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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Visitors flock to new breed of tour

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bob Binger revs the engine on his tour bus, eases over a speed bump, turns left, shifts gears and drives straight into Ke'ehi Lagoon. He sounds a flourish on a duck call and his passengers cheer: "Charge!"

Duck Tours' amphibious vehicle turns from bus to boat as it enters Ke'ehi Lagoon from the Sand Island boat ramp.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Welcome to Duck Tours, the latest twist in the Hawai'i tour transportation industry.

The tours, conducted on refurbished World War II amphibious transport vehicles, are part of a growing trend to get visitors out of air-conditioned tour buses and into open-air vehicles such as trolleys, trams, stretch Humvees and, well, Ducks.

"There's a certain novelty to driving on the water. It's like getting on the bus, with a twist," said Miles Needham, owner of Duck Tours, which started its land-and-water operation on O'ahu two years ago. "It's for those who are a little adventurous, but not crazy."

The state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the tour industry, doesn't keep official statistics on how many Ducks or other alternative tour vehicles are operating, but says there's been a noticeable increase in recent years as entrepreneurs come up with new ways to show visitors around the Islands.

Needham's company is the only one here operating the Ducks, or DUKWs, as they were known as military transport vehicles used in the invasions of Normandy, Sicily and across the Pacific.

Today, about 250 of the reconditioned DUKWs are being used as tour vessels across the country in places such as the Wisconsin Dells, Seattle Sound, Boston Harbor and Branson, Mo. Hawai'i's vehicles are the only ones licensed for the open ocean, Needham said.

On a recent tour of Waikiki, the Arizona Memorial, Ke'ehi Lagoon and downtown Honolulu, about a dozen sunburned, rain-showered riders cheered and quacked on command as their 33-foot, 2 1/2-ton-capacity vehicle made its way around and off the island.

"It's a lot cooler, and when you're on the water there's a lot less traffic," yelled one passenger, who said he hadn't been on a DUKW since World War II. "It's the best way to see a place."

In its land-roving form, the Duck Tours vehicle can cruise O'ahu highways at 55 mph as the driver shares Hawai'i history and folklore.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The land part of the tour is akin to the open-air trolleys that have grown increasingly popular on O'ahu in the last few years. The vessel can rumble 55 mph on highways while driver and tour narrator Binger offers entertaining bits of history and folklore.

When the vehicle slides down the boat ramp at Ke'ehi Lagoon, there's an interesting transformation. Suddenly visitors are seeing the island as the first and later settlers did on arrival by water. They grow quiet, and so does the DUKW, its 350-horsepower engine and transmission suddenly muted as a propeller system takes over and the industrial-strength wheels idle along on three axles. A bilge pump system runs continuously.

Needham says the military surplus vehicles were rediscovered years ago by a truck company operator who bought one by mistake, then figured out a way to put it to good use on the Wisconsin Dells.

The Hawai'i boats were being used as planters in a California avocado orchard, and reconditioned for use, said Needham, a former engineer, restaurant owner and boat captain who spent more than a year obtaining the permits needed to operate on land and water.

"You have to deal with more government bodies than you can possibly imagine — the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, the Public Utilities Commission, the land board, and more," he said, all of which were dubious that the concept would work here.

The tours are growing popular. The most successful operation is in Boston, where 17 DUKWs carry 450,000 passengers a year.

The industry suffered a setback in 1999, when one of the restored DUKWs sank in a lake in Hot Springs, Ark., killing 13 of the 21 people aboard. Four people were killed in June when an amphibious tour boat sank in the Ottawa River near Canada's Parliament.

Federal officials who investigated the Arkansas accident blamed a lack of maintenance, and recommended that the vessels be modified with backup flotation devices.

In Hawai'i, the vehicle drivers are all licensed to drive the big buses and work as captains of 100-ton oceangoing vehicles, Needham said. He added that they are the only land tour vehicles equipped with bright orange life jackets.

In the water, the vehicle feels more like a floating bathtub as it putt-putts at no more than 5 knots past Mokauea, Kahaka'ulana and Mokuoeo islands in the lagoon and offers a good look back at the

Honolulu skyline and Diamond Head in the distance.

Back on land, the bus/boat draws stares, shakas and friendly quacking noises everywhere it goes.

"One of the beauties of the thing is that people respond to it all the time," Needham said. "They can't believe something like this can actually go on the water."