Boston’s Newbury Street is quiet and leafy; high-end stores peek out between sidewalk cafes, where stoppers sit outside, soaking up the sun.
But from down the street lumbers an army utility vehicle, painted tarp-blue and piloted by a man in sunglasses and a tattered red bandana. He goes by the name Captain WeirdBeard. He lets out a strange sound: Quack! His 32 passengers join in. They all wave as they trundle by the shoppers.
The Boston Duck Tours are truly unabashedly bizarre. But they’re also far from an uncommon sight. Rain or shine, the 28 boats in the fleet take to the city’s streets and waterways, each captained by a character who tosses back equal shares of personality and Boston history to all aboard. The tours wend their way past the usual landmarks: the Hancock Tower, the Make Way for Ducklings sculptures, the Boston Public Library.
But on the swanky Newbury Street, “getting folks there to quack and wave back is the main goal,” one captain told The Gainesville Sun in 1995.
For such a tongue-in-cheek institution, duck boat tours have a surprisingly somber origin: World War II.
In 1942, the U.S. military was faced with a quandary: with the war ongoing, soldiers stationed overseas were in need of supplies and reinforcements. But by that point, most of Europe’s harbors were in tatters; the military couldn’t get close enough to land to reach the troops. In response, General Motors developed the DUKW—a military-grade vehicle able to operate on both land and water, whose finest moment would come about during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.