In the news in July were stories of the “Stretch Duck 7” that sank in a lake in Branson, Mo. The vehicle was an older duckboat, not one of the newer truck ducks, built on a larger, stronger chassis. The Boston Duck Tours have a fleet of “purpose built” truck ducks built for tourism, designed for greater stability and safety with thicker gauge hulls and are inspected by the Coast Guard every year and exceed their regulations. The Branson duckboat left with severe thunderstorms predicted and capsized in the high waves the storm generated. Seventeen died when the boat capsized and sank. The owner of a private inspection company said he told the company the boats had a significant design flaw – the system venting motor exhaust is below the waterline and in rough conditions, water can get into the motor and shut it down, ending power to the bilge pumps.
After an earlier accident involving duckboat drownings, a federal agency had already noted that overhead roofs posed a drowning risk to passengers trying to escape a sinking vessel. The law firm representing clients involved in previous duckboat accidents that included drownings, said the canopy (the overhead roof) is one of the most dangerous aspects of the old vehicles. “Duckboats are deathtraps and with the canopy, they are sinking coffins,” one of the firm’s attorneys s
The first duckboat tours started in Wisconsin when the two men who started Wisconsin Ducks acquired a military surplus duckboat after World War II ended. The government was left with tons of supplies and equipment that they were anxious to unload. The southern part of Wisconsin’s scenic Wisconsin River became the site of tours in 1946. By the next year the company had accumulated 37 old duckboats and today they own 91. You can find duckboat tours in Seattle, Boston, Austin, Philadelphia and Stone Mountain, Georgia.
You have to wonder, even if you are in a sturdier, truck duck, if it has a canopy and windows – how would you get out if there was a need to leave in a hurry?
The duckboats were used by General Eisenhower’s successful invasion of Sicily in World War II. The landing craft usually used to unload troops, food, meds and ammunition were wrecked, swamped and capsized by bad weather and the General turned to the new amphibious vehicles they called duckboats. He was so pleased with their reliability he suggested commendation for the officer responsible for their development.
No one from the military was responsible – they had all turned down the development of the 31’ amphibious vehicles – the Army, the Navy, the Corps of Engineers – none of them thought the duckboats would work or be useful. Three civilians who believed in the duckboat worked in the Scientific Research office. They knew nothing about amphibious vehicles but combined, the three had strong backgrounds in sailing, boat engines, hull design and water conditions. They saw the value to the military when bombed out piers, docks and harbors would be obstacles to landing troops and supplies. The duckboats could unload directly from anchored supply ships in the harbor and take the cargo directly to the site where it was needed.
The top brass came around after a demonstration of the new amphibious vehicles competing with the Navy’s traditional human chain – sailors carrying cargo through the surf to unload boats. General Motors called their vehicle a DUKW (D for the year of production, 1942, U for utility – amphibious capability, K for front wheel drive and W for two rear driving axles).
Another military amphibian was the Ford GPA. In 1941 Sparkman & Stephens and Ford Motor started building ¼ ton amphibious vehicles for the military. Called Ford SEEPS (Sea-going jeeps), Ford started building them before they were fully tested and as a result, only 12,778 were built. Sparkman & Stephens tank tests were run using a weight of 2600 pounds and the vehicle had become 3400 pounds as it was built, which led to performance problems.
Ben Carlin, an Australian adventurer, saw a Ford GPA in an Army vehicle lot during his service in World War II and thought he could use such a vehicle to take him around the world. After the War he bought one at an auction in Washington. He then tried to get sponsorship for the trip from Ford Motor Company but they didn’t think the vehicle would make the trip. Carlin modified his new vehicle adding a rudder, a more boatlike bow and extra fuel tanks, a bunk and a two-way radio.
Carlin married and he and his wife planned the start of their circumnavigation by launching the “Half-Safe,” as they called their amphibian, in New York Harbor. After four failed attempts to start their trip, the couple got jobs to replenish their trip fund. After another failed attempt, Carlin was ready to sell the vehicle but his wife convinced him to continue. They made more modifications, added stabilizing rudders and auxiliary fuel tanks.
In 1950 the couple left Halifax in mid-July and arrived in the Azores 32 days later. In 1952 after heading for Morocco via the Canary Islands, they drove north and sailed across the English Channel. To raise money for the next segment of their trip they exhibited “Half-Safe” in department stores throughout Europe. During this time Carlin wrote “Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep” which sold 32,000 copies.
