The first thing you should know about Poppa Neutrino is that he once sailed from Maine to Ireland on a raft he built out of trash.
This is, by itself, a remarkable achievement. At the time he completed the voyage, in 1998, only one other person had sailed a raft across the Atlantic. But Neutrino was the first to do it piloting a raft made from refuse. “We broke the scrap barrier,” he reportedly said to amused journalists upon arriving in Ireland. We’ll get back to this in a bit.
But that voyage was not necessarily Neutrino’s most significant accomplishment. Or, at least, significant in this case is relative. Maybe even more impressive, to certain bohemian, footloose points of view, was the man’s commitment to living life on his terms, wherever his whims, or, occasionally, winds and currents, would take him.
Poppa Neutrino, you see, was a man accustomed to living on busted up watercraft. He was accustomed to living pretty much anywhere that was impermanent.
Ah, you’re wondering about the name.
After enduring a potentially fatal dog bite while tripping through Mexico, Neutrino, at age 50, did what good eccentrics do and chose a new, more fitting name for himself. Neutrinos, subatomic particles that obey no seeming laws about motion or location seemed kindred spirits to the man, so he decided to rename himself Poppa Neutrino for the next phase of his life.
He was born David Pearlman, in Fresno, California, in 1933. He was itinerant from an early age. Neutrino’s father was absent before he was born, so he was raised by his mother, a habitual gambler, and a stepfather who earned little selling fish in San Francisco. They lived where they could, often in weekly motels, moving constantly. A life of constant motion and a certain comfort in the unfamiliar was baked into Neutrino early on.
“Neutrino is a wanderer, an exile, an outcast, a Bedouin in the wilderness of the republic.” – Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker
“I was always being shifted around,” he told the New Yorker for a profile. “And for some reason I loved this. If I ever wanted a more stable life as a child, I’ve repressed it.”
At 15, he bluffed his way into the military, claiming he was 18. The U.S. entering the Korean War disabused a young Neutrino that the army would be fun, so he took to a life on the move, hitchhiking across the country on Route 66. He became a preacher in Texas. A beatnik in San Francisco who hung with the Kerouac and Ginsberg crew for a time. He lived in New York. New Mexico. Actual Mexico. Went to Vietnam as a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. Formed a mobile group of sign painters who lived on rafts in the Mississippi River, rent-free.
Always on the move, always trying out new ways of living.
Eventually, by the 1980s, Neutrino was living in New Orleans and had formed a kind of jazz band with a few of his many children and his fourth wife, where they played as the Flying Neutrinos. The crew secured an abandoned barge with a paddle wheel in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and nursed it to New York, where they docked in the Hudson River, not far from the World Trade Center. Their mooring was nearby a kind of underground club. Rumor has it that upon first docking, Jack Nicholson approached Neutrino to pay respects to his unusual boat.
It was on that dock at Pier 25 that Neutrino hatched his plan to build a refuse raft to cross the ocean. He gathered timber floating in the river. Foam blocks abandoned as garbage. Plywood scraps from alleys. Plastic bottles tossed in litter piles. Eventually, he had a 40-foot raft he called Son of Town Hall. The foam did the bulk of the floating, and everything was tied together, rather than nailed and glued together. The raft, if it could be made strong but flexible enough, Neutrino reasoned, would be unsinkable. Can’t sink foam after all.
“Where did I get this notion?” he said to his biographer, Alec Wilkinson. “I have no idea. From the cornucopia of my mind. Somebody put it in there a long time ago, and it came out in this way.”
Before he and the rest of the Flying Neutrinos were allowed to leave the Hudson for their journey across the Atlantic, a Coast Guard inspection was required.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Son of Town Hall failed the inspection. Miserably. “Manifestly unsafe,” read the report.
But, the Coast Guard Commander in charge of signing off on the decision, a man named Michael Karr, was curious to see it himself. Rafts are not necessarily held to the same standard as boats when it comes to seaworthiness, and it’s largely a judgment call about whether or not one is “safe.”
