Editor’s note: Part of a series offering a personal take on some of the region’s most popular seasonal attractions.
In Boston, as in any city, there are strategies to look like a local. Put the map away. Look straight ahead, not up at the tall and unfamiliar buildings. Avoid blatant tourist attractions like the Boston Duck Tours.
When visiting a new city, I live and die by those strategies. I adopt the rigid shell of a local-look-alike. On Friday, my shell quacked.
I stepped aboard a boldly painted, entirely conspicuous duck boat — amphibious vessels that cart tourists around the streets and waterways — and I couldn’t keep from smiling.
Boston Duck Tours operates a fleet of 28 World War II-style vehicles, each bearing a unique paint job and a perfectly on-brand name. (I was hoping I’d get South End Sara, for obvious reasons, but Fenway Fanny filled in just fine.)
With a capacity for 35 passengers and tours every 20 minutes from three locations, they carry an estimated 600,000 people each year, according to the company. After Boston claims a sports championship, the victors climb aboard the vehicles for a rolling rally through the city.
Each duck boat is staffed by a driver and a narrator, a.k.a. the ConDUCKtor, both certified and extensively licensed to operate the unique vehicle. ConDUCKtors audition for a spot among the fleet and take on unique characters.
My tour, on a drizzly morning, was narrated by a three-year veteran, Supah Fan, appropriately decked out in a Red Sox jersey and hat. Supah Fan, or Shawn-Paul Filtranti as he’s known when not operating a Duck, works as an art teacher during the school year. But driving a duck boat, he said, was always his dream.
“I’m just Boston’s biggest fan, and I feel like I should be the guy driving around our sports teams,” Filtranti said. He got the chance this year after the Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl.
Filtranti was born and raised in Boston, and he’s not shy about showing it. He has the USS Constitution tattooed on his arm, right next to a map of the city — in case he ever gets lost while driving the boat, he said.
“You could say I’m kind of attached to the city,” he said.
ConDUCKtors teach their tour groups unique, quack-riddled cheers based on their characters. The cheer, we learned, was to be employed often at the request of onlookers or at the sight of another duck boat. As expected, Supah Fan’s chosen cheer: “Let’s go Boston, quack-quack, quack-quack-quack.”
And those who resisted the cheer received a pointed and public invitation to join — “You know this is a team sport?” — and didn’t stay silent for long.
The tour features all the postcard-worthy sights: the Old State House, Boston Common, the Old North Church. Filtranti rattled off history facts, sports references, and subtle jokes at such lightning speed that some points clicked with me only after a slight delay.
He pointed out popular tourist attractions like the Freedom Trail and the bar made famous by my stepfather’s favorite show, “Cheers,” where, for a moment, the tour sang along with Filtranti’s rendition of the theme song.
For locals and visitors alike, the tour might have felt familiar — all the Boston landmarks you walk by but don’t know a lot about.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the center of Boston Common, dedicated to members of the military and surrounded by American flags each Memorial Day. The Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, where three signers of the Declaration of Independence rest, including the Bostonian of brewery fame Samuel Adams.
The sidewalk marking for the Boston Massacre, the 1770 clash between British soldiers and Bostonians that inspired anti-Britain propaganda and Colonial revolution.
“It’s a lot right? It’s a lot to handle,” Filtranti told the group. “American Revolution, death, life, birth of a county. It all starts here.”
I was far from the only out-of-towner on the tour. A passenger was visiting from Texas; another pair from China.
Mary Dillman of Lafayette, Ind., took the tour with a group of 12. They chose Boston Duck Tours because it seemed like an easy way to shepherd six kids around the city.
Dillman’s 10-year-old daughter, Mae, said her favorite part came during the 20-or-so-minute stint on the water. When Filtranti asked whether anyone aboard wanted to take the wheel, Mae was the first volunteer.
Driving the duck boat on land, though, was a job strictly reserved for Filtranti and driver David Perry.
Filtranti launched into safety protocols within seconds of starting the tour and authoritatively relayed the mechanics of moving from land to water and back again. Just before taking our dive, Filtranti assured passengers that he and Perry maintain six licenses and are certified by the Department of Transportation and the US Coast Guard.
(Boston Duck Tours revamped its safety policies after an on-road collision killed a 28-year-old woman last spring.)
“If you’re still kind of a little nervous about this whole experience, well I’m also an Eagle Scout,” Filtranti told passengers. “So we’re very well prepared for anything that may come about our way here today.”
Call it blissful ignorance or a reporter’s penchant for adventure, but I hadn’t remotely considered safety until the recitation of the protocols. The most peril I experienced aboard was the serpentine steering of the child co-captains on the Charles River.
But I also hadn’t ever considered boarding one of these monstrous sightseeing vehicles that become sights to see themselves. And within minutes of diving in, I took to the idea like a duck takes to water.