Poppa Neutrino

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

As I approached the Cortez Motel in the afternoon sun, the beach glowed like the inside of a brass drum. A hundred sand fleas leapt in tiny arcs over my insteps as I moved toward a group of people who were gathering around a raft. The raft looked like a lemonade stand molesting a poll booth. Yet this floating angular island of wood and Styrofoam was rumored to be sea-worthy and harbored the resolve (in a way that almost seemed premeditated) to buoy two people down the entire length of the Sea of Cortez. Several local seasoned sailors had expressed their doubts about the project, pointing out unpredictable squalls, vicious midriff rip-tides and the possibility of being left high and dry for weeks after a dramatic ebb tide. But none of these warnings appeared to worry David Perlman, better known as Poppa Neutrino to his many counter-cultural fans. He had been in tough situations before. Like the North Atlantic crossing in '92 or the 1800 miles down the Mississippi River in '97. Both of these accomplishments were achieved on homemade rafts, clapped together from found and donated materials. So why should this trip be any different?

Well for one thing, the raft this time was awfully small --an eight by eight foot cube with a second box half the size nailed to it. There wasn't enough room to unroll a beach towel on the foredeck and the afterdeck promised to be underwater when the thing finally put to sea. The sail was a hank of cloth enjoying the close attentions of a retired fishing net. Together they called themselves a storm jib, a square sail with more cross-trees than a Roman political purge, lashed to an aluminum mast that was in turn fixed to the back of the larger cabin with long drywall screws. There was a 9 horsepower Johnson outboard motor on the plywood transom and a jury-rigged tiller that was coaxed back and forth by two braided nylon lines festooned from either side of the raft's "flying bridge", which is to say the roof of the eight-foot box. All in all, it appeared to be yet another attempt to escape Gilligan's Island. I looked around for the Professor and Mary Ann.

Poppa Neutrino emerged from behind the raft, a cam-corder screwed to his right eye, his tatty straw hat trying its best to relieve the squint in his other eye. He was assembling a record of the afternoon for posterity. The camera slowly panned the hand-painted sign on the port side of the contraption: WWW.FLOATINGNEUTRINOS.COM It was the web presence of his previous raft journeys and his own ruminations about life and our proper approach to it.

David progressed slowly to the starboard side of the raft, carefully combing it with the camera. A kind of docking davit, two fingers of plywood traversed by several lengths of braided cord, offered itself unashamedly for filming. This was presumably the station where a small Zodiac boat, purchased for emergencies, would wait at the ready. And finally, just before finishing his circumnavigation of the vessel, David focused on a sign remnant that read: E HATHA. I wondered about the reference. The Hatha was a song from the Upanishads, not an especially joyful one. It tells of a man who gives away all his worldly possessions, hoping to accrue spiritual credit so that his next birth would be more rewarding. His son recognizes the hypocrisy and asks his father, "You have given almost all you own away. And now to whom will you give me?" The old man studied the boy and replied, "I will give you to Death." Did Papa Neutrino identify with the father or the son? Or was he even aware of the source of his raft's name?

While Poppa Neutrino was converting the afternoon into a series of memory-card binaries, a tractor with a corrugated tin awning arrived and plowed through the soft sand until it maneuvered itself between the surf and the raft. The driver jumped down, stared at the stern of David's creation and scratched his head. This was going to be a challenge.

While volunteers schlepped equipment off the raft to lighten it, Poppa Neutrino removed the outboard motor and the plywood rudder. Meanwhile, the tractor driver was busy hafting a 2x12 to the hydraulic lifts on the back of the tractor. A handful of people shouldered the raft off its blocks and onto the beach as the tractor finessed it toward the Sea of Cortez. A dozen or more coiled legs behind the raft scrambled to find a purchase in the loose sand to assist the launch.

When the tractor's front tires were sipping salt water, it disengaged, backed around to the other side of the raft and pushed it the rest of the way. Finally the raft was in the sea and riding the lazy surf. The damn thing actually floated. But keeping it in the Cortez was beginning to look like a full time job. Until a local panga owner offered to tow it out to deeper water.

David scheduled the official launch of his Argo for the following morning at sun-up. We watched from the deck at Baja Java as his little bark motored out of the marina toward the point at El Faro. It was slow-going and for a time it looked as if the raft had beached itself short of rounding the point. But finally it began to grow smaller again until, just before it disappeared behind the spit, it looked no bigger than, well, a floating neutrino.

Click on any

Click on the links below for more on Poppa Neutrino's Saga