Betsy Terrell: Modern Nomadic Adventurer

Updated on July 30, 2018
Readmikenow profile image

Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Betsy Terrell in Dharamsala, India
Betsy Terrell in Dharamsala, India

In August of 2017, I published an article about the amazing life and adventures of Poppa Neutrino. Recently, I was contacted by Betsy Terrell about the article. She was with Poppa Neutrino for 35 years. I quickly asked if I could send her some questions for an article about her. She graciously agreed. Here are some questions answered by Betsy Terrell. She was involved with many of Poppa Neutrino's amazing adventures. I appreciate her taking the time and to provide some personal insight into crossing the Atlantic Ocean and more.

Her name is Betsy Terrell. She also answers to the name of Captain Betsy as well as Aurelia Neutrino. Terrell has spent most her adult life traveling. During this modern nomadic existence, she has been able to travel the world with Poppa Neutrino and raise a family. She, Poppa Neutrino and their children were street musicians who traveled the world. They were able to make money from playing music in public for people who watched them. They even were featured performers in a Mexican traveling circus and more.

Poppa Neutrino is now deceased. His real name was David Pearlman. Terrell and Poppa Neutrino would build rafts and sail them. She has a Master's license for Auxiliary Sail. This license enables her to operate inspected sail or an auxiliary sail vessel.

Most of the materials they used to build their rafts were from items that were discarded or donated. They sailed their rafts in waterways all over the United States, some Mexican ports, Cuba, and even across the Atlantic Ocean.

Betsy Terrell and Poppa Neutrino were the first people to build a raft from discarded items, and sail it across the Atlantic ocean. They named their raft, Son of Town Hall. During their Atlantic crossing, Terrell and Poppa Neutrino were accompanied by two other crewmen and three dogs. Their ocean crossing started during the summer of 1997 when they reached Newfoundland in Canada. Their journey continued during the summer of 1998 when they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It was a challenging journey. The crew experienced serious storms with Force 9 gale winds. Poppa Neutrino suffered a heart attack during the Atlantic crossing but was able to recover.

In August of 1998, after being at sea for 60 days, the Son of Town Hall, a raft made from discarded and donated items was able to reach the shores of Ireland. The crew then sailed the raft to France. During the entire Atlantic crossing, Terrell was the raft's navigator.

Betsy Terrell with Poppa Neutrino in background.
Betsy Terrell with Poppa Neutrino in background.

Here are Betsy Terrell's answers to the questions I asked.

How did you and Poppa Neutrino meet?

Dave arrived in New Orleans on a barrel raft in December of 1975. I had just arrived with a friend after having hitchhiked on sailboats from Maine to North Carolina by way of Bermuda and then by highway to New Orleans. We came into the French Quarter out of curiosity and were magnetically drawn to the levee right behind where the raft was tied up. We built a makeshift platform under the Natchez dock. After pitching our tent, we went exploring. Before long, we were helping move Dave’s raft across the river to Algiers Point. Soon afterward, we moved onboard.

Did both of you plan to go on adventures from the beginning?

Dave had been adventuring his whole life; as you can see from the first answer, I had also already begun a nomadic life.

You have a degree in education. Were you ever tempted to pursue a career in this field?

Not in the traditional sense, but I did teach all the kids that came with us over the years, and at one point thought that might develop into more of a school; it didn't.

How did your immediate family felt about you living on a raft and being a street musician?

My mother was always very supportive. She told me once that if she had been born in my generation, she might have had a life more similar to mine. My father, on the other hand, I think, was frightened by my choices. The best remark he made was, "This is such a hard life you've chosen for yourself." However, he did congratulate me after the Atlantic Crossing.

What was the motivation for getting a Master's license for Auxiliary Sail?

Legitimacy as a woman in a man's world. As proof of that, having that license framed and displayed on our vessels completely changed the tone of our interactions with the Coast Guard during their frequent boardings and inspections.

Betsy Terrell playing saxophone with family
Betsy Terrell playing saxophone with family

What was involved with getting this license?

Years of study and documented sea time. It also required a full day of testing by the Coast Guard. I was told I was the first woman ever to be given a Master's certificate by the New Orleans CG testing center.

What was the motivation behind the desire to build a raft and sail it across the Atlantic Ocean?

1. To show that anybody can manifest their wildest dreams if they discern the elements and persist.

2. To prove the feasibility of ocean travel in the vessel, which was meant as a prototype for the planned orphanage raft project.

3. To hopefully travel the world.

What is the planned orphanage raft project?

The Orphanage Raft plan was to travel the world on a giant raft designed like the Son of Town Hall, picking up street children from third world countries and giving them a traveling home and an education. There were several attempts to get this project started, including the Mississippi trip of the Vilma B. Anyone who wants to learn more can go to this link and click on the "questions about the Vilma B."

You were the only female crew member. Did you ever wish you could have another female on the raft with you during the Atlantic crossing?

Yes, I did, and actually recruited someone to join us in Newfoundland for the second part, but at the last moment it didn't work out.

Was your raft ever resupplied during the journey across the Atlantic Ocean?

When we arrived in Ireland we still had eggs, lots of beans, rice, and canned goods. We also had cabbage as well as an ongoing supply of mung sprouts as insurance against scurvy. We also brought Vitamin C tablets with us. What we ran out of was dog food, and of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. They didn't last beyond the first few weeks.

