Essay by John Nielsen and photography by Sam Morton
Sometimes we meet people that’ll rescue us from that earthly purgatory of sameness. There’s a waterman like that in Lillian, Alabama. He’s got a lobster boat.
The Flauna II is 45-foot Canadian lobster vessel that plies the warm gulf waters and estuarine inlets of Alabama. Snowbirds from coastal Canada or Maine would recognize the long, wide, open stern of the craft. If asked, natives of the Perdido Bay region could likely call the owner’s name. His friends are a broad collection of farmers, fishermen, academics, millionaires, blues musicians, preachers, authors, and high-haired church ladies, to name a few. Captain David Ellis is as fascinated by people as he is by the unique waters of South Alabama. He takes friends onto the water. What he really wants is for his passengers to know about the water and everything around it.
Flauna II is named, ostensibly, by combining the words “Flora” and “Fauna.” That portmanteau is appropriate. David is a landscape contractor, a trained naturalist, and an alumnus of the University of the South. Over time, and with some prodding, he will admit his lobster boat’s name is really rooted in the words“floating sauna.” The first Flauna was a floating sweat lodge and swimming platform contrived by some ingenious teenaged boys in the mid-seventies. Old barrels were lashed together and a wooden deck was built atop. Salvaged parts and an old wood stove formed the sauna. David and his inventive buddies could have a therapeutic detoxification in the steam room, to be followed by a bracing dip into Perdido Bay.
Flauna I, the seagoing spa, was towable by boat to any part of the bay. That mobility enabled long afternoons of youthful ideation, swimming, and watching the natural world around them. David describes formative experiences of the boys simply floating free on the currents of Perdido Bay. The crew of the Flauna didn’t know what inland beach they would float to. Provisions, pilfered beer, and the boldness of youth allowed them not to care where they came ashore. At landfall, a short walk to civilization, a borrowed telephone, and some vague description of where they were yielded rescue.
Local interest in the floating sauna grew. An eclectic collection of locals, newcomers, even meditative hippies began to show up for a steam and a swim. One affluent man arrived in a new, white Calvin Klein ensemble with perfect deck shoes. He became smitten with the atmosphere and stayed on the platform for two days. He finally left, happy and dazed, but with gray, muddy attire, no shoes, and a loss of his genteel bearing.
It happened that girls especially liked floating saunas, and that fathers of girls did not. The boys learned hospitality and an appreciation for a breadth of people. Endless hours of water-bound camaraderie, new friends, and a newfound worldliness bound the boys to each other for a lifetime, and to their environs. They had seasons of youthful magic that every human should feel, if even for a short time.
Flauna II was built with more deliberation than Flauna I. She was designed and built for lobstering by the Hutt family on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The Hutt brothers have constructed vessels for North Atlantic fishermen for half a century. They’d never sold a boat to a drawled waterman, 2,000 miles away, in some estuarine bay in Alabama.
David explained why he wanted one of their vessels. They realized he was not crazy, but very calculated and studied about exactly WHY he wanted such a boat. He needed a long stern with a wide beam, stability, a relatively shallow draft, and a skeg on the keel to protect his propeller. The Hutts knew lobstering wasn’t a thing in Alabama. They were curious why David had decided on those features. David envisioned a large deck to work from. The deck of the Flauna II very easily deploys fishing kayaks, tackle, and coolers, but its centerpiece is an enormous ceramic Kamado grill. There is a lot of seating for leisure and angling. David’s guests on the Flauna II should expect to socialize, to take in the view, to angle, to sip a good wine, and to eat their fill.
The design of the boat is very stable for blue water excursions for diving or fishing. The unique keel, with a protected propeller, allows David to nose the vessel into estuarine shallows to find speckled trout or redfish.
The captain of the Flauna II is a trained, degreed naturalist who can show you a system of bald eagles, ospreys, mudflats, grassbeds, cypress trees, and those mysterious changes that happen when freshwater rivers find saltwater. He exercises his fascination with how all those things work together.
A Canadian lobster boat and a floating sauna built on old drums are inextricably connected. This waterman is content to take some fishing or birding. But he’s happiest when someone feels some joy and “la bonne vie” of his boyhood on a floating sauna.
As the Flauna II completes a day’s voyage, somebody usually asks, “‘David, why don’t you charter thisboat for a living?’ His usual reply is, ‘I will, one day. Right now I’m having fun with you.’” Then he says, “Man… look at that sunset.”