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Paddleboarder Churns Out Aquatic Saga

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Newport Beach paddleboarder extraordinaire Larry Capune has been making newspaper headlines for more than 25 years with his long-distance adventures along the nation’s coastline.

“It’s One Man Against the Sea,” proclaims one headline from the ‘60s.

“Killer Whale, Shark, Nudist and Ron Ziegler Mark Trip,” says one from the ‘70s.

“Paddler Ducks Sharks, Freighter,” says another from the ‘80s.

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In all, the frequent paddler has logged some 19,000 miles on his 10 major paddling trips, the most recent in 1987: a 165-day, 4,090-mile odyssey from Chicago to Washington (across the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River and down the Atlantic Coast).

Along the way, Capune has been bitten by a sea turtle, a bluefish and a dog. He has been mistaken for a target by the Army off Ft. Ord, and he has delayed a missile launching at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

He also has been hit by a tanker once and by freighters twice. And he has been hit in the head by a Coke bottle tossed by a fishing pier owner who claimed he was scaring the fish. (The gash in Capune’s head required 25 stitches.) Traveling on a shoestring budget and carrying only a waterproof knapsack, Capune usually depends on the kindness of strangers whenever he puts in for the night.

There have been times he has been greeted with keys to cities and put up in fancy hotel suites. Other times he has slept on the beach, burying himself in the sand to keep the bugs and mosquitoes away.

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But mostly he stays with families who offer to take him in. The most memorable stopover was in Hyannis Port, Mass., where Rose Kennedy wrapped the discouraged and freezing paddleboarder in a blanket and encouraged him not to give up on his goal. Capune spent three days with the Kennedys, and Ethel Kennedy invited him to stop in the next time he came by. (He did.)

There are enough experiences to fill a book.

In fact, someone told Capune in the early ‘70s that he ought to start writing it all down, lest he forget the details of his many adventures.

He began writing in 1972.

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Eighteen years later, he’s still at it.

“This is it,” he said, pulling a typewritten page out of his electric typewriter. “Right now I’m on Page 5,388--Chapter 256.”

Stacked in a corner of his small desk are the completed pages of his two decades of writing--all done with two fingers, hunt-and-peck-style.

The manuscript--a rainbow of different-colored pages--measures 25 1/2 inches high.

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It’s enough to make even the prolific James Michener blanch.

A natural-born storyteller, Capune has been lecturing about his trips at elementary, junior high and high schools for 20 years.

He’s talkative and opinionated--a self-confident kind of guy who has braved sharks and killer whales, survived being lost at sea 13 times and twice been found unconscious and nearly frozen.

But Capune knows his own limits: “I’m not a writer,” he said.

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What he is looking for, he said, is an experienced ghostwriter who can take his unwieldly manuscript--misspellings and all--and turn it into a book. Or several books.

As he says: “My life is more than one book.”

Because the narrative of his trips is so episodic, Capune thinks his story also would lend itself to a TV series. Or a movie.

In fact, he said, he has a film excerpt from his appearance on the old “I’ve Got a Secret” TV show in which the first thing out of panelist Steve Allen’s mouth is: “This sounds like a movie!”

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As Capune sees it, he has something unique to offer: “No one else in the world does what I do.”

Dubbed “Larry Lifeguard” by Sports Illustrated, Capune was a lifeguard for the state of California in 1963 when he made his first trip on a paddleboard: He paddled home to Newport Beach from Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara (147 miles in four days).

Except for a touch of gray, the muscular Capune still looks the part of the quintessential California lifeguard with sun-bleached blond hair and a toothy grin. And at 47, he still goes barefoot and is seldom seen in anything other than shorts and T-shirts.

He lives in a rented, ‘30s-vintage house on lower Balboa Peninsula with his twin brother, Marty, a film location manager.

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Capune makes his living as a lifeguard in Dover Shores and by lecturing at school assemblies, sometimes as many as eight a month.

In detailing his exploits to students, he delivers a motivational, anti-drug message: “My message is to take an adventure instead of drugs: You can do anything if you think you can.” And he tells them to “put purpose before purse: It’s not how much you get for doing something; it’s what you do” that counts.

Because his lecture bookings have fallen off a bit lately, Capune has been able to devote more time to his manuscript.

He writes almost every morning, putting in at least three hours a day. He’s on his second typewriter since he started; he wore out the first.

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With a navigational chart propped up in front of him and his logbook next to his typewriter, Capune is able, he said, to conjure up the feelings and details of his trips. And he’s making headway in completing his aquatic saga.

“I’m only 70 days away from being at the end of the last trip,” he said.

Capune still maintains a rigorous training regimen, paddling for at least an hour in the open ocean “not once in awhile, not five days out of seven,” he said. “In rain, shine, fog--no matter what, because how can I tell the kids I do something if I don’t do it? Even if I’m sick, I go.”

He’s not sure when his next trip will be, but he’s got an idea: paddling up the Mississippi River. “I figure a dead cockroach can go down the Mississippi; why not go up? That’s more of a challenge,” he said.

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That, of course, would be another chapter.


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