What’s It Like to Drive a Duck Boat?

Pick up any issue of Popular Mechanics circa 1958, and its pages will be filled with prognositication about the future of transportation: Flying cars. Space cars. Cars that ride on railroad tracks. And yes, floating cars.

The cars never worked out all that well. There was one in production -- the Amphicar -- but as Lyndon Johnson found out at his ranch, it was neither a good boat nor a good car.

Duckboat in water

Nevertheless, when it came to an automotive mashup as good as chocolate and peanut butter, leave it to the US military to figure it out.

What’s the History of the Amphibious Truck?

Designed in partnership between naval architects and yacht brokers Sparkman & Stephens in Rhode Island, and GMC, the DUKW was an amphibious transporter, essentially a six-wheel drive military truck with a sealed hull perched on top.

Duckboat used in Military

Thousands of these amphibious vehicles landed during Normandy, the Battle of the Scheldt, Operation Veritable, and Operation Plunder during the Second World War. The USMC used them in the Pacific Theater because they could cruise across coral reefs around Saipan and Guam without damage, thanks to the military tires and six-wheel drive.

After the close of hostilities, like a ton of other military vehicles, DUKWs were sold off to anybody with seven dollars and a dream. A bunch of them ended up in the hands of a guy named Mel Flath in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, who immediately started charging tourists money for rides on the local streets, and then a plunge into the dells of the Wisconsin River.

Are these the same as the amphibious trucks being used today?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. Unfortunately, the media -- EXCEPT FOR US -- often mislabels the vehicles being used today as DUKWs, they’re a completely different vehicle. We spent a day with the folks from Boston Duck Tours, including Chief Engineering Officer Tony Cerulle, Tom Vigna, Director of Marketing and Sales, and Joe Rodin, one of Boston Duck Tours’ drivers.

These guys run a fleet of about 28 of what they call “Truck Ducks,” which -- aside from driving on land and floating on the water -- have absolutely nothing to do with the WWII DUKW. “The hulls are all brand-new construction and were designed for much greater stability on the water, and much greater safety,” Tony tells us.

Outer body of duckboat

“The hulls themselves are heavier gauge than a WWII Duck and all the old corrosion and stress points have been eliminated. Our oldest Truck Duck was built in 2006 and the newest was built in 2014. They share no parts with a WWII DUKW and are a ‘Duck’ in name only.” They’re based on a more modern truck chassis, and powered by a GINORMOUS 7.3-liter Powerstroke diesel engine, like those you’d find in a Ford medium duty truck. They also cost a ton of money. Each one of these trucks cost about $400,000 to produce.

“We run biodiesel,” says Tony, buying hundreds of gallons of fuel every week from a local supplier every week to keep these trucks running.

The work that goes into keeping these trucks on the road is incredible. Like a bus company, they’re regulated by the Department of Transportation, and the trucks are safety checked according to DOT regulations TWICE every time the Truck Ducks leave the barn.

Boston Duck Tours and a similar outfit in Guam are the only people on the planet currently using these types of purpose built trucks.

Unlike a bus company, Boston Duck Tours is also regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard when the Truck Ducks are on the water. “The Coast Guard approves the construction and stability of our vehicles and everyone of our 28 Ducks was purpose-built for tourism and inspected and certified during construction,” says Tony.

What’s it like to drive a Duck?

“It’s pretty much like driving a school bus,” driver Joe Rodin says, which isn’t hard to imagine since these leviathans are riding on what amounts to a school bus chassis. The driver sits up front with a steering wheel, brakes and an Allison 542 automatic transmission, along with a panel of lights, switches, knobs and doo-dads.

Joe Rodin tells us that in recent years, the drivers go out as a team. That way the driver can focus on the job of navigating the busy streets of Boston, while his partner can focus on the guests in the back, making sure they’re adhering to the rules of safety and civility.

I don’t have a CDL, so I wasn’t able to wheel the Old Gloria, one of Boston Duck Tours’ most popular vessels, through the streets of Boston, but I did have a chance to drive it a bit. She’s B I G, H E A V Y and S L O W.

How slow? I asked what the 0 to 60 time was. “How much time do you have,” said Tony. “Boston Duck Tours mandates that the trucks never go over 45, though technically they can travel at 50 to 55.” At 55 it must feel like cruising through the eye of a hurricane in a bathtub protected by nothing but a shower curtain. The Truck Ducks have a windshield, but the sides are nothing but canvas and plastic curtains, meant to protect the guests from the wind and rain, but not much else. These vehicles were designed essentially to follow the major historic sites along Boston’s Freedom Trail, and then dip into the Mighty Chuck -- the Charles River near the Museum of Science in Cambridge.

To illustrate the point, I engaged in a drag race with the Truck Duck. I could’ve used the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe I happened to be driving, but that’s not a fair fight. The Santa Fe is no drag racer, but it can get to 60 in just seven seconds, thanks to its turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder.

No, I did it on foot. In jeans and Danner work boots. AND I WON. We had a pretty short run, and I’m sure if we did an eighth mile drag, Joe would’ve caught up with me, but I’m claiming victory nonetheless, since I weigh slightly less than the 20,300 pound Truck Duck.

Who gets to drive the Truck Ducks?

Well, Joe, for one. There are about a hundred people working for Boston Duck Tours, and if you subtract the 20 or so mechanics, welders, detailers and Tony, that leaves about 80 people who rotate shifts driving the trucks.

They all have CDL Class B licenses, and they go through a lot more training. “Driver training is about six weeks in total,” says Joe. “It covers everything from operating the vehicle on land as well as operating it on the water.”

Duckboat being drived in a road

“As Massachusetts looks at it, this is a school bus, but you don’t need the school bus certification,” he says. “The wheelbase from the middle of the two axles, to the middle of the front wheels is almost exactly the same as a Ford F-150 Crew Cab long bed,” says Joe. Of course that doesn’t account for the hull’s prodigious front and rear overhangs, but it gives you an idea just how dumb driving an F-150 in Boston traffic is.

BUT WE DIGRESS.

The drivers also go through a medical and sea-time evaluation from the U.S. Coast Guard, which takes drivers about a month and a half to complete. Drivers also need a Transportation Worker Identification credential from the TSA. “In total, it’s about nine certifications just to drive one of these things,” Joe says.

What was it like the first time he cruised down the boat ramp into the Charles River? “Terrifying,” says Joe. “It’s just so big. Even though I’ve been on them before, it’s different when you’re behind the wheel. It takes a bit getting used to the first time you splash in.”

Modern duckboat used for tours

What is it like now that he’s been doing it for six years? “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says. “It’s so much fun.”

Boston Duck Tours -- like any operation that depends on the public -- 2020 was a rough year. They did manage to run tours when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lifted some of the COVID-19 restrictions in May, but it was pretty quiet most of the year. 2021 looks like a much better year, and the crew expects that it will be running a full schedule beginning on April 1, through Thanksgiving.

Duckboat parade

In addition, you’ll see Boston Duck Tours in action if any of the Boston sports franchises win anything. The company has volunteered to shuttle the winning teams on a rolling rally through the city since the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002. In 2013, Tony and his crew had to get the Ducks out of hibernation during the snowiest winter in Boston’s recorded history, the day after a record snowfall in the city.

Boston Duck during snowfall

These folks work a whole lot harder than we’d ever want to.

If you’re interested in getting a tour of Boston in one of the Ducks, be sure to visit the website.

Todays Car-o-Scope

What the stars say about your car for 6/15/2021
A text message, received will driving, is best left unanswered. When you are no long driving, it's still best left unanswered.
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