Long have people dreamed of developing vehicles that could seamlessly tread both land and water. And while you might think amphibious vehicles are a thing of the future, they’ve actually been around since the 17th century. Today however, the basic blueprint developers follow in order to design effective land-slash-water vehicles is the DUKW from World War II.
Otherwise called a duck boat, the DUKW has a colorful history littered with high points and punctuated with an unfortunate accident that took the lives of some 17 people. So if you were wondering what is a duck boat, what does it look like, and where you can find one today, keep on reading.
What is a Duck Boat?
Originally called DUKW boats, the duck boat was initially developed as an amphibian vehicle for the 2nd World War. Today, they’ve found their place as a tourist vehicle for destinations around the United States and various other cities around the globe.
DUKW boats can travel at a maximum speed of about 50 miles per hour on land, and about 6.3 miles per hour on water. They weigh about 13,000 lbs, and measure 31 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet 9 inches tall on the inside. They can carry some 30 passengers at a time depending on how they’ve been customized.
The ones used for tourism purposes today often feature two columns of seats divided by a row that extends down the middle of the interior. Each seat can accommodate two passengers at a time. They’re usually designed to be open so that nothing covers the windows. Some of them may even be designed with the top off.
Up front, it features a control area that looks a lot like a typical car’s with the addition of a few levers that work to help the boat operate and transition from land to water. In some cases, the driver may also serve the purpose of a tour guide, in which case they may have a radio system up front in order to communicate with passengers.
The United States acquired several thousands of DUKW boats during the 2nd World War, and many of these have been refurbished to serve the purpose of tour vehicles. However there are some manufacturers that have tried to replicate the DUKW design which uses far less sturdy construction compared to those acquired from the military.
What are Duck Boats Used For?
Back in the day, the DUKW boats were used to transport both personnel and cargo. They were widely instrumental in Normandy, and have even been used to cross bodies of water with lush coral formations under the surface - without damaging the natural ecosystem.
Today, duck boats are popular for their purpose in bringing around tourists. They’re popular in Singapore, Windsor in the UK, Boston, Wisconsin, and New Zealand, to name a few. They’re great for the purpose because they let tourists explore various areas without having to leave the comfort of the vehicle.
Other than that though, the DUKW boats have become largely obsolete for any other function. That’s also because newer amphibious vehicles have been developed for military use over the years, making the duck boat obsolete in that particular field.
What Does a Duck Boat Look Like?
If you’ve never been on a duck boat tour, then you might not exactly know what they look like. These boats are pretty darn big, weighing in at 13,000lbs more or less depending on how they’ve been customized. On the outside, they can look sort of like a school bus with a tug boat’s hull.
They’re relatively hollow, containing nothing but the seats for its passengers. Often they’re painted in bright colors to designate them as tourist attractions. While some of them might have a fixed top to provide shade to its passengers, others have a removable tarp that’s fixed on a framework so that it can be removed when an attraction might be better enjoyed without the cover.
History of Duck Boats
Designed by Rod Stephens, Jr., Dennis Puleston, and Frank W. Speir, the DUKW boats were developed by the National Defense Research Committee and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. The name DUKW isn’t actually an acronym, but is a code that comes from General Motors’ model nomenclature.
D means 1942 production series, U means utility, K means front wheel drive, and W means tandem axels, both driven. Some sources erroneously explain that the acronym DUKW stands for ‘duplex universal karrier, wheeled.’ Those who actually operated and worked with the DUKW coined the term ‘duck boat’ just to make it easier to refer to.
Initially, these boats were rejected by the military service because of the relatively new technology they provided which made many people feel skeptical of the the watercraft’s safety. However when a Coast Guard patrol craft ran aground on a sand bar, the leadership had no choice but to use a standby DUKW to perform a rescue operation.
The conditions where the accident occurred couldn’t be navigated by any other kind of craft, but the duck boat had no problem reaching the survivors. It was then that they were accepted as a viable and seaworthy vehicle for various operations that required the transport of both personnel and cargo over difficult terrain.
The duck boat was the first of its kind that allowed its driver to adjust the tire’s inflation while inside the vessel. Drivers could fully inflate the wheels for on-road use, and then deflate the tires when taking the duck boat into the water - all without having to leave their place at the steering wheel.
During the war, they were used mainly for transport. However there were reports of duck boats capsizing during the war. The most deadly incident killed 25 of its 26 passengers, but two other duck boats sank without causing any deaths.
After the war, many of these duck boats were transferred to various overseas locations where they continued to operate for minor military functions. Much later, retired DUKW boats were used as rescue units for the police, the fire department, and other civilian organizations. Some even used them for oceanographic research.
