Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Great Story...Rafting the Pacific - New Yorker Magazine
Rafting the Pacific Issue of 2005-06-27 Posted 2005-06-20 This week in the magazine, Alec Wilkinson writes about Poppa Neutrino, an American adventurer now planning to raft across the Pacific Ocean. Here, with Daniel Cappello, Wilkinson talks about Neutrino and the psyche of a seafarer. DANIEL CAPPELLO: Who is Poppa Neutrino? ALEC WILKINSON: Neutrino’s given name is David Pearlman. He was born in 1933, in San Francisco. He began calling himself Poppa Neutrino a little more than twenty years ago. He had been bitten on the hand by a dog, in Mexico, and for two years he was so sick that he assumed he would die. No doctor he saw was able to say what afflicted him. When he finally recovered, he felt so different from who he had been that he thought he should have a new name. Poppa Neutrino is the first one that came to him. Why is he famous—or slightly famous, as the case may be? Because of his most prominent accomplishment, which is having built a raft from materials thrown out in New York that he found floating in the harbor, and, with three other people, sailing it across the North Atlantic. He was not the first person to make the crossing on a raft; a Canadian man did it in 1956. Neutrino was the second. But he was the first man to build a raft out of garbage and sail it across the ocean. When did you first learn of him, and what made you want to write about him? When he left New York Harbor to sail across the Atlantic, a picture of the raft was on the back page of the Daily News. I have always been drawn to the eccentrics, the odds-beaters, the benign connivers, the showmen, the pilgrims, and the raffish self-glorifiers. In your article, you follow him as he prepares to cross the Pacific by raft. Would he be the first to do this? A few others have done it. Neutrino’s hero is William Willis, who did it in two stages, with eight months in between them. He was seventy-one when he did it, Neutrino’s age. Willis died at seventy-four, trying to cross the North Atlantic in a small sailboat. It was his third try. And Thor Heyerdahl famously got as far as Polynesia on his raft in 1947. Neutrino began building his raft in Key West, and his ambition is to sail around the world and arrive back in Key West. If he succeeds, he will be the first person to sail around the world on a raft. What was his trip across the Atlantic like, and what shape was the raft in when he landed in Ireland? The raft was fine. He sailed it down through France and eventually left it in the Mediterranean. He had thought he might sail around the world that time, but then he grew uneasy at the thought of trying to travel through the Suez Canal. You describe Poppa Neutrino as "implacably restless," a nomad of sorts who has never lived in a house or an apartment for more than a year. Neutrino has essentially lived on the road since childhood. He has had as many adventures as any thirty-five or forty ordinary people. Having even only a few of the experiences he has had would, for most people, amount to the most exciting period of their lives. It isn’t really possible to describe all the places he’s been. His past is one long poem to the random life. I asked him once to trace on a map of the country the routes he had travelled, and before he was through the first twenty years of his life he had worn a hole through the paper. In addition to being with him in California and Mexico, I spent considerable time with him in Tucson and in a town called Red Mesa, on the Navajo reservation, because last summer he came up with a football play that apparently can’t be stopped. It came to him in a kind of epiphany, while he was on his way across the country with the raft on a trailer and was sitting out the heat in Flagstaff. Neutrino doesn’t follow football, but he likes to amuse himself sometimes by trying to concoct a play that can’t be stopped. He regards it as a matter of art. He has thought of several over the years, but each time he examined them closely he saw how they could be thwarted. This one he wasn’t able to unravel. He described the play, which he calls the Neutrino Clock Offense, to the quarterback coach at the University of Arizona, a man named Mike Canales, who the year before had coached for the New York Jets, and Canales invited him to the Arizona training camp to see if it would work. Canales said that he regarded the play as being equal, in terms of innovation, to the forward pass. He was never quite able to make it succeed, though. From Tucson, Neutrino began driving northeast, vaguely in the direction of Notre Dame, when he saw a football field in the Badlands. This was Red Mesa. He told the football coach at the high school that he had a play for his team. The Red Mesa Redskins devoted nearly their entire season to learning and using the play. The Navajo kids tend to be small and fleet and to get manhandled when they play the big cowboy teams from off the reservation. The coach felt that the Neutrino Clock Offense was the advantage he sought over them. He hopes that next fall, having mastered it, the play will take the Redskins to the Arizona state championship. Despite his eccentricities, Neutrino isn’t really a loner; he's had several wives and children. What was home life—if we can call it that—like for his family? He is very close to his wife and his children. They travelled as a tribe. He has two daughters, one named Jessica, who lives in Los Angeles and is a writer, and one named Ingrid Lucia, who is a well-known singer in New Orleans and plays regularly around the country with her band, Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos. He also has a son named Cahill, who lives in San Francisco. A third daughter died in her thirties, of an illness. In addition, he has a stepdaughter, Marisa; an adopted son, Todd, who plays trombone with the Flying Neutrinos and also has his own band in New York; and an adopted daughter, Esther. The children are very well read, especially Ingrid and Jessica, because when Neutrino arrived in a town with his family the girls spent the day in the library while Neutrino looked around for ways to make money. How has he supported himself, and his family? Schemes of one kind or another. Painting signs. For a while, he made Indian jewelry and sold it. The family band, the Flying Neutrinos, made money. National Geographic made two films about him, using a lot of his footage, and they were profitable for him. This is a man who has weathered many storms, both literal and figurative, and yet comes across in your piece as oddly unfazed by any of them. Does he calculate the risks, or is it part of his nature just to take them? He loves risk, but not senseless risk. He broods deeply on each situation he enters and what is likely to happen, and where in it his advantage lies. He