cellphone cases and ice-pack wraps. Its chief competitor over the years has been O’Neill, the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based surfwear empire started in the 1950s by Jack O’Neill.
Mr. Meistrell, who lived in Redondo Beach, is survived by his wife of 62 years; three sons; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Meistrell was active in water sports even at the end of his life.
In 2009, he dived 81 feet for his 81st birthday. Because it was also his late brother’s birthday, he doubled it — and added 10 feet for good measure.