The Floating Family of Tribeca: They Made a River Life All Their Own

Betsy Terrell rows toward her husband, David "Poppa Neutrino" Pearlman, who awaits her on Tribeca's old Pier 25. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 09, 2016

It was 25 years ago this summer when a family of four plus two friends sailed into New York Harbor aboard a home-made paddle wheel raft and anchored it off Tribeca’s old Pier 25.

Calling themselves The Floating Neutrinos, the family was headed by David Pearlman, known as "Poppa Neutrino,” a former merchant seaman, and his wife, Betsy Terrell, a licensed sail and motor boat captain. During the four years they moored at Pier 25, the group, which included 7- and 8-year-old daughters when they arrived, built two more enclosed rafts, mostly from material salvaged from dumpsters, the street, and leftover wood from The Amazon Club, a defunct nightclub on Pier 25. In June 1995, the Neutrinos departed and three years later gained fame by crossing the Atlantic on one of the rafts.

Two Neutrino raft remained at Pier 25 until early 2000, when the Hudson River Park Trust towed them away and they were destroyed. "Poppa Neutrino" died in 2011 and Betsy Terrell today lives in Maine with a daughter and her family. In 2011, daughter Jessica Terrell returned to Tribeca for a year to work as a reporter for the Trib and now is a reporter in Hawaii.

In an October 1994 Trib essay, Betsy Terrell wrote about the life that her free-spirited family had chosen to live in the waters off Tribeca.




It's 20 below with the wind chill, the wind's howling with 50 miles-per-hour gusts, the decks are covered with a two-inch layer of ice.

We are trying to get ashore from our raft in the Hudson. The lines tying the skiff are frozen inside balls of ice four inches thick; we have to hit them with a hammer just to free them enough to untie them. But when our fingers are freezing and we can't fight it any more, we retreat inside, close the front door, and we're in another world: a cozy, warm room; a hot cup of tea; the sound of the waves lapping along the sides of the raft. Musical rather than frightening, the gentle swaying, rocking motion soothes and calms, and there is not a hint of the battle of the elements that continue to rage outside.


When the weather is bad, when the river freezes, when there are hurricane warnings, these are the times when others might question our sanity, raising a family on the water. But despite the occasional hardships, this life has much to offer, much more than can be seen at first glance.

We, the Floating Neutrinos, are a family who have not only lived on the water for three years in Tribeca, but have built two seagoing rafts here, almost completely out of salvaged and recycled materials. All three of our rafts are built to be unsinkable, their hulls completely filled with flotation, a combination of recycled foam from old floating docks and liquid poured foam. They are fully equipped with all Coast Guard required safety equipment, including approved marine sanitation devices. The rafts will eventually have a satellite navigational system.

Although we have no running water, we have a fully functioning galley in which to do our cooking. We use a generator for electricity, but we only use it three to four hours a day. We have no telephone.

Why do we do it? Our goal is to demonstrate this alternative of living and traveling on the water.

People also ask us, how can we live this way, without modern conveniences? Yet only a small portion of the world's population lives with these conveniences. We have opted for a life that is much closer to the level at which the rest of the world lives. It is a life where daily efforts and struggle are required, whether it is in dealing with the elements, moving the boat safely, carrying water and supplies, or just rowing out to the anchorage from shore.

The rewards for this level of struggle are that we live on our own timing, working, playing and practicing when we choose to, rather than an arbitrary schedule; that we as a family are together on a daily basis far more than the average family ever is, except perhaps on their annual vacation; that we are connected to our day-to-day reality in a basic, elemental way that much of modem society has lost. Our lives are free of many of the laws that govern most people's lives.

But for everything there is a payment. The payment for this level of freedom comes in the daily, conscious struggle that has to be put into planning and carrying out the steps necessary for our success. But we believe that it is also through this struggle that a person gets what he wants in life, and becomes a whole and self-fulfilled individual.

All of our children have been home-schooled, and the requirements of local school regulations have been fully met or exceeded. Our children have also learned to exercise self-discipline and how to use a multitude of different sources and methods for learning. They have, for example, been active in building the rafts. Their social needs are met by joining community youth groups such as youth choir, YMCA, musical theater and girl scouts.


Although we have lived below the poverty line most of the last 18 years, I we do not feel poor. We are rich in spirit, family togetherness, the pride of knowing we have produced a healthy and satisfying life for ourselves and our children through our own efforts.

The sense of pride and self-worth that comes from accomplishment is, in my opinion, something that too many children and young people, not to mention adults, are missing today in America. Unconventional we certainly are, but I would not trade the feeling of accomplishment that comes from constructing my own floating home from recycled and scrap materials, and sailing it where I want it to go, for all the riches in the world.

Our children are growing up without a lot of the things their peers have. They don't necessarily know what the latest fads are, let alone own them, but they have a deep sense of their own ability to do, and a knowledge of how to start from the bottom and work their way up to where they want to go in life.

Isn't that what the Great American Dream was all about?


Readers Remember the Neutrinos

I found the article on the "floating family" an interesting bit of history, but hardly unique. Burl Ives, a great actor and songster of another era, lived on a houseboat on Jamaica Bay for a good part of his life. What I find offensive is that this family, as rustic and pioneering as they may have been, were essentially colorful beggars who existed by scrounging.  Far different from Mr. Ives, and, in my view, not worth exalting. SID BAUMGARTEN


The Neutrinos were still here when I arrived in Tribeca in 1999 and it is good to know that their lifestyle led to happiness. They gave a delightful and carefree feeling to all who passed by. BETTY HELLER


Excellent story on the Neutrinos— thought of them often and what became of them.MARIE BENEDETTI


Interesting to hear about them. Glad Jessica and Betsy are doing well. ELLA BIONDI