abhors passivity. He feels that a person must ruthlessly attack any obstacle or impediment to his own well-being. People who behave passively, he feels, offer themselves as a target for all the misfortune life can present. He thought for years of how to build the raft that took him across the Atlantic, and he has thought for more years about his current raft. As for fear, his mother was an itinerant gambler, and he says that she took the fear out of him a long time ago. Still, he would never put himself in harm’s way without having taken stock of the probabilities. Is he ever frightened? I never saw him be frightened, and I never heard anyone describe seeing him that way. He is physically imposing. He says that he needs fifteen seconds to prepare a defense if he’s threatened. He describes being frightened once at sea, on the Atlantic trip, the first time they were in a storm, and the raft climbed a wave, and for a moment, as he hung at the top of the wave, and the raft was nearly vertical, he thought it might topple over and crush him. In your piece, you describe his years on Pier 25 in New York City. How long did he live at the pier, and how did he become associated with the club Amazon Village? He had heard somewhere about the club, that it was built by the water, and he thought that the owner might be amused by the sight of the raft and like to have it moored near his club. If the owner wasn’t amused, Neutrino was going to tie up there anyway, since maritime law allows vessels to moor anywhere outside a channel. As it happened, the owner welcomed him. Neutrino came and went from Pier 25 over the course of four years. During this time, his band, the Flying Neutrinos, also made a tour of Europe. Someone had heard them playing at Nell’s and had sent one of their tapes to a man who owned a club in Norway. The club owner hired them and paid for them to fly to Oslo, I think it was. The band’s drummer was Neutrino’s daughter Jessica, who was eight. They played the first night in Norway and were reported to the child-welfare authorities. The club owner had to let them go, but he paid them half of their contract, which amounted to several thousand dollars. Then Neutrino took the family on a tour of Europe, and they got as far east as Moscow, where they played on the street for change. In the meantime, Neutrino had sent drawings of the raft he wanted built to cross the Atlantic to friends who were living on his raft at Pier 25, and they began building it. What about his health? He has suffered heart attacks and believes in alternative cures, like "healings" sent over the phone by friends. Is he physically fit at his age for his current raft trip? Neutrino is an extraordinarily vital man. At times, the force of life running through him is so powerful that being with him is thrilling. He seems to have suffered none of the diminishment that most of us experience as we age. On the other hand, he eats very badly—years of beatnik living have made him more or less indifferent to what’s in front of him—and he doesn’t really do anything to take care of himself. His rude health is a matter of his cast-iron constitution. He avoids doctors, I think on the belief that, if he were to visit one, the doctor might find so many things wrong that he would be sent to the hospital and come out in a wheelchair, or an old man dependent on a cane. He believes that he is going to live to be eighty-six—“active to eighty-six, anyway,” he says. You note the rafter William Willis’s belief in his ability to communicate telepathically with landed family. Do adventurers need to believe extraordinary things about themselves to dare the things they do? Willis, I think, was deeply eccentric, obsessed with self-reliance and at the same time having constantly to prove to himself that he was self-reliant. He seemed not to feel that he was truly alive unless he was being challenged and that the outcome of failure would be disaster. In Neutrino’s case, embarking on an adventure usually involves years of thinking and planning if the adventure is a big one—crossing the Atlantic on a homemade raft built from trash, for example. His Atlantic raft included two innovations in raft sailing. The first is that he built his sails in sections of materials, so that if a part of the sail tore he would have to replace only that section. Because the sail was in sections, the tear would not become extensive. The second involved drilling holes every two feet in his raft and running rope through them, so that the raft was lashed together like a basket—in other words, in a form that was supple, instead of a rigid form that could be battered apart in a storm. I think Neutrino would say that if a person were relying on his own powers to see him through an adventure, then he hadn’t planned properly and deserved anything that happened to him. When we think of rafts, we tend to think of modern inflatable toys, or quainter rafts like Huck Finn's. You saw the evolution of Neutrino's current raft. What is it like? Huck Finn’s raft was closer to one of the rafts that Willis sailed—logs laid down and lashed together, with the deck only a few inches above the water. Neutrino’s rafts are more like sailboats. They have hulls and cabins and decks which are a foot or so above the water line. The most important feature of Neutrino’s rafts is that he designs them so that they will right themselves if a wave were to knock them over. He does this by making the part of the raft that is above the water lighter than the part that is below it. If it were to turn over, the heavier part would seek to restore the balance. Neutrino’s current raft is thirty-two feet long. It has a small deck in the back, with a transom for the outboard motor, then two cabins, and then a deck in the front. The mast is in front of the second cabin, which is larger. The raft is made of plywood and foam. The main difference from his other rafts is that most of the materials he bought, instead of scavenged. You saw Neutrino off when he embarked on his Pacific journey, in March. What journey had he charted? When he left San Felipe, at the head of the Sea of Cortés, he was essentially on a trial run. He was going to see how his raft behaved and whether he needed to put in somewhere and modify things before he could sail farther. Trips of this magnitude, in vessels built for the occasion, involve a lot of revision. In addition, Neutrino was going to have to quit for the Mexican summer, which is severe and also brings chancy storms. Eventually, he will reach Cabo San Lucas, at the end of Baja, a trip of about eight hundred miles, where he will convert the raft into an oceangoing one, mainly by changing the bow; then he will head into the Pacific. At the moment, he is stopped for the summer and is spending the layover hiking in Yosemite. He plans to return to Mexico and the raft in early October.