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@Work: The Duckaneer

Feb. 4, 2007 — Charlotte Amalie harbor has seen its share of geese over the years with Antilles Air Boats Grumman Gooses, but now there's a new critter in the harbor — a very large duck. The 40-foot long waterfowl doesn't have feathers or web feet, and it doesn't sell Aflac Insurance.
The Duckaneer is a 50-passenger amphibious tour bus that conducts a "Pirate Duck Adventure" in Crown Bay and the harbor. The open-air craft is painted to resemble a real sailing galleon.
Captain and owner Michael Baird knows something about the duck motor business. For several years he was a partner in a similar endeavor in West Palm Beach, Fla., before selling out to try his hand in the Virgin Islands.
A youthful 49-year-old with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and affable manner, Baird is enthused about his new endeavor. "I've been around water half my life," he says, "diving and sailing. St. Thomas seems the ideal place to have the Duckaneer, with all the cruise-ship traffic, along with the hotels."
Baird bought a home here about a year ago, and worked to lay the groundwork for his enterprise, getting permits and licenses from the local government and the U.S. Coast Guard while awaiting his duck. Before we begin our 75-minute tour, Baird describes the craft, which he had built to order. It is state of the art, an aluminum shell stuffed with foam, which makes it "almost impossible" to sink, Baird says. It does seven knots on the water.
A barge delivered the Duckaneer St. Thomas in early December. But getting here was only half the fun, Baird says. "I picked it up in Rochester, New York, where it was built, and drove it to Florida." After that trip, he says, St. Thomas traffic is easy for him.
The craft is clean and spiffy inside, with roomy leather seats. Rows of bright orange life jackets line the railings. Thursday morning we climb the boarding steps and take off on a simulated tour, a sort of shakedown cruise, with Capt. Baird accompanied by tour guide Jessica Klein and first mate Aaron Renault.
It's Klein's first stab at her new job. She gets her printed narrative and jumps right in. On our way to Crown Bay, Klein fills in a little background on recent V.I. history. "Crown Bay now has a new cruise ship dock and a commercial center," she points out as we lumber up the hill by Krum Bay past the V.I. Water and Power plant there. It's one of the island's least-attractive views, but Klein is game. "Right around the corner as we come down the hill, you will see Lindbergh Bay, and the sailboats," she says with a smile.
As we venture down the hill, she says knowledgeably, "The white buildings you see on the hill over there are the University of the Virgin Islands campus." Klein will graduate from UVI this December with a degree in communications.
"Marine science is my first love," says the Colorado native. "It's one of the reasons I moved here." However, Klein's university career was interrupted by a serious accident when she broke her leg, which required about a year's rehabilitation. "I'm just happy to have my leg," she says. "This job is great. I can do it between my class breaks."
As for Renault, 34, a Dominican native, he has lived on St. Thomas for 16 years. He has his sea legs firmly beneath him as he guides folks about the bulky craft, pointing out exits and life jackets. He has experience sailing, he says, "But this is new."
After a ride back down Veterans Drive, where surprised car occupants look up at us, we turn down the narrow road to the Gregory East ramp by the landfill.
Then comes the magic moment: We lumber down the ramp as a landlocked duck and splash into Crown Bay as a water bird. It's perhaps not the most graceful metamorphosis, but it works. Sailing along with only mild chop, we head toward Hassell Island, and Klein gets her spiel in gear again. "Hassell Island was once the site of a marine railway," she says, pointing to the remains to our right. She gives a brief history of the island, looking up at her small audience to ask how she's doing. Just fine, they tell her. Baird has invited a few guests along for the ride, including a potential captain who takes a brief turn at the helm on our journey.
We chug along with the chop picking up a little bit, but it's still a comfortable ride as we tour past the cruise ships at the West Indian Dock, the new marina at Yacht Haven Grande, the Legislature building and Fort Christian.
"Up on the hill there," Klein points out, "is Blackbeard's castle." She gives a thumbnail description of Edward Teach, the infamous pirate, who, along with other pirates, has inspired ventures like today's Duckaneer. (What would have Teach think, seeing us motor past his fortress some 300 years later?)
It's back to Crown Bay, with a look at Water Island and a recap of its recent history, becoming the fourth U.S. Virgin Island.
Becoming a land critter isn't as easy as becoming a water one. It takes a big quack or two to get us back up the ramp, as Baird explains the maneuver to his potential captain.
Operations start Monday. Though he is pleased with his efforts thus far, Baird would like to move from his present location on Veterans Drive between the Texaco Station and Quality Foods to Kings Wharf downtown.
In 2000, a similar operation, the Caribbean Pelican, used that location. Operated by Sonia Nelthropp, the venture was short-lived, owing in part to mechanical problems with the British craft she used, similar to the U.S. amphibious duck landing craft used in World War II.
Baird says he has been trying to negotiate with the V.I. Port Authority for the space, but so far has had no luck. "I have all the permits and licenses I need," he says. "I just want to use that location."
The Duckaneer is a tour bus, not a taxi, he emphasized. Baird is working on arrangements with the cruise ships for tours. "We will provide the taxis with fares from the ships to our location," he points out. The present location has one advantage over the downtown spot: plenty of parking.
Prices are $30 for adults. $24 for children between three and 13 years, free under three and a local discount.
Baird looks to become a part of the community. He is working on a free program to offer the schools, with one trip a month for different classes.
The 75-minute tours officially begin Monday. They depart at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. For reservations, call 998-4230.
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