On a recent Saturday afternoon, 14 tourists with plastic duckbilled noisemakers roped around their necks boarded the Peking Duck, a maroon amphibious truck once manned by WWII soldiers. Captain Ingemar Olsson was at the helm, narrating the 80-minute land and sea tour, which included a truly obnoxious amount of quacking.
On the captain's orders — ready, steady, quack! — the tourists were instructed to "quack people out of their shoes." They quacked past Fisherman's Wharf, around Ghirardelli Square, and through North Beach. In Chinatown, one guy who was part of a rowdy eight-man bachelor party at the back quacked on "steady." "Premature equackulation!" cried another guy from the party, which had been downing miniature bottles of Jack Daniel's.
The tour members quacked at downtown shopping pedestrians and bicyclists and a homeless man pushing a cart. When two attractive women ran into the street to snap a picture with the Duck, the bachelor party members quacked louder than ever and urged the women to join them. They didn't.
The tour quacked across Fourth Street, past the baseball stadium, down an algae-coated ramp. Captain Olsson shifted into neutral and engaged the propeller as the Duck slid into San Francisco Bay. The quacking didn't stop there. Pelicans got a quack. Kayakers, another quack. The Willie McCovey statue: quack, quack.
It seemed a quack was more appropriate than ever when, heading back ashore, the Peking Duck encountered one of its own, head on. Yep, another duck tour. This was a glistening white duck. But, strangely, Captain Olsson didn't give the order. In fact, he seemed to be steering his duck away from the other one, and though he had been very thorough in narrating the journey thus far, he remained silent about that other duck. The white duck, armed with its own quackers, didn't acknowledge the Peking, either.
It turned out that this was no accident. These ducks come from different flocks that have been feuding all summer.
The maroon duck belongs to the Bay Quackers, a small, locally owned tour company that has operated in San Francisco for four years. The white duck belongs to Ride the Ducks International, a tour company owned by Bible-kissing, Georgia-based corporate monolith Herschend Family Entertainment.
In July, Ride the Ducks migrated into the territory of Bay Quackers; the result involved lies, betrayal, trash talk, suspicions of corporate espionage, a private investigator, and a couple of cease-and-desist orders.
For Bay Quackers owner John Scannell, the arrival of Ride the Ducks — a direct competitor — was really bad news. But it was no surprise. The opportunity to make a quick buck in this duck-eat-duck world hasn't gone unnoticed, as San Francisco has been ranked the number one city to visit in America by readers of Conde Nast Traveler for 16 straight years. Last year, an estimated 16.1 million travelers surrendered $8.2 billion to the San Francisco tourism industry. But this summer, after a new wave of tour operators rushed in, hungry for European visitors and their mighty euros, the national economy imploded.
Scannell feared he might lose his prized business, to which he had dedicated almost five years of his life. So when one of the Bay Quackers' beloved duck captains purportedly shredded his noncompete agreement and went to work for Ride the Ducks, Scannell found himself drifting toward a place he woefully refers to as "the dark side."
He's not sure how much longer he can afford it, but for now, John Scannell has a second-story office in Anchorage Square, a block off the main tourist drag and across from the historic Cannery building at Fisherman's Wharf. It appears to have been commandeered by ducks. Perched on the front cubicle wall are a Statue of Liberty ducky, a Santa Claus ducky, an angel ducky, and a blue-billed ducky in sunglasses. Origami ducks bask on a nearby shelf.
Apparently when a guy decides to start a duck business, everybody gets the idea that he's yearning to accumulate as many duck-inspired items as possible. As gifts, Scannell has received duck-feet slippers. A duck shower curtain. Duck boxers. "I'm not fond of duck things myself," he says. "But it's cool when people think about you."
Scannell is a 43-year-old Boston native who served in the Air Force, raced on an Americas Cup boat, and managed a chain of taco restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. He's tall, with dark hair and a chipped right front tooth that contributes to his youthful, almost cartoonish presence. But he takes his business very seriously, and is a frequent traveler to Asia, where he's forged many business connections. Scannell's habits include cracking his knuckles and bingeing on caffeine. "I like a slice of coffee in the morning," he says.
Bay Quackers isn't Scannell's first duck gig. In Seattle, he helped start a duck tour that eventually got bought by Ride the Ducks. He quit after a personality conflict with his partner, for which he takes responsibility. "I was a little brash in my youth," he admits.
Many had said a duck tour would never work in this city, since the Port of San Francisco is notoriously averse to change and unfriendly to outsiders. More importantly, prospects for getting Coast Guard approval for a duck in San Francisco Bay seemed dim.
The Coast Guard had to be sure that a restored 1945 WWII amphibious duck boat (DUKW) could safely transport passengers in a bay with complicated wind patterns, tides, and currents. That was unprecedented, so it seemed like a long shot. But then Scannell's silent partner, Lead Wey, did some research and learned about a tour duck in Hawaii operating under similar conditions. He figured if they could do it there, he and Scannell could do it here. So for more than a year, the men worked to restore a DUKW, make it lighter, and meet safety requirements, until they finally got Coast Guard approval. The Bay Quackers also had to procure a company office with a tour office downstairs, as well as access to the public ramp to help the ducks splash in.