Unique 'duck' works on land and sea

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2003

KETCHIKAN (AP) Airline passengers know the feeling. Jet engines power the plane down the runway. The nose lifts. You wonder, if this thing is going to fly?

And then it flies.

A similar thought occurs aboard Alaska Amphibious Tour's Hydra-Terra. As it rolls down the ramp toward the water of Bar Harbor, you wonder, ''Is this thing gonna float?''

The bow lifts. The wheels lose contact with concrete. The Alex J. is indeed afloat, and its tour of Ketchikan continues smoothly in Tongass Narrows.

The Alex J. and its ''brother'' craft Kody J. are among the more unusual watercraft operating in Ketchikan, turning heads on land and at sea.

''A lot of people laughed at me when I first brought it into town,'' said John Malouf, who, with his wife, Jillian Malouf, owns and operates the Ketchikan-based Alaska Amphibious Tours. ''People were saying, 'What in the heck are you thinking?'''

It wasn't appearance that prompted comments when his first Hydra-Terra amphibious vehicle arrived in town the Kody J. in 2001. It was the idea that salt-water corrosion would cause too many problems.

''That thing will dissolve in salt water,'' Malouf said people told him.

But while maintenance is required to keep corrosion at bay, Malouf was impressed enough by his first Hydra-Terra's suitability to seawater and other Ketchikan conditions to purchase a second, the Alex J. The vehicles are named after the couple's sons.

On a downtown dock one recent Tuesday, Capt. Larry Fischer gave a helping hand to cruise ship visitors and locals as they clambered up a retractable ladder and into the enclosed but airy cabin of the Alex J.

Inside, Malouf welcomed his guests for the 90-minute Ketchikan ''Duck'' Tour. Soon, with Fischer at the controls and Malouf narrating, the Alex J. was under way along the streets of town. Malouf has lived in Ketchikan since 1996, and has worked in the area since 1990 as a commercial harvest diver targeting the area's abundant sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and sea urchins.

However, the time away from home required by harvest diving started Malouf thinking about trying something new. It was in 2000 when he and Jillian were getting married on the East Coast that he came across the Boston Duck Tours company that operates a fleet of refurbished Army amphibious ''Dukw'' hulls that were first designed for service in World War II.

Malouf had his idea. Next he needed an amphibious vehicle. After hearing that Army ducks couldn't be certified for use in Alaska, he looked for other possibilities.

He found the Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International on the Internet.

At the time, the South Carolina-based CAMI was starting to build the new Hydra-Terra amphibious vehicle that its president, John Giljam, had invented essentially from scratch in 1999. The company itself had originated as an operator of amphibious tours.

''We had started amphibious tours with an old military LARC (Lighter Amphibious Resupply & Cargo),'' Giljam said. ''But we just found the vessel had so many limitations we just felt we could build something better.''

Stronger, faster, safer and unsinkable were the goals for the Hydra-Terra design, he said.

Malouf liked CAMI's product. He wrote a business plan, obtained financing and in 2001 took delivery of the fifth Hydra-Terra to roll out of CAMI's manufacturing facility in Rochester, N.Y.

The foundation for the Hydra-Terra is a Ford 650 truck. An aluminum hull is built onto the truck platform. It's 39 feet long; 8 feet, 6 inches wide and stands 11 feet, 4 inches tall.

Power is supplied by a 210-horsepower Caterpillar 3126 diesel engine. But where a normal truck would have a single shaft transmission, the Hydra-Terra has two shafts one for the wheels on land and another for propulsion at sea.

The hull is compartmentalized and has foam-filled sections along the sides beneath the floor, according to CAMI. The passenger cabin holds 49 passengers. Its cabin is enclosed with see-through Lexan on the sides and top. Portholes can be opened for ventilation and unobstructed picture taking.

Malouf said he drove the Alex J. all the way from Rochester to Seattle before barging it up to Ketchikan.

''It drives great on the highway,'' he said, adding that it can motor along at speeds of up to 65 mph.

Driving the streets of Ketchikan on Tuesday, the Alex J.'s full live suspension felt stiff but not uncomfortable. At Bar Harbor, the vehicle slipped easily into the water, moving south along the floats before heading out into Tongass Narrows.

In the water Fischer steered the Hydra-Terra with a toggle switch instead of the steering wheel. The vehicle has a cable-less, electric actuator system that moves the rudder. It also can be steered at sea by the front wheels only, said Malouf.

Once in Tongass Narrows, the Alex J. moved through the water at about 4.5 knots.

The vehicle felt steady in the slightly choppy seas, rolling a bit only when broadsided by the wake of a powerboat passing by at speed significantly higher than the area's 7-knot limit.

The Alex J. is certified for seas up to three feet, which means few trips that have to be cancelled because of conditions in the typically calmer Tongass Narrows, said Malouf.

Once the water portion of the tour concluded, the Alex J. drove right back up the Bar Harbor ramp and stopped in the parking lot. Fischer got out and sprayed the lower part of the vehicle with fresh water.

''It's pretty important maintenance to get that salt water off after every tour,'' Malouf told the passengers.

After departing Bar Harbor the Alex J. made its way back through town to the downtown dock, where the passengers disembarked to continue their day.

''We have a great time out here,'' he said with a smile. ''This is my way to get out of fishing.''

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