"This is the only song we play that's not really a Memphis song," says Scott "Captain Bones" Sexton as he cranks up the sound system and steers his odd-looking vehicle toward a ramp leading into the Wolf River Harbor. The familiar opening strains to Ike and Tina Turner's cover of "Proud Mary" blare through the speakers, and Sexton pumps his arms in the air like a Tilt-a-Whirl carnie about to bark the line "Do you want to go faster?" As his steel charge, an amphibious craft originally designed for military use but adapted for commercial tours, rumbles down the Mud Island cobblestones like a runaway roller-coaster and hits the water with a massive splash, it's impossible not to squeal like a kid at the fair. It's equally difficult not to recall the tragic day in 1999 when a similar vehicle overturned on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas, sinking in a matter of seconds and killing 13 of its 21 passengers.
"I'm really glad you brought that up, because rather than pretending that it didn't happen, we want to hit this issue head-on," says Lori Guyton, publicity director for Ride the Ducks, an amphibious tour attraction set to open in Memphis this week. "We don't want people guessing.
"Ride the Ducks is a different company than the one that had the accident," says Guyton. "That company was based out of Hot Springs. We're based out of Branson, [Missouri], and have been in business for 35 years pretty much without incident. Ride the Ducks manufactures its own vehicles and is constantly making improvements in comfort and safety, so we know that our ducks exceed safety standards."
In addition to equipping their vehicles with a number of safety features, including an abundance of adult- and child-sized lifejackets, duck captains are Coast Guard certified and hold commercial drivers' licenses. The captains are also fully trained in first aid and CPR. "We really put our captains through the wringer," says Claire Sewell, general manager for Memphis' Ride the Ducks. "But we think they would agree that it's worth it.''
"We really want to be the first thing that tourists do when they come to town," says Marcee Loy, sales manager for Ride the Ducks. "What we do is introduce people to the city. We take them past Sun Studio and by the National Civil Rights Museum. We hope to give them a good idea of all the other things they can do while they are in town."
Upon boarding the ducks, guests are given yellow plastic noisemakers called "wacky quackers" and are encouraged to honk along with the music, which includes mandatory tracks by Elvis, along with other hits from Sun, Stax, and Hi Records. "What we want most of all is for people to have fun," Sewell says, claiming that even the most stone-faced adults usually find themselves quacking away by tour's end. "And we want it to be something that locals can do more than once without thinking they are going to see the same tour over and over again. All of our captains tell different jokes. Some know more about the Civil War, so they talk about that. Others know more about music. So whenever you've got friends or relatives in town, you can take them to ride the ducks and not be bored. You are going to see a different tour depending on who your captain is."
"Not just any old tow-boater can do this job," says Captain Bones, now pumping his arms to another hot Memphis groove.
"You want me to turn on the air conditioner?" he asks. He then lowers the front windshield, and the cool river breeze rushes in. "This is a great job," he says. "It's really a great job."
Ride the Ducks tours begin at AutoZone Park and are $16.95 for adults, $10.95 for children under 12. Throughout opening weekend, April 1st-3rd, prices are reduced to $10 for adults and $5 for children.