June 9, 2011

Cappy: A Local Legend Who Swam with the Dolphins

The other week, when I was going through photos taken by Don Adams for the Guest Photography Series, I came across two tombstone photos which Don took at the 220-year-old Newton Graveyard off Dow Road.

The first photo was of Robert E. Harrill’s tombstone. Robert, who is better known as the Fort Fisher Hermit, is local legend and has been mentioned in numerous books and has even had a film made of his life.

The second photo was of Henry Capillary’s tombstone. I would find out later that Henry, called Cappy by all who knew him, was equally well known throughout Pleasure Island.

Cappy had an insatiable love for the ocean and would often head far out to sea for marathon swims. For onlookers from shore, he would often appear as just a dot on the horizon as he ventured to areas most swimmers would dare not go for fear of currents or sharks.

As stated in an AP article, Cappy would typically swim out about a mile to a mile and a half starting at the Carolina Beach Pier and then turn south and swim to either the center pier at Wilmington Beach or continue to the Kure Beach Pier.

His incredbile love for the sea and the marine mammals that would often accompany him on his swims, is what endeared so many people to him.

And although I was not familiar with Cappy prior to seeing Don’s photo, my curiosity was instantly peaked when I read Don’s photo narrative which he was nice enough to allow me to reprint here:

Henry Dominic Capillary was better known as “Cappy” by the residents of Carolina Beach. During the summer months Cappy was almost a fixture along the beach. He lived in his old Cadillac and when the summer was over he would return home. (Graham, NC)

He was an avid swimmer and would spend the entire day in the water, regardless of the weather. It is said that even the dolphins knew him and would join him quite often. That’s the significance of the dolphins on his headstone.

I have tried to find specific information about him on the internet without much luck, so mostly what I am saying is from articles I’ve read and stories I’ve been told.

The lifeguards at Carolina Beach would often play a practical joke on the new guy who didn’t know Cappy. Cappy would be spotted far offshore and the new guy would be sent out to “rescue” him. When the lifeguard finally caught up with him Cappy would just smile and say “You’re the new guy, aren’t you”?

He heard that a church in Wrightsville beach was holding services one Sunday and encouraged people to “Come as you are”. Cappy jumped in at Carolina Beach, swam to Wrightsville Beach (about 15 miles) and went to church in his dripping wet bathing suit.

He was very popular and was well respected by those who knew him.

Now, this was enough for me to want to learn more about this local legend known for swimming with dolphins. I begin doing various internet searches on his formal name but didn’t come up with much. However, when I did a search on ‘Cappy Carolina Beach,’ the hits appeared.

To my surprise, at the top of the list was a Facebook group called Friends of Cappy which had 165 members. The majority of the group’s wall posts are from the 2009 period. The page contains some wonderful photographs, earlier news articles and many wonderful comments from people who knew him.

By the time I was done reading over the group’s page, I had come to realize that Cappy had a true heart of gold and made a positive impact on many of the residents and visitors that he encountered up until his death in 1990. I’ve included a few examples from the comments of the Groups FB page and re-posted them below:

Vick R:
I can remember being a young kid working on a shrimp boat and seeing Cappy swim out in the mornings and stay offshore most of the day then swimming back in that afternoon. This was everyday!!It was funny to see rookie lifeguards blow their whistle at him cuz he was swimming too far out then someone would tell them who he was and get a good laugh. RIP Cappy!!!

Wendy D:
I remember seeing him way, way out there swimming when I hung out at KB Pier!!!! All the tourist would point and say all kinds of things wondering what it or who it was. I would just chuckle and tell them about him :)

Jim A:
I knew Cappy when I was life guarding @ Wrightsville Beach in the 70s. He would be this tiny dot out on the ocean and finally make his way to shore just to say hello at our stand. I have wonderful memories of all his visits the 4 years I guarded.

Patti W:
smile ...sing ...swim with a child's delight....rejoice in the wonder of God's creations....what a beautiful soul...that my friend is a life well lived and enjoyed....thank you Cappy for showing us what's important......

Surf S:
....as several who posted, guarded at WB, '79-'82. Similar set up stories w/ the rookie guards. Very interesting fellow-Cappy was. It has been a long time and detailed memory of the stories has faded. I do remember he made an impression of being very philosophical and down to earth. One who enjoyed his life and family yet liked to be in solitude with nature. The story about the dolphins circling his body sent goose bumps through me knowing his love of the Big O and all its creatures. Neat and thanks for starting this page in Memory of Cappy, a unique individual. Those he touched will never forget him.

Tony Capillary:
Cappy was my father. I am Tony. Talk about a unique individual, he was one! The old cliche' "when they made him, they threw the mold away" applied perfectly to him.

Life was never boring with him around. I saw the man angry at times but I never saw him down or depressed. He was an UP person. His two favorite sayings were..."keep smiling" and "do something better" He had the guts and courage to do what very few people have done- that is to be yourself, and let the chips fall where they may.

He did things without telling people and didn't expect rewards or praise for it and many times people never knew the things he had done. An example of this was after he died a gentleman came up to me in Graham, his hometown, and told me what my father had done. I didn't know this man but he knew my father and he was in the hospital, gravely ill and needed a major operation. He told me he didn't have any money to pay for the surgery but somehow it was paid in full. He later found out it was Cappy.

And in a follow up comment, Tony shared:
My father loved Carolina Beach and did many things to promote Carolina Beach. He went to Raleigh often to promote his love of the beach. It was very apropos that he died doing what he loved doing the most in a place he thoroughly enjoyed, with no pain or suffering. Even when he was found a day and... a half later, there were no marks found on his body which is amazing in the ocean. The fishermen who found him said there were dolphins circling him to protect his body.

Group Link: https://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=60541668638&v=wall
Photos from the FB group

Note: The Friends of Cappy group is in the midst of being archived by Facebook and will be transferred to a new group format. My hope is that none of the information will be lost. But since the other week when I first gathered some comments for this post, I’ve already noticed that one comment from 2009 is now gone.
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