Hop Aboard the Duckiest Ride Ever

Is it a boat? Is it a truck? Tourists in Boston and other cities are taking the plunge in zany, World War II-era amphibious vehicles

'I'm the sarge and I'm in charge," our driver asserts, as he faces about 32 seated passengers just before departure and taps his chest with mock self-importance. "They call me the sarge 'cause I drive this barge."

The doggerel continues a bit longer as the sarge briefs his truckload of sightseers.

Or is it "boatload"? In either case, we are on board a "duck," a converted World War II amphibious landing vehicle operated by Boston Duck Tours. The special appeal of the ride, which lasts about 80 minutes, is that halfway through, the ducks live up to their name by leaving the city streets and plunging into the Charles River - spray flying from both sides. They chug around the river basin for about half an hour, then climb out of the water and back onto the pavement.

Sightseeing tours in converted amphibious vehicles now operate in several cities, including Washington; Gloucester, Mass; Ft. Lauderdale and Key West, Fla.; Branson, Mo; the Wisconsin Dells; and Hot Springs, Ark. The Boston tours started in 1994 and have proved popular. My tour was sold out in advance and people were lined up at the ticket booth in the Prudential Plaza for future rides.

It's understandable: The tour is unusual, enjoyable, and historically informative, especially for families with kids. The ducks are an eye-catching sight: strangely cumbersome objects from the past, painted lollipop colors, and looking a little uncomfortable out of the water.

Our tight little vessel - the good ship Beacon Hilda - is bright green and looks like a cross between a small trolley and a whale boat: a tubby hull, a long prow, out-of-place-looking wheels, and a canopy overhead with furled plastic at the edges - like "eisenglass curtains you roll right down/ in case there's a change in the weather," as the song from "Oklahoma" puts it.

Each driver has his or her own persona and wears an eccentric costume. "We're also going to have a Captain Elegant, who will wear a tuxedo," says Duck Tours staffer Sema Ullian. This month, she says, the first female driver, a graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, joins the fleet. (I don't think she's chosen her wardrobe yet.)

As for the sarge, he's outfitted in drill-instructor hat and commando sweater with sergeant stripes, medals dangling on his chest, and a miniature duck perched on each shoulder.

During the ride, he performs - and that's the right word - with self-deprecating gusto in a clownish, military-gone-amok style.

The comic atmosphere makes the rolling history-lesson palatable, turning the city into a kind of history theme park. The sarge's colorful narrative, replete with Revolutionary lore, is truly informative, a mix of landmarks, jokes, and a running repartee with passengers and the occasional pedestrian within earshot. He encourages children - and adults - to call "Quack! Quack!" to people on the sidewalks as the duck wends its way past the Boston Garden and Common, the West End, and along the McGrath-O'Brien Highway into Cambridge.

But the "Big Splash," as Duck Tours calls it, is what people are waiting for. The sarge - a licensed boat pilot like all the Duck Tour drivers - readies us for the plunge by donning a duck-decoy hat. He's having a territorial dispute with a male mallard, he explains, and then whips out a duck call and blows it. Rolling down a ramp near the Charles River Dam, we suddenly find water within a long arm's reach of the gunwales.

Out in the expanse of the Charles River Basin, we realize what the tour is all about - to gain this unfamiliar and exhilarating perspective of the shore. Rollerbladers glide along the coastline, and beyond them the cityscape looms, a mix of historic buildings and skyscrapers, with the sarge identifying things at an agreeable pace.

At one point he lets kids and adults come up and take the helm. One little boy steers us in circles. That's fine, the sarge assures him, it helps evade enemy action, a reference to the craft's not-so-jolly history: depositing troops on beachheads and other shores in both theaters of World War II.

Overall the ride is geared to appeal to both children and adults. Once on shore and back at the starting point, kids spill out chattering excitedly. "I liked it all, especially the water!" exclaims young Amanda Katz, a tourist here with her parents from Wycoff, N.Y.

"It was kind of long," sighs Sophie Ostroski of Intervale, N.H., who took a turn at the helm. "but I liked the water best. It was great!"

His official duties over until the next ride, the sarge reveals his real name: Neal Odams, who honed his impressive narrating skills as a high school teacher in Massachusetts for some 27 years. He was also once a Greyhound bus driver. "But these vehicles are different," he notes. "You have to allow for the long nose."

Before assuming his alter ego as the sarge, Mr. Odams had to take acting lessons. "I enjoy meeting the people in this job," he says. "It's the closest I'll ever get to show business."

*Boston Duck Tours, 101 Huntington Ave., near the Prudential Center. Tel.: (617) 723-3825. Tours leave every hour from 9 a.m. until an hour before sunset, seven days a week. Adults, $18; children 12 and under, $9.

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