New Safety Regulations Introduced for WWII-Era Duck Boats: 16 Vessels Affected

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Half a decade subsequent to the tragic incident in which 17 lives were lost as a result of a duck boat sinking in a Missouri lake, the U.S. Coast Guard has initiated a fresh set of regulations for these amphibious World War II vessels which have been refurbished to offer tourist excursions.

Nonetheless, these newly formulated rules have a rather restrained impact since merely 16 such applicable vessels presently remain in operation.

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The provisional regulations were made public on Monday and mandate the removal of window coverings and canopies or the implementation of a canopy that doesn’t hinder passengers from evacuating the boat in instances of flooding or sinking. The Missouri vessel along with an Arkansas duck boat which sank back in 1999, claiming 13 lives, featured overhead roofs or canopies that the National Transportation Safety Board warned could significantly amplify the risk of passengers being entrapped and subsequently drowning.

In addition to this, the new rules comprise prerequisites for passengers to wear personal flotation devices, for specific alarms and pumps to be installed, along with fortification of inspection regulations.

It must be clarified that these rules are exclusive to the repurposed World War II-era Army vessels presently being utilized as land-and-water tours and not the newer vehicles custom-built for tourism visits. Of the 16 older vessels still in service, three companies are in charge of their operation, as stated in the rules document. The locations of these boats have not been divulged by the Coast Guard, however, ten of them are known to be part of a fleet in Arkansas.

Since 1999, duck boats have been implicated in over 40 fatal accidents. Among those invoked in criticisms is Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman, who expressed that the new set of rules is a commendable step, albeit one that ought to have been taken much earlier.

Effectively five years too late, the significance of the rules is dampened, laments Hall.

On July 19, 2018, Branson Ride the Ducks, a popular attraction in the Missouri tourism town, met with an unfortunate incident. Despite the calm weather when the vehicle embarked on its trip, forecasters had cautioned about the likelihood of a coming storm.

Recovered video and audio footage from the boat showed calm waters as the vessel plunged into the lake. However, an unexpected and powerful storm swiftly cast a shadow, causing the boat to sink within a matter of minutes. The 17 casualties of this unfortunate event comprised nine members of a single family from Indiana.

Following an investigation by the NTSB, it was established that the wind speed at the time of the accident was a perilous over 70 mph (113 kph), nearing hurricane force. Charges of manslaughter among other felony counts have been filed against the vessel’s captain and two business managers, with those cases awaiting trial.

The tragic incident had a far reach, causing insurance costs for operators to spike and making duck boat rides in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and other places cease.

Branson Ride the Ducks closed its operation post the accident, with no future plans to resume services, as informed by Suzanne Smagala-Potts, spokesperson for Ripley Entertainment, which ran the attraction.

Branson Duck Tours opened a new duck boat attraction in Branson in 2022, boasting custom-built vessels for tourism purposes, which demonstrate an impressive safety record.

Ten of the 16 remaining World War II-era vessels currently in use are owned by National Park Duck Tours in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which provides around 100,000 visitors annually with a tour of the historic downtown and a water ride around islands in Lake Hamilton. Operator Stacy Roberts conveyed that throughout his 31-year tenure on the water, the vessels have retained a flawless safety record.

Roberts projected an expense of roughly US$10,000 per vessel to incorporate modifications to comply with the latest rules. Despite the impending cost, Roberts expressed no reservation towards meeting the new regulations, while emphasizing the existing safety of the vessels.

He disclosed that the safety standards of his fleet were thoroughly examined and reinforced after a rival’s duck boat sank in 1999, causing 13 fatalities. The NTSB held poor maintenance responsible and asserted that the 1944 Army-built vessel was unfit for passenger service.