Former Duck Boat Captain Dishes on Safety Standards
Seattle Redditor "theraverbabiesgang" offered to answer questions about what it's like behind the wheel of one of those duck boats that struck a chartered bus Sept. 24, killing four international students from North Seattle College and injuring more than 40 on the Aurora Bridge.
He said, "To give you an idea of what it's like, imagine this: you're driving through the busiest part of the city during the busiest time of the year. Everybody around you is lost and or distracted. You are driving a giant vehicle through the busy streets. You see that the ferry is letting out or some other situation where you have to suddenly change route. You decide to go by the stadiums, for example. You need to remember where to find on the CD of nearly 200 songs we are the champions by Queen. You have to suddenly think of something entertaining to say about whatever it is that is right in front of you at the moment and then set yourself up to talk about then next points of interest. Meanwhile, you have some kid on a skateboard with headphones on trying to slip under your tires, a homeless man throwing something at your vehicle, a foreigner trying to ask you a question behind your head and another person frantically trying to get off the duck boat for an emergency bathroom break. Your basically a DJ, comedian, travel guide and chauffeur." That said, he insisted he never saw a driver do anything unsafe.
"If you aren't more than 16 feet in front of me, you are under my hood and thus, invisible." And yes, the drivers are frequently distracted by the passengers. They earn tips, remember, so being responsive to questions is important. It's common for pedestrians to walk out in front or a moped to cut him off... and he simply can't see them. If people treated the duck boats like a bus it wouldn't be a problem. People don't walk in front of or cut off buses.
To be safer, the driver suggested the company do "maybe two trips a day per duck instead of the five times a day." Also, the number of tours per day puts a strain on the vehicles and some staff drove them hard. "Those vehicle weren't meant for the daily abuse they receive, in my opinion."
If the company assigned each driver to a duck it would be safer, he thinks, because each of the 18 vehicles available while he was there had unique quirks and personalities. Staying with the same boat would allow you to really know your vehicle (including how it turns, how quickly it stops, etc.)
No special recruiting methods are used to find drivers. The auditions were 90 minutes of stand up comedy. Most applicants already have experience driving a bus or a boat.
Duck drivers are expected to be funny. If they're not naturally a comedian the company provides a script with jokes to memorize. The best ones don't use the script, however.
To get a "captain's license" a driver must have a Class B CFL driver's license with passenger endorsement and complete three months of training
"Honestly, the duck was easy to drive," he said.
Contrary to some opinion, the ducks are not retired military vehicles. They are purchased new. But they are ridden hard by the company.
Even though the ducks are aging and over-driven, the safety checklist is extensive and experts inspect them from underneath daily. However, parts like cracked axles cannot be foreseen or prevented, he said.
80 ducks a day coming in and out of the water at the same docks blaring music and yelling corny jokes would be really frustrating to local residents, who sometimes take out their frustration by harassing the drivers and even their passengers. It's oil and water for sure (no pun intended).
For him at least, he said "I always wanted to drive a tank into the water." It's not for everybody but he says he had a fun summer. He was let go at the end of the season for playing the loud music in the "quiet zone" at the end of the tours.