They eventually moved off the banks and sailed into the wide open Atlantic, at roughly the pace of someone backpacking the PCT.
Karr, charmed by Neutrino’s eccentricity and ambition, thought about Thor Heyerdahl, and his successful open ocean voyages on rafts.
“I’m thinking, If Thor Heyerdahl could do it, why can’t someone else?” Karr said. “It’s a free country.”
He rubber-stamped their approval, and, in 1996, the Son of Town Hall was on its way.
The raft poked its way up the coast to Massachusetts so that Neutrino might show it off to some friends. Shortly after leaving Provincetown, they learned the raft couldn’t sail straight when downwind. They returned to port in Portland, Maine, where Neutrino promptly suffered a heart attack. He nearly died.
Miraculously, or fortuitously perhaps, while he was nursed back to health, a ship hit a pier in the bay where the Son of Town Hall was docked, spilling oil everywhere. The raft suffered oil damage and an insurance company awarded Neutrino $5,000 to pay for it. He took the money and used it to build a daggerboard, which would allow the raft to sail straight when under wind. Away they went, heading east for Europe.
“We had taken this wood from the streets of New York and set it in motion,” he said. “And now either we’ll make it or we won’t.”
The craft sailed so slow it had a hard time making it off the Grand Banks, east of Newfoundland, Canada, where they kept getting pushed back toward land. The raft’s engine could barely push the craft to two miles per hour, and the wind and currents conspired against them. They eventually moved off the banks and sailed into the wide-open Atlantic, at roughly the pace of someone backpacking the PCT.
It was now 1998 after the raft had spent nearly a year in Canada undergoing repairs after a battering in a storm. Hope was nearly lost among the crew as they inched across the ocean, supplies dwindling. Then, another miracle: A Russian freighter intercepted their craft. The captain couldn’t believe the vision of this ramshackle craft crawling across the sea, and gave them fresh fruits and vegetables and gasoline for their generator. Buoyed with newfound hope, the Flying Neutrinos vowed to continue, refusing an offer from the Russian captain to tow them to Europe.
Finally, two months after leaving North America, the raft gently drifted into Ireland, in Castletownbere. They’d survived boredom, idleness, and severe storms. “I’ve lived through levels of fear I never thought I had,” Neutrino told The Evening Standard of London. “The waves were so big and so steep, spitting foam across our raft, that I found the coward in myself.”
But, Neutrino vowed to continue.
He fashioned a new raft, intending to circumnavigate the globe. He called it the Sea Owl. His plans were dashed when the Sea Owl itself was dashed, pushed against the rocky shores of Lake Champlain during a storm.
“The vessel was everything I wanted it to be,” he told The Burlington Free Press. “I told the Coast Guard people it was unsinkable. They said, ‘Never say that.’ They were right. Anything will break up if it’s been smashing into a wall for two and a half hours.”
That’s the kind of wisdom one learns when they’ve sailed a trash raft across an entire ocean.
Neutrino later sailed from Mexico to Cuba aboard a raft, as a protest of the US embargo, convinced that a raft was a perfectly fine oceangoing vessel.
He never stopped playing music either. Neutrino’s family band toured the world, and still plays shows today. He even auditioned for American Idol.
Neutrino’s unbelievable life was the subject of New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson’s book 2007, The Happiest Man in the World as well as a profile in the magazine called “The Crossing.”
In his book, Wilkinson describes Neutrino this way:
Neutrino is a wanderer, an exile, an outcast, a Bedouin in the wilderness of the republic. He also has a flinty pioneer side, a prospector on a tare sensibility. There must have been many more like him in earlier times: chasers after stakes and claims, odds players, followers of the reckless and wild hope, especially among the citizens of the Western territories where his ancestors came from.
When pressed in a 2007 NPR interview about whether he agreed with Wilkinson’s description, Neutrino replied: “Absolutely.”
Neutrino passed away in New Orleans in 2011. The Flying Neutrinos fly on.
If you want to read more about this man’s fascinating life, pick up a copy of The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, here.
Top photo: Random Lunacy press kit