Rob Caughlan
Rob Caughlan's new book tells stories of his life as an environmentalist, surfer and political operative. Review file photo

“To me, a profession in politics looked kind of like surfing: fast, exciting and dangerous. It included high stakes, big wins, and bad wipeouts. It even came complete with sharks!” Robert Caughlan writes.

In his new book, “A Surfer in the White House and Other Salty Yarns” Caughlan provides an in-depth look into the political landscape dating back to the 1960s. He traces his path as an avid surfer whose passion for the ocean led him to work toward practical environmental policy at a national level.

The book, available at, is filled with insights, humorous stories and serious advice from a man who cares about environmental policy. For surfers interested in pursuing public service to protect a natural resource, Caughlan provides a solid framework.

Caughlan, 77, was drawn to environmental activists because of a shared love for the ocean. He grew up surfing in spots from San Francisco to dSanta Cruz. He co-founded the Roanoke Co. and for 30 years ran the advertising and public relations firm focused on environmental sustainability and public policy. In “the arena,” Caughland helped manage election campaigns for multiple congressional representatives, including Pete McCloskey, who represented San Mateo County as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. His reputation earned him national acclaim, and he eventually worked with the Environmental Protection Agency alongside President Jimmy Carter, where he wrote speeches, produced films and joined Carter’s Solar Energy Task Force.

Caughlan served as the Surfrider Foundation’s first president in 1984. At the helm of the nonprofit for six years, he helped get it off the ground by proving to surfers, and to corporate businesses, that surfers could be more than just fun-loving individuals.

In the “The Black Waves” chapter, Caughlan points to Surfrider’s case against the paper pulp mills in Humboldt County in 1989, in which Surfrider filed suit against the mills, citing more than 40,000 allegations of Clean Water Act violations over a 10-year period. Surfrider settled with both defendants in 1991, resulting in one of the largest victories for clean water in American history. The companies that owned the mills paid $2.9 million in federal fines to the U.S. Treasury and were ordered to improve their mill at a cost of more than $50 million.

Another chapter Caughlan highlighted is “The Weight of Knowledge.” He references how any job, from shaping environmental policy to that of a police officer or health care professional, can present seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Caughlan isn’t offering a one-size-fits-all solution, but offers his perspective on how he dealt with the environmental issues he saw.

“It’s depressing. It’s hard,” Caughlan said of the many current environmental concerns. “People deal with it in different ways.”

Caughlan’s way was working through public policy, and he’s still at it today. In recent years, Caughlan became involved in the dispute on preserving public access to Martin’s Beach, south of Half Moon Bay. The Surfrider Foundation enlisted him, with McCloskey and Mark Massara, to assist in the legal battle with Vinod Khosla, who purchased the land near the beach and attempted to block public access in 2012.

“If you really love the ocean and the beach, you’ve got to do something to protect it,” remains Caughlan’s resounding message.

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