When asked by P.T. “Pat” Reilly in 1961 to be a boatman, along with Martin Litton, for his June 1962 trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, V.R. “Brick” Mortenson quickly agreed, but with one request: That this time he row his own boat (he had rowed Reilly’s Flavell during the 1958 trip). While Pat Reilly and Martin Litton built two modified versions of McKenzie River Dories (Portola and Susie Too), Brick Mortenson set out to build his own version of Reilly’s previous low-profile cataract boats, the Susie R and Flavell, used in the 1958 trip. These three boats would be among the very last to run the Colorado River prior to being tamed by Glen Canyon Dam.
Brick Mortenson spent every morning and weekend building his newly-designed Grand Canyon boat in his garage, with limited help from his young son, David. The boat was 16 feet 8 inches long, 66 inches wide at the beam, had an open front “cockpit” with a bench seat for two passengers and a metal splashguard, along with four removable, wood-topped aluminum storage boxes positioned along the sides in the center. The boatman sat in between these boxes in a bucketed seat. Built into the front, rear, and sides were watertight compartments filled with plastic bleach bottles and foam. The boat was also built with a self-bailing system, as well as an optional tonneau cover for the front “cockpit” in times when the boatman was rowing through rapids without passengers, or when the boat was lined through rapids. Mounted to the stern was a creative self-rescue device: Two hundred feet of line stored inside the boat with a float attached on the outside, surrounded by a stainless steel “steering wheel”. Should the boat flip, the person in the water could grab the float and swim to shore, pulling the line out as he went. Upon reaching the beach, the line could then be tied to a large rock, securing the boat for rescue.
Brick Mortenson finished his new boat just in time for the launch at Lee’s Ferry. On June 25, 1962, the Flavell II had its maiden voyage on the Colorado River, which had a flow of 52,200 cfs. The launch did not go smoothly: In a rush to get the boat done and up to Lee’s Ferry, he did not properly seal the self-bailing drain holes and, therefore, they leaked. Without any way to properly repair the oversight, the boat was hauled back out of the water and the holes epoxied closed, thus, eliminating the self-bailing system (open-ended bleach bottles were used instead). Despite that, the Flavell II totally filled with water just once during the 1962 trip: The stern was sucked down into a large whirlpool, thus, enabling water to flow in from the rear. In rapids, the boat would dive into the waves, unlike the Dories, which danced on top of them, earning the Flavell II its nickname, “The Sub”.
Following the 1962 trip, the Flavell II was sold to Martin Litton’s son, John, who used the ingenious self-rescue device not once, but twice. The Flavell II went on to see eight more years of service (despite flipping and, on one trip, losing its nose), including an important “Save the Grand Canyon” trip, which, in part, convinced bureaucrats that damming the Grand Canyon would be sacrilegious. The Flavell II’s final river trip came in 1970, when, piloted by John Blaustein, it slammed so hard into the rocks at Unkar Rapid it nearly broke in two. The boat was repaired enough at Phantom Ranch (thanks to Martin Litton convincing a ranger to part with a piece of plywood), to make its last run down to Lake Mead, but was considered unfit for future trips. The boat was put into storage and later destroyed by fire, save for two of the four aluminum storage boxes, which Brick Mortenson’s son, David, now has in his possession.
“’The Sub’ was great fun to be in, both as a passenger and as a boatman. No other boat put you so ‘in touch’ with the river.” ~ John Blaustein
After rowing the Susie R replica (built by Ian Elliott) on the 2012 Grand Canyon historic wooden boat trip, Craig Wolfson had such a fun experience that he decided to build a wood boat for himself. Upon hearing the news, Dave Mortenson suggested to Craig that instead of replicating an existing boat, he should try to build Brick Mortenson’s (Dave’s father) boat, the Flavell II. This posed a real challenge: Blueprints of the Flavell II had been lost to time and the actual boat was destroyed by fire ages ago. What was available were the basic external dimensions, a few notes from Brick Mortenson, several photographs, two of the original aluminum storage boxes, and a scale model.
After drawing up blueprints based on precise measurements of the scale model and original storage boxes, Craig set about building the Flavell II replica in his garage. Due to the storage boxes requiring an exact fit, this build was unique in that it was built from the inside out, the opposite of how most boats are fabricated. Unlike the original Flavell II, the replica’s fore, aft, and side water-tight compartments were not filled with foam, which makes for additional gear stowage. The splashguard on the replica has been made of wood instead of metal, due to cost. The self-bailing system was left out (but may be added in at a later date). Rather than sitting against hard wood for the upcoming 280 miles of rowing, Craig Velcro’d his padded kayak seat to the Flavell II‘s seat, which fit perfectly, on top of an additional two inches of closed-cell foam to raise up the rowing position. Finally, the self-rescue device at the rear was replicated for aesthetics only. Once fully completed, the four new replicated storage boxes, which Dave Mortenson had built, fit with very little room to spare; in other words, the calculated boat measurements were spot-on.
Much like the original, the Flavell II replica was completed just in the nick of time, with the last major detail, the cockpit tonneau cover, getting finished on launch day by Craig’s wife, Pam. On March 5, 2014, the Flavell II replica was launched for the first time ever at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona to rousing fanfare… and no leaks!
While the original Flavell II was lined through most of the wild Colorado’s major rapids on 52,000 cfs in 1962, the replica ran every rapid on the long-tamed Colorado on just 5,500 (average) cfs in 2014. The replica enjoyed a successful first river run: no flips, no swimmers. It did obtain some war wounds, however: From the Susie Too replica, which left mostly just paint, and from Horn Creek Rapid’s hydraulics, which snapped the right oar in two and cracked the fiberglass on the starboard oar stand. Aside from that, the boat held up very well and Craig loves the way it handles; it was the hit of the river… all that hard work and sleepless nights paid off.
The original Flavell II garnered “The Sub” nickname due to the way it dove through waves. It appears the replica is not following in the same footsteps, as its nickname has become “The Speedboat”, due to the way it looks in the water compared to the Dories and the way it speeds down the river.