Container ships stopped for us gave us supplemental fresh foods. On one occasion, a container ship resupplied us with fuel for our generator, and if my memory serves, cigarettes for a crew member who was still smoking. With one of the container ships, the captain's wife and young daughter begged us to abandon the trip and come with them. We replied, "No Way."

Son of Town Hall raft
Son of Town Hall raft

Did the raft sustain any damage when crossing the Atlantic Ocean?

There was damage to the hull and engine room, which we repaired underway. An unusual feature of the raft is it was self-steering in a storm, due to the design combination of large underwater keel near the stern and small riding sail in the bow. We would lash the helm and go below, and she steered herself downwind, thus avoiding the possibility of broaching. She was also self-righting, and of course, unsinkable.

Is it possible to see Son of Town Hall? What happened to the raft?

After many attempts on our part to get it to a museum in Holland and/or get various organizations to use it for other purposes, it was ultimately destroyed by French authorities.

Would you say you learned important lessons from the experience of building a raft and crossing the Atlantic Ocean?

To quote from website, "...these outwardly visible projects were mere foils for our inner work: an ongoing experiment in human psychology, searching for answers to what makes us thrive and what blocks us, how to increase our own and others' abilities to create meaningful and fulfilling lives."

So, yes, definitely, and for each of us, those lessons and experiences were highly individual and personal. The website itself, and its global reach for our information is, in my opinion, possibly the most important long-term outcome of the crossing.

Are you ever tempted to build another raft and do more sailing?

Every day.

What have you been doing since the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean?

There were several more raft trips: the Mississippi again, Cuba. Starting in 2005, I entered a phase of life that moved me away from rafts and nomadism as I cared for my mother as she died from cancer, then helped with grandchildren. More importantly for me personally, I took up a serious practice of Tibetan Buddhism and also NonViolent Consciousness. In early 2017, I made a life-changing trip to India and plan to visit again in January 2019.

Any questions or doubts when it came to living you non-traditional lifestyle?

Never. It was the only way for me.

Do you think your lifestyle made it more or less difficult when it came to raising children?

Being who I am, the nomadic, tribal lifestyle is the only way I could have raised children. I didn't find it difficult at all. Living an ordinary life, on the other hand, I'd have found impossible.

Betsy Terrell with Poppa Neutrino and family on cover of documentary Random Lunacy
Betsy Terrell with Poppa Neutrino and family on cover of documentary Random Lunacy

What accomplishment are you and Poppa Neutrino most proud of when it comes to your family?

That each of them is a self-aware, highly intentional creator of his/her own, very individual and unique, self-fulfilling path in life.

How do you feel Poppa Neutrino would feel about how the country is right now?

Poppa Neutrino loved creative conflict. He would be stimulated by the current conditions. On the other hand, he might also be doing some kind of activism on behalf of immigrants, and other marginalized groups, which was a big part of his life. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, he went to New Orleans to teach people how to build hurricane rafts.

Do you believe many people have learned the lessons on living life that you and Poppa Neutrino have tried to teach?

I think it has gone viral. Dave actually used that term and thought a lot about how to produce that effect, long before that phrase became popularized through YouTube, etc.

If someone is interested in building a raft and sailing it across the Atlantic Ocean, what advice would you give them?

I would say " discern the elements" and it is a very long process of due diligence in research and experience. Crossing the North Atlantic is not to be taken lightly; it is not a lark. Read accounts of others' experiences, spend years on the water, especially offshore - only after that could you seriously consider such an undertaking. On the other hand, anybody who has some common sense and is willing to listen to advice from those who are more experienced, can build a raft and travel some of our inland waterways.

Documentary about Betsy Terrell, Poppa Neutrino and their crew crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a raft.


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    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      24 months ago

      Neil Rose...thanks. She is an amazing person.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      24 months ago from England

      What an amazing story! I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had done that. I am rather jealous of people who have the nerve to do it. Wonderful!

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Peggy, thanks. Yes, Betsy is an incredible person.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What an amazing and adventurous woman! Thanks for telling us about Betsy Terrell and her family. I skimmed through that video at the end. That may not have been the most attractive sea vessel ever built but it surely was sturdy. Amazing to think that their dogs made that crossing the Atlantic journey with them!

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Thanks Larry, I enjoy writing them as well. I also admire those who can live the nomadic lifestyle.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I would love a nomadic lifestyle, but there's always something tying me down.

      I really enjoy your biographical portraits.

    • profile image

      Afroditi Chaida 

      2 years ago

      You're welcome! That's really amazing!

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Afroditi Thanks!

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Thanks! Her life and adventures are incredible.

    • profile image

      Afroditi Chaida 

      2 years ago

      Great article! Thanks for sharing it!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      What an unconventional spirit. She has a very interesting story.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Thanks! Betsy Terrell is a fascinating person.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      Yes, you should read my article about Poppa Neutrino and his adventures. I agree. She is an impressive person.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 years ago from UK

      This is a fascinating article.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is really an interesting hub. I haven't even heard of this exceptional woman. What a feat to accomplish especially after seeing that raft.


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