Why Are Duck Boats Still In Operation?

On May 1, 1999, a duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Ark. Thirteen of its 21 passengers perished.

In its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board noted how the very design of the hybrid land-and-water vehicles make sitting ducks of their passengers. The boats sit low in the water and easily take on gallons of it in rough weather. They’re also covered by a heavy canopy that, should the boat capsize, can trap passengers – especially those whose life vests pull them upward into the canvas.

So did the duck-boat industry modify their vehicles’ design, as the NTSB recommended?

We got our answer on July 7, 2010, when a duck boat carrying 37 people sank in Philadelphia after a barge plowed into it on the Delaware River; two young passengers from Hungary drowned in the crash. A subsequent investigation again noted the duck boats’ deadly design issues.

Hungarian tourists Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, were killed in 2010 when a barge ran into their Ride the Ducks boat on the Delaware River.

Well, okay, surely the duck-boat industry – made up of a number of companies who run duck-boat operations in about 30 cities worldwide – modified their vehicles’ design after that tragedy?

Of course not, as we learned last Thursday when a duck boat disappeared beneath the waves in Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., killing 17 of its 31 passengers during a violent storm.

Nine of the victims were from the same family. Don’t even try to wrap your head around the magnitude of that loss. It’s impossible.


These eleven members of the Coleman family were aboard Ride the Ducks in Branson when it capsized. Nine of them drowned.

Given our past, I doubt we’ll learn anything new in the investigation that’s just getting underway in Branson.

So here’s a suggestion. Let’s just skip the NTSB dog-and-pony show altogether this time. Instead, let’s use the fed’s money to create a funeral fund for the Branson victims and for all future victims of the wholly preventable catastrophes these vehicles will cause.

Because we seem incapable of acting on the truth that past investigations have revealed:

These vehicles are a menace. Not just on the water, where the duck-boat death count now stands at 32. But also on land – death count is at 10, including one in Philadelphia – because drivers sit up so high and so far back from the front of the vehicle, that they can’t see who they’re about to mow down.

“They have killed on the water, they have killed on the land, and they should be banned,” says Philadelphia attorney Bob Mongeluzzi, who won a $17 million settlement for the families of the 2010 duck-boat horror on the Delaware.

For example, Ride the Ducks suspended operations in Philadelphia after the 2010 accident. When the boats returned to the water nine months later, riders were certain that all was well.

Reading through news archives of interviews with eager patrons on that first day is eye-opening.

“I’m sure this operation has been inspected to death,” a Downingtown mom confidently told a reporter with the Courier-Post on the opening day of Ride the Ducks. She had driven 52 minutes into Philly to treat her two children and a friend to a day in town. “After an accident, it’s probably the safest thing to do in this city. Whatever went wrong then, you know they fixed it.”

A fellow passenger, himself a parent, felt similarly assured.

“I wouldn’t bring my family here if I had concerns,” he said, his daughter tucked between him and his wife as they waited for their ride to begin.

(Philadelphia’s Ride the Ducks suspended operations indefinitely in 2016 because of skyrocketing insurance premiums after a woman crossing the street in the city was struck and killed the year before.)

The design of the boats hasn’t changed at all, Mongeluzzi says.

“They are sinking-coffin death traps,” he says. “Difficult to maneuver, easily swamped, quick to sink and almost impossible to escape.”

Less than a year ago, Steve Paul, owner of the Test Drive Technologies inspection service in the St. Louis area, came to the same conclusion. He had been hired by Ripley Entertainment, new owner of the duck-boat operation in Branson, to evaluate the watercraft. In an interview with the Associated Press, his said his unequivocal conclusion was that the watercraft are dangerous

“If you have the information that you could have rough waters or a storm coming, why ever put a boat on that water?” Paul said of Ripley’s decision to allow boats in the water that night.

Maybe the answer is, simply, because we always have – and apparently, we always will.

Ronnie Polaneczky – July 24, 2018

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