Deflating news: Festival fowl is foiled

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Mama Duck, the giant inflatable ducky in town for the Tall Ships Festival on the Delaware River, makes its way with the aid of a tugboat through more traditional river traffic. (Joseph Kaczmarek / For the Inquirer)

The duck is dead.

Deflated.

Done.

After three frenzied days of working to repair and reinflate the world's largest known rubber ducky for the Tall Ships Festival, crews gave up on her Sunday, saying it was time to send the badly wounded waterfowl to the "duck doctor."

Mama Duck's entourage dashed revelers' hopes for resuscitation just hours before Sunday's fireworks extravaganza on the Delaware River waterfront in Camden and Philadelphia.

The 61-foot-tall nylon creation was to have been a major draw to the four-day festival but suffered grave wounds on Day 1 and was nowhere to be seen for most of the weekend.

Officials thought they had finally repaired the duck enough to bring her out Sunday. They even inflated her. But strong winds - combined with a touch of flimsy engineering - remained her mortal foe.

"Some of the sailboats were concerned if it got loose, it would blow a $100,000 mast," said Marc Burr, the self-styled "commander" of the inflatable behemoth, built two years ago by Draw Events of Duluth, Minn.

"We tried," said Burr, "and then we just pulled the plug."

The monstrous rubber ducky was making its second world appearance, in Philadelphia, after debuting last year at a West Coast port of call.

But instead of quacking people up while floating up and down the Delaware, the 11-ton duck spent most of the weekend in intensive care, being sewn back together at Camden's Wiggins Park marina.

"It's going back to the factory," a deflated-sounding Burr said Sunday evening. "To the duck doctor."

Her grim fate was a cruel contrast to the warm, breezy weather that emerged Sunday, delighting crowds who flocked to the festival's music, food, and tours of tall ships, including the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Barque Eagle and Canada's Barque Picton Castle. The intermittent sunshine was a welcome change after the torrential Saturday evening rains that forced festival organizers to postpone the scheduled fireworks until Sunday night.

The duck's trouble had started Thursday afternoon, the first day of the festival, when she was part of the "parade of sail" of ships on the river. She proudly bobbed atop a giant, specially-designed, inflatable pontoon boat that formed her base when suddenly, "We heard a kind of 'pop,' " Burr recalled.

The pontoon boat had sprung a leak. It started taking on water, sucking the attached duck into the depths of the Delaware with it.

"We put a noose around the duck's neck," Burr said.

But rather than keep her from sinking, it gashed her even more. The ducky suffered a 60-foot tear.

"We sewed it up early Saturday morning before the rains," said Burr, a funeral home director in Chardon, Ohio, who travels with the duck as a hobby. "We got her reinflated for about 15 minutes."

Then, buffeted by heavy winds at Wiggins marina and mangled by makeshift rigging that lashed her to the ground, Mama Duck suffered a fresh, 20-foot rip. She spent Saturday night on the ground in a heap at least 50 feet in diameter that became weighed down with pockets of rainwater. The water had to be manually swept and dumped off the duck before she could be surgically repaired and lashed to new ballasts - 3-foot-square bags of calcium chloride trucked in from Home Depot.

"It's still been fun staying up til 3 a.m., your feet soaking wet," Burr said.

The giant duck debuted - without mishaps - last year at Los Angeles' Tall Ships festival. It immediately became an iconic, if surreal, attraction.

But in Los Angeles, she bobbed atop a sturdier steel platform. The inflatable base that sprang a leak? New to her Philadelphia trip, Burr said.

Around 6 p.m. Sunday, Heather Miscavage of Royersford and her children - David, 9, Ruby, 7, and Georgia, 2 - had just arrived at Penn's Landing to settle in for the fireworks. They were mildly disappointed that the duck was nowhere in sight.

"They're huge rubber ducky fans. We have a lot at home," Miscavage said. "But, hey, we'll have fun. It's all good."


mmcullough@phillynews.com