U.S. Coast Guard stands by its decision not to order safety refits of duck tour boats

In the aftermath of the fatal collision involving a duck tour boat and a sludge barge in Philadelphia, the U.S. Coast Guard says it has no immediate plans to reconsider a safety recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2002 calling for the World War II-era boats to be retrofitted to make them more buoyant. However, the Coast Guard did leave open the possibility that new safety rules governing the boats could result from the investigation of the July 2010 accident.

In 2002, the NTSB urged operators of duck boats built during World War II to take steps to add reserve buoyancy. While some tour operators voluntarily refitted their amphibious vessels with sometimes-costly new safety features, the Coast Guard decided not to institute new regulations.

The NTSB recommendation resulted from the 1999 sinking of Miss Majestic in Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton. Thirteen people were killed in that disaster, which happened after an improperly secured clamp allowed flooding through a gap between the drive shaft and its housing.

The recommendation applied to duck tour boats that originally were amphibious military landing craft constructed during World War II. The wheeled passenger vessels are able to float in water and drive on land.

Several tour operators submitted letters of comment, some including promises to make improvements. Tennessee’s Chattanooga Ducks notified the NTSB that it would install additional bilge pumps and adopt a more rigorous pre-trip inspection regimen.

“We took a lot of that (NTSB recommendation) to heart,” Chattanooga Ducks owner Alex Moyers told Professional Mariner in October. “Some of the things are not practical. For positive floatation, it’s not physically possible. You can do it if you fill the compartments with foam, but the Coast Guard will not let you fill the compartments with foam because they need access to the compartments for inspection.”

In the Philadelphia incident, the disabled duck tour boat DUKW 34 was struck by the 250-foot barge The Resource, propelled by the tugboat Caribbean Sea, in the Delaware River. Two Hungarian students on the 33-foot passenger vessel were killed when it sank in 55 feet of water.

The Coast Guard will not consider new safety rules until after that investigation is completed, said Lt. Cmdr. Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman at Coast Guard headquarters.

“It would be premature to begin discussions about what we may or may not require with regard to the (vessels’) operations,” O’Neil said. “We will examine the evidence and will work to implement any recommended measures that will improve safety.”

Indeed, investigators have not said whether the duck boat’s design played any role in the drowning of the two occupants. The NTSB has said it is probing whether anyone was paying attention in Caribbean Sea’s wheelhouse before the crash. No one on the towboat responded to DUKW 34’s radio distress calls.

About 250 of the 1940s-era vessels were operating as tour vessels in 2002. Newer amphibious boats also were developed, with designs inspired by the DUKWs, but fitted out more to the comforts and safety needs of civilian tourism, including watertight compartments and materials to increase buoyancy.

As of July, a total of 154 Coast Guard-inspected amphibious small passenger vessels were in operation, O’Neil said. Of that total, 118 are the World War II military service model or a “stretched” World War II model, he said.

Both Miss Majestic and DUKW 34 were considered World War II-era vessels, the NTSB said, although DUKW 34 was stretched in recent years. DUKW 34 consists almost entirely of new materials and equipment, said Chris Herschend, president of the vessel’s owner, Ride the Ducks. Only the “frame” and “rails” are original to the vessel, he said.

Ride the Ducks is the nation’s largest amphibious tour vessel operator and the largest manufacturer. The Georgia-based company owns a total of about 100 duck boats and operates about 50 of them itself in Philadelphia; Stone Mountain, Ga.; Newport, Ky.; Branson, Mo., and San Francisco. Most of the vessels are relatively recent designs. After the fatal accident, Ride the Ducks said it would suspend operations in Philadelphia until March 2011.

“The vehicles are modern, built new from the ground up,” Herschend said. “We use some old components and repurposed engines. We stopped using DUKW frames a while back. There are better engineering designs out there for stability and safety.”

After the 1999 accident, the NTSB said Miss Majestic lacked bilge pumps and alarms, watertight bulkheads and reserve buoyancy. It had a canopy that potentially could trap occupants during a sinking.

Moyers said a flooding accident like that probably couldn’t happen now.

“Most of the duck boat operators don’t use that drive shaft system anymore, with the boots and the tubes,” said Moyers, who operates three WWII-era boats on the Tennessee River. “So there is not that 6-inch hole in the boat. That’s welded closed now, and a carrier bearing is fitted to it.”

The NTSB is not currently pushing for improvements to DUKW safety, said spokesman Keith Holloway. After some voluntary refits from the industry but no new regulations from the Coast Guard, the NTSB closed the file on the 2002 recommendation two years ago under the heading “Unacceptable Action.”

Before that file was closed in 2008, Dells Duck Tours in Wisconsin said it had installed restriction plates over drive shaft tubes and doubled bilge-pump capacity. Cape Cod Duckmobiles, of Massachusetts, also added restriction plates and more bilge pumps and opted for a splash guard to prevent the stem from being swamped, improved drain plugs and added high-audible alarms.

Moyers said Chattanooga Ducks also has equipped its boats with smoke flairs and has two sets of horns. It reduced passenger capacity to 28 from 32.

Still the industry unilaterally seeks safety improvements, Moyers said.

“Our canopies are 75 percent canopies — they don’t cover the entire boat. And we have increased egress, so the side openings are bigger,” Moyers said. “Now we’re working on a canopy that self-releases and floats.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff