Missouri disaster should be end of the line for duck boats

After having spent most of my seagoing career working in the oil industry and on tugs, I took a job working as a mate on board high-speed passenger vessels one summer. Attired in my white shirt and epaulets, my first day began with me watching hundreds of passengers embark in Seattle at the beginning of our voyage to Victoria, British Columbia. The round trip went smoothly, a successful first day on the job. Later that evening as I was heading home, walking out of the gate at Pier 69 toward where my truck was parked, I heard a bunch of people singing the Gilligan’s Island TV show theme song. A few moments later, something that looked like a huge bathtub on wheels lumbered by, with a group of maybe 20 tourists inside being led in song by someone dressed in a uniform similar to mine.

The next morning, while preparing for the day’s voyage, I told the skipper about what I had seen and heard the previous evening. He laughed and said, “Welcome to your first encounter with a duck boat, Kelly.” I replied, “What the heck is a duck boat?” He answered, “It’s an old World War II military amphibious vehicle that can be used as a truck or a boat. A company has just started taking tourists around on tours of the harbor and Lake Union.”

So-called because of their original designation — DUKW, an acronym used to describe the six-wheel-drive vehicle — General Motors Corp. produced over 20,000 duck boats for the U.S. military between 1942 and 1945. Thirty-one feet long and weighing 13,000 pounds, they were used to carry troops and supplies over land and water during World War II, and to a lesser extent during the Korean War. Many DUKWs were later sold to the public as government surplus, and it wasn’t long before creative entrepreneurs began making plans to operate them in the civilian marketplace. In 1946, the first duck boat tours for the public opened in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. Currently there are about 30 tour companies operating duck boats here in the United States, and close to 125 WWII-era DUKWs working along all three coasts and the inland waters.

From the beginning, using DUKWs for tourist excursions was challenging, as they were never designed to carry civilians or be used as tour boats. Even after being modified for commercial use, the vehicles were clumsy on the roads compared to modern cars, with a blind spot that prevented the operator from easily seeing anything close in front of the vehicle. In the water, they were cumbersome and difficult to maneuver, with some describing the experience as akin to “driving a refrigerator.” Having only about 12 inches of freeboard with a full load of passengers — frightfully little for anything other than perfectly calm conditions — the vehicles were highly susceptible to the effects of wind and waves.

Duck boats operating in the U.S. have been linked to the deaths of over 40 people since 1999, the year that Miss Majestic, a WWII DUKW carrying tourists on Lake Hamilton, Ark., flooded and sank in a matter of seconds, killing 13 people on board. Since then, duck boat deaths have regularly occurred in different areas of the country — on land and in the water. In 2007, a duck boat operated by Alaska Amphibious Tours killed a woman when it ran over her on a dock in Ketchikan. In 2015, a DUKW from Ride the Ducks of Seattle smashed into a tour bus after one of duck boat’s axles failed on a busy highway, killing five people and critically injuring eight others.

On July 19, on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., the worst civilian duck boat accident in U.S. history occurred when Stretch Duck 7 sank, killing 17 passengers and crew. Video of the duck boat capsizing, along with preliminary reports from the National Transportation Safety Board, show how worsening weather conditions overwhelmed the stricken vessel in a matter of minutes. Survivors described the horror of having wave after wave wash into the boat, filling the passenger area with water as the DUKW quickly lost stability, then sank to the bottom of the lake 70 feet below. According to survivors, one of the last things heard on board just before the 17 people went to their watery graves was the anguished cry of “grab the baby.”

DUKWs put into use in the tourist trade were exempt from U.S. Coast Guard passenger vessel inspections for many years, and according to the official government report, this lack of scrutiny contributed to the 1999 Miss Majestic sinking. After that, the Coast Guard began formulating an inspection and certification protocol for DUKWs being used as excursion vessels, but because they were not traditional boats, the service had a difficult time fitting them in with the existing small passenger-vessel safety regulations detailed in 46 CFR Part 175. In December 2000, the Coast Guard finally issued Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 01-01 with a set of guidelines for the inspection and certification of duck boats, including recommendations that the vehicles be limited to specific wind and wave conditions — but at the same time exempting them from many of the safety regulations traditional vessels in the tourist trade had to meet.

No passenger or crewmember should risk his or her life in an obsolete 75-year-old death trap just to take a harbor tour or a pleasure cruise on a lake. There are modern amphibious vehicles for the tourist trade available today that meet current motor vehicle and Coast Guard regulations, and are designed to be virtually unsinkable. In my opinion, WWII-era DUKWs should be scrapped. Anything short of that is just delaying the moment when another duck boat accident claims more lives.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff