Capt. Duke Davis is compactly built and deeply tanned. He moves with great agility from the captain’s position on the airboat to the gunnels, bow and back across two rows of passenger seats.
There are no fancy epaulets on the shoulders of the uniform of this captain. He is attired in “Florida formal,” a loose-fitting T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. His dry wit is punctuated by a raspy laugh, animated with a broad smile. That exposes the gold tooth that lends the aura of ‘pirate’ to Captain Duke’s character.
“I once got stuck 28 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said, “and I used the gold tooth to reflect the morning sun into the eyes of the crew of the Coast Guard rescue helicopter,” he said.
The laugh that followed only added to the mystery of Captain Duke; one was not sure whether to take him seriously or give him credit for another good story.
“There’s a little bit of outlaw in every airboat captain,” Capt. Duke said as he prepared the craft for the tour. “Don’t be alarmed if you feel the boat moving in ways you don’t think it should. I’m totally in control, 50 percent of the time” as he laughs.
Capt. Duke enjoys showing tourists what he refers to as “old Florida,” which features wildlife in the grassy marshes of the state. Airboats offer a sense of freedom because they are capable of moving through a few inches of water and even across dry land, if necessary.
Capt. Duke easily pilots the craft around and over fields of lily pads, reeds and other water plants; the howl of the engine scares up egrets, heron, duck and other waterfowl feeding in the shallows. The propulsion system is so noisy, the Captain has to shut down the engine in order to narrate the tour. Tourists are provided headsets to shield their ears from the noise.
“You couldn’t ask for a better job” Capt. Duke says.