William Pearlman, 77; happy wanderer known as 'Poppa Neutrino' lived for adventure

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 7:22 PM

William Pearlman, a dauntless nomad best known as "Poppa Neutrino" who once sailed across the Atlantic on a raft built of junk, died Jan. 23 in a New Orleans hospital of complications from congestive heart failure. He was 77.

A California native who had been at various times a preacher, a gambler and a sign painter, Mr. Neutrino traveled the country in a state of exuberant homelessness. He raised his children as members of a busking street band. They called themselves the Flying Neutrinos, after subatomic particles that zoom about at close to the speed of light.

Wherever the Neutrinos landed, they made home on rafts they built out of old timbers, plastic foam or whatever else the world had discarded.

In 1998, Mr. Neutrino set out to cross the Atlantic in one of these floating creations: "Son of Town Hall," a 51-foot, 17-ton contraption built out of New York City garbage and once described as a "garden shed on water."

Accompanied by three dogs and three crew members - including his fourth wife - he headed east from Newfoundland. Several weeks into the voyage, the raft's three sails filled with the ripping winds of a gale that lasted 15 hours.

"At that point," Mr. Neutrino later said, "I thought, 'I really am sick in the head.' "

They survived that gale, as well as near-collisions with tankers and icebergs. When they ran out of food, they were resupplied by the curious and sympathetic crew of a Russian freighter. After 60 days at sea, the Neutrinos arrived in Ireland.

Theirs was the second successful raft trip across the North Atlantic. (The first was by Henri Beaudout, a Canadian who crossed in 1956.) But Mr. Neutrino's party was the first to make the journey on a raft built out of trash.

"It seems to me we have broken the scrap barrier," he said at the time.

The footloose folk hero became the subject of a film documentary, "Random Lunacy," by Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber, and of a biography by Alec Wilkinson, "The Happiest Man in the World."

"When I was a child, I had an intuitive knowledge that human life was 99 percent defeat," Mr. Neutrino told Wilkinson, "and that you had to do something extraordinary to turn it into victory."

William David Pearlman was born on Oct. 15, 1933, in Fresno, Calif. He grew up moving from one cheap hotel to the next with his mother, a gambler. He estimated that he had attended 40 or 50 schools by the time he dropped out.

"For some reason I loved this," he told Wilkinson. "If I ever wanted a more stable life as a child, I've repressed it."

At 15, he lied about his age and joined the Army. After he was discharged, he said, he rambled along Route 66, briefly enrolled in a Texas seminary and spent time with poet Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco.

He said he went to Vietnam as a war correspondent and, after returning to California, joined a traveling troupe of sign painters. At one point, he moved to New York and started the First Church of Fulfillment, which he described as "the only church in the history of the world that didn't know the way."

He and his family started a Dixieland band in the 1980s. For much of the 1990s, they lived on three rafts moored in the Hudson River just off Lower Manhattan. The family went ashore by rowboat, clambering across a four-foot fence that lined the riverbank.

"We live like kings," Mr. Neutrino said. "We live a life that was promised to us by Jesus and the Declaration of Independence."

His first three marriages ended in divorce. A daughter from his second marriage, Mandy Maloney, died in 1998.

Survivors include his fourth wife, Betsy Terrell of Damariscotta, Maine, and their daughter, Jessica Terrell of Long Beach, Calif.; a son from his second marriage, Cahill Maloney of San Francisco; a daughter from his third marriage, Ingrid Lucia Marshall of New Orleans; an adopted daughter, Esther Terrell of Eastham, Mass.; a stepdaughter, Marisa Terrell of Damariscotta; Todd Londagin of Peekskill, N.Y., whom Mr. Pearlman raised as a son; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Neutrino "ardently imagined who he might be, and he has fearlessly embodied what he imagined," biographer Wilkinson wrote. "His past is one long poem to the random life."

After his trip across the Atlantic, Mr. Neutrino continued building rafts and making outlandish plans, which - thanks to his previous scrap-raft success - could not be entirely discounted. At various points, he planned to lead a flotilla of homemade watercraft across the Pacific to China and to sail to India to rescue orphaned street children.

He formed a new political party, the Owl Party, with a three-plank platform: eye contact, courtesy and due process. And he aimed to travel around the world on a 100-foot raft he described as "an imperial destroyer armed with beauty and circus that will wage war on the monotony of life."

He set off for that circumnavigation in November 2010, just three days after he was outfitted with a pacemaker. His doctors warned him not to go. "I told them destiny was waiting for me," Mr. Pearlman said.

Fate was not kind. Two days into the trip, his "Sea Owl" raft was caught in a storm and dashed against cliffs. Mr. Neutrino and his compatriots took shelter in a cave until they could be rescued.

He had recently traveled to New Orleans to visit family. "He died like he lived," his daughter, Jessica Terrell, wrote. "Plans in the works for a boat trip to Cuba the following week, a novel in progress, and $4.44 in his bank account."


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