In 1955 they started on the next phase of the trip, moving through France, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey to India. They stopped there and went to Australia so Carlin could see his family. Carlin’s wife left the trip in Australia and he found others to travel with. He headed for Japan, then Hong Kong, the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. He drove south to Seattle, met his wife in San Francisco and completed the cross country trip back in Halifax, where he started ten years earlier. Their trip, a total of 39,000 miles by land and 9600 miles by sea, was complete with a shark attack, mechanical failures, explosions, hurricanes and starvation.
The Amphicar, an amphibious car designed by Hans Trippel and built in Germany as a fun car for the public, was launched at the 1961 New York Auto Show. Powered by a Triumph engine it could do seven knots in the water and 70 miles an hour on the road. Two Amphicars crossed the English Channel in 1965 in 20 foot waves and gale-force winds. Enough of the cars survive today that owners have joined clubs that meet and share knowledge of spare parts availability.
If you take the $125 Amphicar ride at Disney Springs in Florida, you will be riding in the most reliable Amphicar ever built. Classic car collector Steven Schussler, who has worked with Disney establishing new restaurants, thought some of the Amphicars in his collection could be used by Disney. Since the cars had a few quirks and problems, only after significant changes and additions to the cars were made were they ready for the 18 hour days year round that the amphibious vehicles would be expected to work. The cars Disney is using have 3200 components engineered for the Boathouse Amphicars that improve their safety, comfort and reliability. They have all new ignition systems and reengineered exhaust systems that together with other improvements and new parts, cost $65,000 to $75,000 apiece in addition to their purchase price. The cars haven’t been down one day since the Boathouse opened.
Hans Trippel, who designed the Amphicar, was an industrial designer, a race car driver and an entrepreneur in Germany before World War II. In 1934 he demonstrated Germany’s first amphibious car, the Land-Wasser-Zepp Versuchwagen. Presented to Hitler in 1935, he signed Trippel up to build the amphibious vehicles for the military and went into production in 1945 but he lost out when the Schwimmwagens were designed, were cheaper to build, simpler to manufacture and were seen as a better vehicle. He designed the Gullwing door that Mercedes used on their 300 series, having sold them the patent. Trippel designed several amphibious cars that were never produced and worked on the Amphi-Ranger, a vehicle designed for pipeline operators. He designed amphibious vehicles for over 50 years.
The Schwimmwagen, the military amphibian that replaced Trippel’s vehicle, was designed by Erwin Komenda, Porsche’s first car body designer. It was developed for use by German ground forces during the Second World War and was the largest scale production of an amphibious vehicle. The first Schwimmwagens, the 128s, were based on an earlier Kubelwagen that was not strong enough to do the job. The newer 166 was made with a smaller wheelbase for strength and rigidity. Unlike the flat sided Kubelwagens, the Schwimmwagens were designed to be curvy, rounded and more boatlike looking. Recently a vintage Schwimmwagen was listed for $150,000, fully equipped with its machine gun, rifles, shovel, oar and fat military tires.
The Kubelsitzwagen (the name referred to the bucket seats used so the troops wouldn’t fall out of the doorless vehicles) that became the Kubelwagen, preceded the Schwimmwagen but was not 4x4. It was the starting platform that was later used as the basis for the imported German vehicle known in the US as the “Thing” and in England as the “Trekker.”
What’s new on the amphibious vehicle market? The builders of the fiberglass WaterCar Panther set out in 1999 to build the fastest amphibious vehicle. In 2010 WaterCar established the Guinness amphibious speed record with their Python model and turned to developing an amphibious vehicle for the public. By 2013 the first car was ready to be sold. More than 50 have been built in California. The Panther is an all fiberglass jeep design. You can buy it from the builder – Custom for $172,000 or Turn Key for $139,000. They offer the vehicle both ways to accommodate laws in different states. It is also available at Hammacher Schlemmer for $155,000.
If you don’t have room to collect cars you might want to detour on a trip to Europe to see the military amphibians that are in the Imperial War Museum in England, the Army Museum in Dresden or The Everloon War Museum in The Netherlands. In Canada the Canadian War Museum has a Schwimmwagen and in the US, the Ft. Lee Museum in Virginia has an exhibit that includes the Schwimmwagen.