With the development of new amphibious vehicles that proved to be more efficient and versatile than the DUKW, many of them have been retired from both military and civic use. However they have found new purpose in the tourism industry where they transport passengers across harbors and rivers of scenic interest.
Are Duck Boats Safe?
The initial apprehensions of military personnel regarding the use of duck boats was safety, and that’s mainly why they weren’t immediately accepted into the service until after being used for its first rescue operation. Although there were quite a few incidents of capsizing while they were used in the military, many of these boats allowed for passengers to safely escape, which is why majority of those incidents did not result in death.
One recent incident concerning a duck boat happened in Ozarks near Branson, Missouri. The amphibious vehicle was treading it usual route on Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018. According to reports, the duck boat in question was a refurbished model from 1944, and was extended to accommodate more passengers. However some sources state that the boat wasn’t refurbished, but a replica.
Whatever the case, the National Weather Service had released a severe thunderstorm warning for areas surrounding the lake. This caused one-meter high waves to assail the boat, along with strong winds and currents. At 7:09 PM, the first 911 call was received with the boat already partially underwater.
According to rescue reports, a total of 17 passengers and crew died during the incident. None of them were wearing a life jacket. Another noteworthy accident involving a duck boat took the lives of 13 people on the 1st of May, 1999. Investigation revealed that the cause of the accident was poor maintenance.
So that raises the inevitable question - are duck boats even safe?
Well, for the most part, they area. While it’s always quite controversial to read about accidents where deaths are involved, it’s equally important to consider the cause of these accidents. Poor maintenance and operating in poor weather conditions can flood and capsize even the best boats.
Today, duck boats remain a popular choice for tourists hoping to explore both land and water. And with most companies offering these tourist packages doing their part to observe property safety protocol, to maintain their boats, and to keep to the shore during bad weather, untoward incidents have significantly been reduced.
Duck Boat Tours
Duck boats are popular in most areas where there are harbors and rivers that are most accessibly to amphibious vehicles. If you’re interested in taking a duck boat tour, these are some of the most popular:
1. Boston Duck Tours
While they don’t use refurbished boats, they do operate newly built boats that take design cues from the original 1940’s DUKW’s. These boats are carefully and tediously maintained to guarantee proper and safe operation. All boats are routinely inspected by the Coast Guard for water-worthiness. This tour operator offers various routes, with their most popular being a trip on the Charles River.
2. Ride the Ducks of Seattle
Unlike Boston Duck Tours, the Ride the Ducks of Seattle operator uses genuine 1944 refurbished DUKW’s for their tours. These boats have been extensively updated in both style and function to guarantee safe trips for all of their passengers. They also closely work with the Coast Guard, and have yet to encounter any accidents on the water.
3. London Duck Tours
The London Duck tours were a major tourist magnet before 2013. But after an incident concerning a fire on board one of their boats, the operator temporarily suspended their operations. Now they’re back, but it seems their 75 minute trips no longer take to the water, which kind of defeats the purpose of riding a duck boat in the first place. Nonetheless, they do provide a pretty solid experience around the London Eye, Big Ben, and many other key points of interest.
4. Superduck Adventure Tours of Queensland
These guys use their own version of the duck boat which were newly manufactured prior to their opening. Their tours last for an hour and makes for the perfect way to get around and see the gold coast. They’re also extremely family friendly and offer impressive discounts for bookings of groups of four or more.
5. Viking Splash Tours of Dublin
To add to the authenticity of the experience, this operator offers rides aboard their 1940’s refurbished DUKW boats. They go extreme lengths to make sure all of their boats are in top condition, and they’ve yet to encounter any accidents during their time. On top of that, they also observe all sorts of safety measures including life jackets, life rafts, and even inflatable tubes that attach to their boats for added buoyancy.
6. Singapore DUCKtours
With an 18 year long safety record, the Singapore DUCKTours is an award winning tourist attraction that boasts superior safety compared to any other operator. The tour takes passengers on an hour long trip to see the key sites around the Civic District before launching off of the harbor to explore the waterways around the bustling city center. These boats were refurbished from the Vietnam war and provide excellent performance through tedious maintenance.
7. Windsor Duck Tours
If you were looking to see the sights around the Crown Estate, then this operator would be the one to book. The Windsor Duck Tours offers two packages, one of which takes its passengers on a comprehensive tour of the the royal grounds. The 50:50 land to water experience lasts for an hour, and treads picturesque locations in a beautifully maintained duck boat.
From Wars to Tours
DUKW boats have a colorful history, with both high and low points. But despite the many challenges and changes these boats have had to face through the years, they remain a pivotal aspect of our present day tourism industry. Although not a lot of people know what is a duck boat, these watercrafts have served countless functions in many industries since their conception.