The first thing you should know about Poppa Neutrino is that he once sailed from Maine to Ireland on a raft he built from trash.
This in itself is a remarkable achievement. At the time he completed the journey, in 1998, only one other person had sailed a raft across the Atlantic. But Neutrino was the first to pilot a fleet made of trash. “We broke the scrap barrier,” he reportedly told amused reporters when he arrived in Ireland. We will return to this in a moment.
But that journey was not necessarily Neutrino’s most significant achievement. Or at least significant in this case is relative. Perhaps even more impressive, to certain bohemian, footless views, was the man’s commitment to living life on his terms, wherever his whims, or occasional winds and currents, would take him.
Poppa Neutrino, you see, was a man used to living on wrecked jet skis. He was used to living pretty much anywhere that was transient.
Ah, you’re wondering about the name.
After enduring a potentially fatal dog bite while stumbling through Mexico, Neutrino, at the age of 50, did what good eccentrics do and chose a new, more appropriate name for himself. Neutrinos, subatomic particles that obey no apparent laws of motion or location, seemed related 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 a wanderer 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 made a small living selling fish in San Francisco. They lived wherever they could, often in weekly motels, and moved constantly. A life of constant movement and a certain comfort in the unknown was baked into Neutrino early on.
“Neutrino is a wanderer, an exile, an outcast, a Bedouin in the desert of the Republic.” – Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker
“I was always being moved around,” he told the New Yorker for a profile. “And for some reason I loved it here. If I ever wanted a more stable life as a child, I pushed it away.”
At 15, he bluffed his way into the military, claiming he was 18. The US entering the Korean War abused a young neutrino that the army wanted to be fun, so he took a life on the road hitchhiking across the land on Route 66 He became a preacher in Texas. A San Francisco beatnik who hung out with the Kerouac and Ginsberg crew for a while. He lived in New York. New Mexico. Actually Mexico. Went to Vietnam as a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. Formed a mobile group of sign painters living on rafts in the Mississippi River, rent-free.
Always on the move, always testing new ways of living.
Eventually, in the 1980s, Neutrino was living in New Orleans and had formed a sort of jazz band with a couple of his many children and his fourth wife, playing as the Flying Neutrinos. The crew secured an abandoned paddle wheel barge 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 near some sort of underground club. Rumor has it that when Jack Nicholson first docked, he approached the Neutrino to show respect for his unusual boat.
It was on the dock at Pier 25 that Neutrino hatched his plan to build a waste raft to cross the ocean. He collected timber that floated in the river. Foam blocks abandoned as waste. Plywood scraps from alleys. Plastic bottles thrown into waste heaps. Eventually he had a 40-foot raft he called Town Hall’s Son. The foam provided the majority of the flow and everything was tied together instead of being nailed and glued together. The fleet, if it could be made strong but flexible enough, Neutrino reasoned, would be unsinkable. Can’t swallow foam.
“Where did I get this notion from?” he told his biographer, Alec Wilkinson. “I have no idea. From the cornucopia of my mind. Someone put it in there a long time ago and it came out this way.”
Before he and the rest of the Flying Neutrinos were allowed to leave the Hudson on their journey across the Atlantic, a Coast Guard inspection was required.
You won’t be surprised to learn that City Hall’s son failed the inspection. Miserable. “Apparently unsafe,” read the report.
But the Coast Guard chief responsible for signing the resolution, a man named Michael Karr, was curious to see it for himself. Rafts are not necessarily held to the same standard as boats when it comes to seaworthiness, and it is largely a judgment of whether one is “safe”.
Eventually they moved off the bank and sailed into the wide open Atlantic, about the same pace as someone backpacking the PCT.
Karr, charmed by Neutrino’s eccentricity and ambition, thought of Thor Heyerdahl and his successful open ocean voyages on rafts.
“I think if Thor Heyerdahl could do it, why can’t someone else?” Carr said. “It’s a free country.”
He stamped their approval, and by 1996 the Town Hall’s son was on his way.
The fleet made its way up the coast to Massachusetts so Neutrino could show it off to some friends. Shortly after leaving Provincetown, they found that the fleet could not sail straight when they were upwind. They returned to port in Portland, Maine, where Neutrino promptly suffered a heart attack. He almost died.
Miraculously, or perhaps coincidentally, while he was being nursed back to health, a ship struck a pier in the bay where the Town Hall’s son was docked, spilling oil everywhere. The fleet 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 enable the fleet to sail straight when under the wind. They set off, eastwards towards Europe.
“We had taken this tree off the streets of New York and put it to work,” he said. “And now we either make it or we don’t.”
The vessel was sailing so slowly that it had difficulty getting off the Grand Banks, east of Newfoundland, Canada, where they kept being pushed back towards land. The fleet engine could barely push the vessel to two miles an hour, and the wind and currents conspired against them. They eventually moved off the banks and sailed into the wide open Atlantic, about the same pace as someone backpacking the PCT.
It was now 1998, after the fleet had spent almost a year in Canada undergoing repairs after being battered in a storm. Hope was almost lost among the crew as they entered the sea and supplies dwindled. Then another miracle: a Russian cargo ship intercepted their vessel. The captain could not believe the vision of this dilapidated vessel crawling across the sea, giving them fresh fruit and vegetables and gasoline for their generator. Buoyed by 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 fleet gently drifted into Ireland at Castletownbere. They had survived boredom, idleness and violent storms. “I’ve lived through levels of fear I never thought I had,” Neutrino told The Evening Standard in London. “The waves were so big and so steep, they spat foam over our raft, that I found the coward in me.”
But Neutrino promised to continue.
He made a new raft for the purpose of circumnavigating the globe. He called it the Sea Owl. His plans were dashed when the Sea Owl itself was crushed, pushed against the rocky shores of the Champlain during a storm.
“The vessel was everything I wanted it to be,” he told The Burlington Free Press. “I told the Coast Guard it was unsinkable. They said, ‘Never say that.’ They were right. Everything will break if it’s smashed into a wall for two and a half hours.”
That’s the kind of wisdom you learn when you’ve sailed a junk raft across an entire ocean.
Neutrino later sailed from Mexico to Cuba aboard a raft, as a protest against the US embargo, convinced that a raft was a perfect seagoing vessel.
He never stopped playing music. Neutrino’s family band toured the world and still play shows today. He even auditioned for American Idol.
The incredible life of neutrinos was the subject of New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson’s 2007 book, The happiest man in the world as well as a profile in the magazine called “Krydset”.
In his book, Wilkinson describes Neutrino this way:
Neutrino is a wanderer, an exile, an outcast, a Bedouin in the desert of the Republic. He also has a flinty pioneer side, a prospector with a tare sensibility. There must have been many more like him in former times: chasers of stakes and claims, gamblers, followers of the reckless and wild hope, especially among the citizens of the western territories where his ancestors came from.
When it is pressed ia 2007 NPR interview when asked whether he agreed with Wilkinson’s description, Neutrino replied, “Absolutely.”
Neutrino died 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