Driving the Ducks

Captaining a World War II Army surplus amphibious vehicle is not your average day job. Ride along with Gulf Coast Ducks and the brave souls who pilot the double splashdown.

Captain Dave Kline guides duck boat passengers in and around the Mobile River. Photos by Elise Poche

They are the few, the proud, the duck boat captains. They drive on land and plunge into the Mobile River deliberately, men and women with their ducks in a row.

Since June 2016, the splashdowns of Mobile-based Gulf Coast Ducks have numbered in the thousands. The three-boat fleet of amphibious crafts runs weekly, daily, hourly, sending up to 105 passengers into and out of the River and Bay every 60 minutes — safely and happily.

“There is nothing like driving a bus into the river,” says Scott Tindle, who, with brothers Matt Zarzour and Grant Zarzour, owns the company. “The splash is always exciting, no matter how many times you do it. Everybody loves it.”

The tour starts on land, but it’s the splashdown that gets visitors revved up. And there is a lot more happening behind the scenes than passengers realize before, and even up to, the minute of immersion. Before every river entry, the captain radios the Alabama State Port Authority. “We refer to it as ‘calling the river’,” says Fairhope native and duck boat captain Jessica Yeager, who comes from a family of Port City captains. “This is Duck Boat Two, entering the Mobile River, north of the Convention Center,” she says. Her bubbly disposition does not overshadow the seriousness of the work required to do this fun-loving job. “Any and all traffic, please be advised.”

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Other vessels respond, “Affirmative,” and list activities in progress and locations. Weather conditions are checked. If everything is a go — splash! Ten minutes ago, the craft was an ambling land vessel on Government Street. Now, it is a passenger craft in Mobile Bay.

Captain Jessica Yeager shows off the interior details of the World War II vehicles.

“As we enter the water, I engage a prop that starts the propeller turning,” Yeager says. “When we exit the water I disengage the prop to stop the propeller.” And the road wheels? “They never stop turning, even underwater,” she adds.  “And they don’t retract.”

Meanwhile, a tour guide like Kat Thomasson conducts the adventure, explaining facts, statistics and trivia about the Port City that even seasoned natives may not know. Peppered among the facts are jokes and  sing-along ops, such as a rollicking chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” complete with accompanying duck whistles (quackers are a bargain $3 souvenir). But like the other tour guides, Kat is more than humorous and informative. Tour guides are trained on basic duck boat maneuvers. In the event something happened to the captain, Kat would take control. She would pilot the boat back to land.

Currently, Gulf Coast Ducks is staffed with four full-time captains and two part-timers. The trainer is captain Dave Kline, a 13-year veteran of such water-earth vehicles. “A captain must know his boat thoroughly,” he says. “But it’s more than knowing your boat. You must know your boat’s status as of right now.”

Captains have a Class B CDL license and a Captain’s license for 25 ton or bigger vessels. In addition, there is annual first aid and CPR training and instruction specific to Mobile’s duck boats.

Each vessel is inspected twice daily — once before the first morning departure and once after the day’s final voyage. Captains crawl under the craft, looking for potential problems, damage and concerns. They work closely with the company’s full-time mechanic.

“They are old girls,” adds Yeager, about the World War II surplus duck boats. “Our three are 73 years old. We stay on top of inspections and maintenance. If something doesn’t look, sound or feel right, it does not go in the water.”

And they train for the unexpected — boat or passenger on land or water. “The key to emergencies, especially medical emergencies, is to know every minute your exact pinpoint location in the Bay, River or downtown Mobile,” she says. “Always know where you are, the fastest way to get out of the water and how to report and instruct emergency vehicles where to meet us.”

A Gulf Coast Ducks boat propels through the Mobile River with a full group of passengers onboard.

Shoreside runs have challenges, too. Land tours include the Oakleigh District, Dauphin Street, Bienville Square, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and other areas where traffic is occasionally heavy. Try navigating it in a 31-foot, 26,000-pound land-water rover with 35 passengers — 20 of them blowing duck whistles. “We train for that,”  smiles Captain Dave.

At the end of the day, it’s all worth it for the crews and passengers of Gulf Coast Ducks. “Even longtime residents don’t always realize what a really neat area we live in,” Yeager says. “To be able to share that, to see the joy and happiness of people as they see Mobile from a different perspective, is an awesome experience.”

Gulf Coast Ducks 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m. daily. Departs and returns from the Fort of Colonial Mobile, 150 S Royal St. • Run time 70 minutes • $29 for adults; $26 for seniors, military and educators; $16 for children; $3 for infants • Tickets can be purchased online in advance or at the ticket office in the Fort of Colonial Mobile within one hour of the tour’s start time.

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