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Larry Capune, 61; Epic Paddleboard Journeys Conquered U.S. Coasts

Times Staff Writer

Larry Capune, a legendary long-distance paddleboarder who made aquatic history by logging a total of 16,063 miles along the nation’s coastlines during eight epic solo paddling trips between 1964 and 1987, has died. He was 61.

Capune, a private-beach lifeguard and recreational director, died Tuesday at his home in Newport Beach of cancer, said his twin brother, Marty.

The Hollywood-born Capune was a 22-year-old seasonal lifeguard at Carpinteria State Beach when he completed his first major long-distance paddleboard adventure from San Francisco to Newport Beach in September 1964: He covered 542 miles in 18 days.

He made his longest trip -- a 4,255-mile trek from Portland, Maine, to Corpus Christi, Texas -- between July 1975 and May 1976.

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Along the way, the deeply tanned and muscular Californian with the sun-bleached blond hair always spread the same motivational message he delivered to children at school assemblies -- “to take an adventure instead of drugs. You can do anything if you think you can.”

Capune’s last -- and most difficult -- paddleboard odyssey was from Chicago to Washington, D.C., between May and October 1987.

He made the 4,090-mile trip via the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.

“I’d like to see somebody else try and do it,” Capune told a reporter afterward.

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Indeed, on that 164-day journey, he had to contend with a massive storm when he was in the St. Lawrence River and a waterspout outside Cleveland.

From the start of his long-distance paddleboarding adventures, Capune generated newspaper headlines:

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

But headlines only hinted at the hardships and dangers Capune faced on his trips.

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Over the years, he was bitten by a sea turtle, a bluefish and a dog. He was hit by a tanker once and by freighters twice. And he required 25 stitches after being smacked in the head by a Coke bottle tossed by a pier owner who claimed the paddleboarder was scaring the fish.

Other mishaps included being mistaken for a target by the Army off Ft. Ord, delaying a missile launching at Vandenberg Air Force Base, surviving being lost at sea 13 times and twice being found unconscious and nearly frozen.

As a long-distance paddleboarder, Capune held a unique position.

In Hawaii between 1938 and 1945, legendary California waterman Gene “Tarzan” Smith made three inter-island crossings on a hollow, spar-constructed paddleboard, the longest of which was a 90-mile crossing from Oahu to Kauai in 1940.

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Steve Pezman, co-publisher of the Surfer’s Journal, said that was “a radical feat” at the time.

“But no one’s done the coastlines of the United States like Larry Capune,” Pezman said. “That’s an original feat and has never been duplicated.”

When Capune began making his long-distance paddleboard trips in the ‘60s, Pezman said, paddleboarding had become something of a “lost art,” and Capune’s headline-generating adventures drew national attention to both paddleboarding and the beach culture.

Craig Lockwood, a longtime lifeguard friend of Capune’s who has written about paddleboarding for Surfer’s Journal and other surfing magazines, said Capune was “a consummate waterman and paddleboarder.”

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“I don’t doubt that most people who are knowledgeable about the sport of paddleboarding would agree that Larry’s feats and watermanship are probably among the greatest solo seagoing adventures of all time,” Lockwood said. “They’ve never been equaled, and it’s doubtful that they ever will be.”

Capune’s 18-foot, 80-pound foam-core fiberglass paddleboard was made for him by surfboard manufacturer Hobie Alter in the late 1960s. It was 18 inches wide and nine inches thick and had a foot-operated rudder known as a kick-tiller.

Paddling anywhere from 100 yards to 10 miles offshore during his long-distance trips, Capune typically spent eight to 10 hours a day in the water and covered 20 to 25 miles. One day, according to Lockwood, Capune covered 53 miles.

A war-surplus waterproof pack tied to the board carried his gear and supplies: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, several cans of soda, a tiny portable radio and other necessities. A simple magnetic compass was taped to the board’s deck.

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During the 4,090-mile trip from Chicago to Washington in 1987, Marty Capune accompanied his brother on land in a 1971 Volkswagen bus. To mark Capune’s predetermined destination for the day, his brother would plant a bright-red flag on the beach.

But on most of his trips, Capune was on his own.

Traveling on a shoestring budget, he would hope for someone to put him up for the night. Sometimes, he simply slept on the beach, where he might be forced to bury himself in the sand to ward off the bugs and mosquitoes.

But there also were times when he was greeted with keys to cities and given lodging in expensive hotel suites.

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His most memorable stay came during his 1972 paddling trip from Maine to Miami. After running into 30-knot winds and small-craft warnings, he headed ashore in Massachusetts.

Not exactly sure where he was, he knocked on the door of the first house he saw. It turned out to be the Kennedy compound home of Rose Kennedy in Hyannis Port. She invited the tired and freezing Capune in, and he wound up spending two nights with the Kennedy clan.

Capune, who never married, made his living as a lifeguard at the private Dover Shores beach in Newport Beach, and for many years he supplemented his income with his school lectures.

Diagnosed as having a melanoma on his back five years ago, Capune had it removed and was told he was free and clear when he went in for his six-month checkup last November, his brother said.

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Later that month, however, Capune started experiencing seizures, and further testing revealed he had a brain tumor and four other tumors in his body, his brother said.

Although he made his last major paddleboard trip in 1987, he continued to paddle four miles a day -- every day -- until ill health put an end to it six months ago.

“He was very disciplined, focused,” said Marty Capune, who shared a house with his brother for many years. “If he had put that kind of focus in business, he probably would have been a multimillionaire.”

Despite his modest income, Capune was a film buff who collected 16-millimeter prints of more than 500 feature films and documentaries. His free, outdoor showings of family films on Balboa Island and at Dover Shores beach were a summer tradition for decades.

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In February, 250 people showed up at Dover Shores for a special, final screening.

As usual, Capune barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs and ran the projector. The movie he chose was the 1949 Disney family drama “So Dear to My Heart.”

“In that film, there’s a quote Larry used,” said Marty Capune, his brother’s sole survivor. “He was always stressing to kids: It’s not what you don’t have that counts; it’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts.”


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