A Year After Duck-Boat Sinking, Some Cities Abandon Tourist Staple

Operators have trouble getting insurance after accident near Branson, Mo. killed 17

One year after a duck boat sank in a storm near Branson, Mo., killing 17 people, the amphibious tour boats—once a staple of tourist destinations—have become a thing of summers past in some cities.

A duck boat operator in Pittsburgh closed down since the accident, and a tour company in Cape Cod will cease operations Aug. 22, when its current insurance expires.

Some insurers are getting out of the business, and others are reluctant to take on new clients. “My agent went all over the world” looking for a new carrier after his current carrier said it wouldn’t renew his policy, said Jon Britton, who has run Cape Cod Duckmobiles for 24 years. “Nobody will take amphibious” tour boats.

On July 19 of last year, a 6:30 p.m. tour operated by Ride the Ducks Branson entered Table Rock Lake as heavy thunderstorms approached the area. The water was calm when the boat splashed into the lake, witnesses said, but as it turned toward shore, winds as strong as 73 mph whipped up large waves. A series of waves crashed over the bow and sank the craft, killing 17 of the 31 people on board.

Federal officials have charged the captain, who survived, with several counts of failing to heed weather forecasts, failing to order passengers to put on life preservers or evacuate and failing to open windows that trapped most people inside the fast-sinking vessel.

Two other employees, the general manager and operations supervisor, were also charged last month in connection with the sinking. The indictment said the operations supervisor was busy on shore counting the day’s receipts instead of monitoring the weather as the accident played out.

All three have pleaded not guilty, and a trial is slated for Dec. 2.

Ripley Entertainment, owner of Ride the Ducks Branson, has settled 19 of 33 claims against the company for undisclosed amounts.

Ride the Ducks Branson has been closed since the sinking, and a Ripley spokeswoman said it hasn’t decided whether it will operate the tours again.

“We continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies as they investigate the facts surrounding the unprecedented storm and resulting accident on Table Rock Lake that occurred last July,” the company said in an emailed response to questions.

Most of the boats—which can run on land and in water—were military troop carriers from World War II and Vietnam that have been modified for tourism. In some cases, the changes have made them more dangerous, said Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney who represents several of the victims’ families. Added canopies made the boats harder to escape, he said, and pumps to remove water from the boat were replaced with less powerful ones to make room for more seating.

A recorded message on the phone numbers for Just Ducky Tours in Pittsburgh said the company had ceased operations.

John Miklus, president of the American Institute of Marine Underwriters, said duck boats “are a unique exposure” because they operate on both land and sea “and not everyone wants to underwrite that kind of risk.”

He said even before the Branson sinking, insurers had been concerned about several other fatalities both on land and sea connected with the duck boats.

Mr. Britton in Cape Cod said he was selling off his vessels to a Canadian operator. He will continue offering fishing tours for children on a new boat, rather than the duck boat he has been using.

He said he had never had an accident on his duck boat or even filed a claim—except for hitting the mirror of a car when the vehicle was on land.

“It’s just unfortunate,” he said of the Missouri sinking. “They made a foolish mistake and did things that you just don’t do.”

Still, Jon Reinert, manager of Chattanooga Ducks, said his business is doing fine and that the company’s insurance costs have gone up only a little.

“You hear some questions about it,” he said of the accident in Branson. “The vehicle itself is unbelievably safe.”

By Joe Barrett

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