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What Are Duck Boats? Are They Safe?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

what are duck boats

Duck boat tours have become a compelling option for discovering the urban landscapes and scenic waterways of numerous cities around the world. But what does a duck boat look like? And more importantly, what are duck boats?

Originally utilitarian military vehicles, duck boats have transitioned into recreational and tourism vessels, retaining their ruggedness while adopting their role as unconventional sightseeing vessels.

Through their specific design and fascinating stories, these vehicles bridge the gap between history and leisure, leaving a mark on the collective consciousness of those lucky enough to ride on one.

Duck Boat Definition

Duck boats, also known as DUKW vehicles, are military amphibious vehicles during the Second World War and the Korean War for goods and ammo transportation.

1. Design


These duck amphibious vehicles earned their name from the vehicle’s DUKW identification, with each letter representing a specific characteristic: “D” for the year 1942, “U” signifying utility (amphibious), “K” representing all-wheel drive, and “W” for the two rear driving axles.

These WW2 duck boats were specifically made to navigate both land and water. Duck boats are typically larger than traditional land vehicles, with a length of approximately 31 feet (9.4 meters) and a weight of around 14,330 pounds (6.5 tons).  

Here’s a technical snapshot of the WW2-era US Army DUKW G-501 Model.

Origin United States
Crew Two
Production 21,147 DUKWs
Manufacturer General Motors (GMC) and Sparkman & Stephens
Operators US, UK, West Germany, France, Canada, former USSR, Australia, and the Philippines
Roles Amphibious assault, fire support, breaching, utility, special purpose
Length 30.8 feet (9.4 meters)
Width 8.2 feet (2.5 meters)
Height 7.1 feet (2.17 meters)
Weight 6.5 tons or 14,330 pounds
Carrying capacity 7.2 tons
Power plant 94-horsepower 6-cylinder GMC gasoline engine
Top speed Land: 49.7 MPH (80 KM/H)

Water: 6.4 MPH (5.6 knots)

Range 397.7 miles (640 kilometers)
Armament 0.30 or 0.50 caliber machine gun with provisions for rocket launching racks

2. Functionality


Duck boats have powerful engines capable of propelling them at moderate speeds on land and water. They have large, hollow tires that provide traction on different terrains, like paved roads, dirt tracks, and rugged off-road landscapes.

When it’s time to enter the water, the operator can engage a propeller located at the rear of the vehicle, enabling the duck boat to maneuver through waterways.

Uses and Applications of Duck Boats


Many military duck boats have found numerous uses and applications beyond their original military purpose, from duck tours to regular transportation.

Nowadays, duck boat tours have become a popular attraction in many cities worldwide. These tours offer visitors a chance to explore city streets and nearby waterways due to these vessels’ two-pronged capabilities. A duck tour boat can be used for leisurely river cruises, lake tours, and coastal explorations.

In some coastal areas with water-centric transportation networks, duck boats serve as practical means of transportation. They can be used to shuttle passengers between islands, across bodies of water, or to reach destinations on both land and water travel.

How Does It Work?


Many might wonder how a duck boat could work inland and on water. To give you the short answer: the boat is designed so that it can switch between being operated by the wheel to the rear-mounted propeller and vice versa. To change between transportation modes, the operator will have to push the lever.

In addition, the wheels on duck boats are adjustable as well. By making the wheels either more inflated or deflated, the operator can ensure that this amphibious vehicle can glide through almost any terrain.

History of Duck Boats


The history of duck boats, or DUKWs, traces back to World War II when they were designed as versatile vehicles to address the military’s need for a reliable means of transportation capable of navigating both land and water.

The design of the DUKW was developed by the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in the United States in 1942 and brought the concept to life. Afterward, the boats were utilized for transporting troops, equipment, and supplies between ships and the shore during amphibious landings.

Duck boats played a significant role in major campaigns, including the D-Day invasion in Normandy and the Pacific arena of the war.

Throughout the war, over 21,000 DUKWs were manufactured by General Motors’ GMC division. The manufacturing process involved repurposing existing automotive components, such as engines, transmissions, and axles, to streamline production and meet the demand for these versatile vehicles.

Post-war, surplus duck boats became accessible to the public, leading to their adoption for civilian use, including transportation and exploration in urban and rural settings.

How Dangerous Is It?


The safety of duck boats has been a topic of concern and scrutiny in recent years. While duck boat tours can provide unique and delightful experiences, it’s vital to recognize the potential dangers associated with duck tours.

There have been accidents concerning duck boats, and some have resulted in tragic outcomes, such as the incident in 2018 that resulted in 31 people dead. Factors like weather conditions, mechanical failures, operator errors, or inadequate safety measures have contributed to accidents in the past.

Following incidents and safety concerns, duck boat regulations and operators have taken steps to enhance safety measures.

Statistics of Accidents and Fatalities


Duck tour accidents resulting in fatalities or injuries have occurred over the years. Since 1999, there have been at least 40 deaths due to capsizing or collisions.

Among the known accidents, the deadliest one would be the tragedy that took place in 2018 on Table Rock Lake, Branson—a location in Missouri. Due to the severe weather conditions, the boat capsized, resulting in 17 deaths.

Another notable incident was in 1999. 13 people tragically lost their lives when a duck boat sank due to stormy weather on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas.

Sightseeing Tours in Duck Boats and Famous Duck Boat Tours

Here are some famous duck boat tours that have become iconic attractions for tourists.

1. Boston Duck Tours


Deemed one of the pioneers of duck boat tours, Boston Duck Tours began operating in 1994. These tours take passengers on an adventure through the historic streets of Boston, before the tour transitions into the Charles River, providing panoramic views of the city’s skyline.

2. Ride the Ducks


This Seattle-based duck boat ride offers guided tours that explore the scenic attractions of Seattle by land and water, from the Space Needle to Lake Union.

3. London Duck Tour


This tour takes passengers on a captivating journey through the streets of London and along the River Thames. It covers famous London attractions like the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London.

These are just a few famous duck boat tours around the world, each offering a memorable blend of recreation, education, and picturesque exploration.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Fast Can Duck Boats Go?

On land, duck boats run at speeds similar to regular land vehicles. The average land speed of a duck boat can range from 30 to 50 miles per hour. However, specific models or modifications may have different speed capabilities.

In water, the average water speed of a duck boat typically ranges from 5 to 10 miles per hour. This speed allows for safe and steady navigation in waterways while guaranteeing passenger convenience.

Are There Any Victims Who Died in Duck Boat Accidents? Who Are They?

Yes, there have been victims who tragically lost their lives in duck boat accidents. Some known victims are Rosemary Hamelburg, Elizabeth Karnicki, Allison Warmuth, and Myong S. Thayer.


When one sees a picture of duck boats or any images concerning this WW2 vehicle, it is hard to imagine that they were designed for that specific purpose because of how they are used today.

We are lucky enough to live in a world where a duck boat is used to glide through and enjoy the Thames and not cross Normandy! Just be sure to ride on when the weather is great since any watercraft has a chance to capsize otherwise, and a life vest is always a must.

And that answers the question, “What are duck boats?”

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