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75-foot rubber duck to pay visit to Duluth festival

The duck is expected to be in the Parade of Sail on Aug. 18, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Then it will be based at Bayfront Festival Park.

At rest, Mama Duck looks like a yellow omelet, 50-feet in diameter, according to her keeper. But after a go-round with fan blowers, the way-larger-than-life rubber ducky grows to 61 feet tall with a 75-foot span from wing to wing.

She is more than 11 tons of potentially jarring imagery, scheduled to bob along with the signature vessels at Tall Ships Duluth, which starts today and runs through Sunday on and near Lake Superior. The festival features tall ship tours, rides, live music and the Art in Bayfront Park art fair.

The idea of pairing boats with an oversized bath toy was born in a bar, said Craig Samborski, of Draw Events, the executive producer of Tall Ships Duluth. He was in Los Angeles, plotting the west coast version of the event in 2014, and Mama Duck was a dare from his partners, he said.

“In L.A., we go big or we go home,” Samborski recalled being heckled. “We think you should build the world’s biggest rubber duck.”

And then there she was, dwarfing house boats and speed boats with a sly, smiling beak during the August 2014 event. A Los Angeles Times headline from the festival: “Giant Rubber Duck makes a splash in Port of Los Angeles.” Since then, Mama Duck has appeared in Philadelphia, Long Island, Syracuse and Green Bay. After Duluth, she travels to Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

Crying fowl

Life hasn’t been all bubble baths and kiddie singalongs for Mama Duck. She appeared, about a year ago, in Philadelphia magazine, in a story about Florentijn Hofman. The Dutch artist crafts duck designs for exhibitors who want a giant rubber duck at their event — including Samborski. But when the duck moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in 2014, Hofman said he hadn’t  been given permission, or cash, for the appearance.

That’s because they didn’t use his designs for their duck, Samborski said earlier this week. The artist’s drawings were for a duck that was smaller than what he wanted, and the steel pontoon wasn’t as stout and rugged as it would need to be.

It wouldn’t work, Samborski said he was told by engineers. So he hired a new designer.

The World’s Largest Rubber Duck, in its current version, was trademarked in June 2015 by Big Duck LLC, Samborski’s company.

Hofman had hinted at legal action in the Philadelphia magazine article. But so far, nothing.

“I haven’t heard anything since Philadelphia,” Samborski said.

Hofman did not return an email from the News Tribune by press time.

Just ducky

After retiring from more than 30 years at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Bob Hom picked up a gig as a duck wrangler. He is one of the core crew members who travel around the country and inflate and deflate Mama Duck. He takes his job seriously.

He recently removed a Thorogood work boot to reveal painted yellow toenails from his last pedicure.

Assembling the duck is a two-day project, Hom said. First, they lift it onto the boat, then they blow it up using two large fan blowers.

“It’s physical,” he said. “It either works or it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, it breaks your heart.”

There have been some bumps for what is arguably the biggest bill of the Tall Ships lineup. A trip to Wilmington, Calif., was canceled in 2014 because of strong winds. Last year in Philadelphia, she was felled by weather and tears in the duck’s vinyl.  

Fun fact: There is a 6-foot zipper along the duck’s keister, a point of entry.

“It looks a lot bigger,” Hom said of the rare vantage point. “It’s a whole different perspective. It’s like being in a greenhouse.”

The duck was scheduled to be fully inflated by midday Wednesday, according to Samborski, who did not want to reveal the duck’s specific whereabouts.

Mama Duck’s itinerary for today includes a photo shoot near the lift bridge and a spot in the Parade of Sail, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. She will be based at Bayfront Festival Park.

“I didn’t anticipate she would be this popular,” Samborski said. “I kind of felt stupid the day after I said I’d do this. It (was either) going to be smart or stupid. I didn’t anticipate how successful she would become.”