I first met Poppa Neutrino (aka William David Pearlman) in the summer of 1995 on Long Island Sound, when both he and I were preparing to cross the Atlantic to Europe. He was aboard a 50-foot raft made of floating debris he called Son of Town Hall; I was on my Alberg 35 yawl Crazy Horse. We both eventually made it across, and though I made much better time, he was the one who got all the attention. Little wonder. Poppa’s peripatetic life and his unique perspective on the universe have been the focus of a documentary film (Random Lunacy), a literary biography (The Happiest Man in the World), and countless newspaper and magazine stories.
So I wasn’t too surprised this morning when I found that Poppa once again made news yesterday when his latest homemade raft, called Grace the Dancing Dandelion, was destroyed at the foot of a cliff in Charlotte, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. Seems that Poppa, now aged 77, and two crewmembers–Scott Masear, 52, and Julie Rockwell, 30–were just one day into a voyage they hoped would take them all the way around the world.
I’ve thought of Poppa’s inspired approach to naval architecture many times since our first encounter. As I recall, I was sailing Crazy Horse into Huntington Bay with a friend, Nim Marsh, aboard as crew when I first spied what looked like a very strange object on the horizon.
“Over there,” I called to Nim. “That pile of floating garbage with lawn chairs on top. What is that?”
After studying the object carefully with the binoculars for a while, Nim announced it was indeed a pile of floating garbage with lawn chairs on top.
So we sidled over for a closer look. The boat, if you could call it that, was entirely amorphous in appearance, with no discernible bow or stern, and seemed to be constructed of dock pilings, odd lengths of garden hose, stray bits of block styrofoam, and large sheets of water-logged plywood. We waved at the crew, who were all seated in the aforementioned lawn chairs, and they waved back. After we passed, we noticed they had apparently set sail (or were attempting to capture birds) and had hoisted a large net up a pole that jutted out from one end of the boat.
Much later that same night, after spending some time at a float-through disco, we ran into the same pile of garbage drifting around Huntington’s inner harbor and helped its crew find a place to tie up. Though it was 1 a.m. by the time we were finished, Poppa Neutrino, creator and skipper of the pile, was more than happy to give us a tour of his vessel.
“The last thing you want in a boat is a watertight integrity hull,” he advised in a stern tone. “They sink right to the bottom as soon as you put holes in them. It’s much better to have holes like these here on my boat.” He pointed to one gaping fissure quite close to the waterline on what we now knew was the bow of his vessel, then to another slightly larger one maybe 15 feet behind it. “See here. All kinds of water goes in that hole there, but then it all comes right out this next one here.”
To achieve this effect, Poppa explained, he had built his hull of 40-foot dock pilings lashed together with strong rope, appended small outriggers, and atop it all erected a well-ventilated superstructure. For a powerplant, mounted on a tangle of two-by-fours on the stern, there was a 4hp Yamaha outboard, which was capable, Poppa advised, of driving Son of Town Hall at speeds up to two knots. With the sail up (which was in fact, we learned, a golf course driving range net) he claimed this speed could be increased by a knot or more.
“The really great thing about this sail,” he explained, “is that I never have to reef it. The wind just blows right through it!”
Amazingly, I ran into Poppa and his crew again two years later on the town dock in Bath, Maine, on the Kennebec River. They had Son of Town Hall anchored down river and had come ashore for groceries. Poppa looked pretty disheartened when he learned I’d already taken my boat to West Africa and back since last we met. Turned out he had succeeded in getting his boat up to Newfoundland that same summer and had set out for Ireland, but quickly got into trouble and had to be rescued by the Canadian coast guard. He promised me, however, he would try again and described in great detail the many changes he’d made to Son of Town Hall to make her more seaworthy. More than a year later, in the summer of 1998, I was most delighted when I heard he’d at last made it across.
As to the current imbroglio, it would seem things look pretty bleak for old Poppa. Apparently, he set out on his circumnavigation from the town dock in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday, bound south for the Hudson River and thence the open sea. He and his crew anchored out the first night off Thompson’s Point near Charlotte, but unfortunately the anchor rode parted and Grace the Dancing Dandelion was blown into a rocky cliff base on shore. According to local reports from the Burlington Free Press and WCAX News (you can check their videos here and here), elements of five local fire departments, the U.S. Coast Guard, and a helicopter from the U.S. Border Patrol all participated in a hair-raising rescue that involved rappelling down the face of the 30-foot cliff to pluck Poppa and company from a cave in which they sought refuge.
Knowing Poppa, I doubt this is the end of the story. Odds are he’ll be afloat again soon, one way or another, challenging the gods to smite him down once more.