Palo Alto Weekly: Rob Caughlan:
Publication Date: Jan 19, 1994

Rob Caughlan:

riding the environmental wave "I do say, 'cowabunga, dude.'"

As a champion surfer, Rob Caughlan is entitled to a little surfspeak now and then. At the same time, at age 50, it would be unseemly if Caughlan amped (overdid) his conversation with snide references to chalk people (people who live far from the beach) who suck milk (wipe out) in Big Mama (the ocean).

They call him Birdlegs--"You'd understand if you saw me in my baggies"--and say he does "ballet on the water." In the 33 years since he first pit board against wave, Caughlan estimates he has ridden some 50,000 waves. "Thirty-three years, two or three times a week, five waves a time, that's about 50,000," he says, doing the arithmetic in his head.

But who's counting?

He now surfs in what is euphemistically called the Legends Division, for the older crowd, although it's not much of a crowd. "Most surfers have died by now," he joked.

Not that age, or much else, matters to his cohort. Few of Caughlan's surfing buddies know his real name, or what, if anything, he does when he's dry. "The only hierarchy is how well you surf," said Caughlan.

But what Caughlan does on land matters very much to surfers because it goes right to the heart of preserving the oceans they venerate. A devoted environmentalist, Caughlan, along with his friend David Oke, is one of the founders of Roanoke Company, a "good deeds" media company in Menlo Park.

Named for the "lost colony" of English settlers who disappeared without a trace in 1585, Roanoke Company exclusively serves causes the principals view as environmentally and socially righteous. Their clients include the Californian Endangered Species campaign for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the motorcycle safety campaign for the California Highway Patrol.

People predicted doom for the company when Caughlan and Oke first conceived the idea 20 years ago. "We put our convictions above money and made a rule not to work with people we didn't like," said Caughlan. "Everybody would say, 'How are you going to get by with a shabby attitude like that?"

In spite of its high moral tone, or perhaps because of it, the company has done well. "Right now, we're as busy as we want to be," he said.

Roanoke also allows Caughlan the freedom to haken (surf) killer waves on a weekday. "My partners understand if I call in and say, 'I've had a radical attack of surf fever. I'll be in at the crack of 2."

Caughlan is also a founding agitator of the Surfriders Foundation, an international organization of surfers and sympathetic chalk people working to preserve the ocean and beaches. Among the organization's most notable successes was preventing the Army Corps of Engineers from establishing a mile-long breakwater at Imperial Beach in San Diego Bay. "People were shocked," said Caughlan. "They didn't think surfers could be this functional. Getting surfers to do something together is like that button that says, 'Anarchists, unite.'"

He now works with the Surfers Environmental Alliance.

Before founding Roanoke, Caughlan was a field representative for Congressman Leo Ryan. He also worked on the winning campaigns of Dianne Feinstein, Alan Cranston and Pete McCloskey. He has a degree in political science from San Francisco State University.

During the Carter Administration, Caughlan left Roanoke to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. There, he helped prepare the Global 2000 Report, the government's huge effort to assess the health of the planet. He was, and still is, a FOJ (Friend of Jimmy). "Everyone else would get a handshake from Jimmy, but I would get a hug," he said.

Caughlan's latest environmental passion is for programs known as Green Plans. Adopted by Holland and New Zealand, Green Plans are national environmental strategies that tackle the whole thorny mass of environmental issues at once. "Until now, we've been like the guy following the elephant in the parade," said Caughlan. "We haven't done anything until there's a problem."

He also takes his work home with him, in the form of recycling, taking the train to work and composting. "I know when I die I'll probably end up in the compost pile, and be well taken care of by my wife."

In his view, environmental action ranks among the highest actions humans can take. "I saved a girl from drowning once, and I've always felt good about it. I feel the same about this," he said.

He feels the sense of horror over the destruction of the ocean that the devout feel about the defacing of a church. "I got eight stitches in one foot from stepping on a broken bottle of Gallo," he said. "And when you see the dolphins washing up on the beach or the dead sea birds, it makes you sick."

Humans have a deep need to affiliate with the natural world, he believes, and can't afford to let it perish into a void. "Darwin's real message isn't survival of the fittest. It's survival of the fit-in. We have to find a way for everything to fit in."

--Diane Sussman 

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