Ride the Ducks Boat Sinks, Killing 17

Bystander video of the moments before the sinking (Jennie P. Carr / Marsradio / youtube)

Published Jul 20, 2018 10:12 AM by The Maritime Executive

A Ride the Ducks tour boat sank near Branson, Missouri on Thursday, killing 17 out of 31 on board and injuring seven.

On Thursday evening, two "Ride the Ducks" amphibious tour boats departed the dock at Branson for an outing on Table Rock Lake. At approximately 1815 hours, a line of severe thunderstorms blew through the area, bringing winds of up to 65 mph and waves of up to four feet. The two duck boats made for shore; one made it to safety, but the other capsized and sank. Bystander video shows the small vessel pounding through waves, sending spray over its bow, then slowing and listing to starboard. 

The first 911 call reporting the accident came in at 1909 hours, according to the county sheriff's office. Multiple emergency response agencies participated in a search after the sinking, and 14 passengers and crew were saved. 13 bodies were recovered, and on Friday, dive teams found four more within the boat, which came to rest upright in 80 feet of water. All missing individuals are now accounted for.  

The Ride the Ducks boats are built by Ride the Ducks International. The vessels are based on a World War II-era amphibious landing craft design, the DUKW, and can drive directly into and out of the water. The original version had a successful career in military service: over 20,000 were built from 1942-45, and they saw action during the invasion of Sicily, the D-Day assault at Normandy and the landing at Incheon in the Korean War. 

The updated, purpose-built tourist boat models have been involved in several high-profile accidents. In July 2010, a tug and barge struck a disabled Ride the Ducks boat on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, killing two passengers. The NTSB determined that the tour boat was drifting without power on the river, and the mate on the tug's bridge was distracted by his mobile phone and failed to notice the disabled vessel ahead. Ride the Ducks suspended its Philadelphia operations in 2016, citing drastically increased insurance premiums. 

Separately, a duck tour boat crossed a road centerline and collided with an oncoming bus on Seattle's Aurora Bridge in 2015, killing five college students and injuring 11 passengers. The NTSB faulted a broken axle and a failure to properly address a known problem with the axle housing. “This crash is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a manufacturer does not follow established rules about fixing safety defects,” then-NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a 2016 statement. 

Ride the Ducks International ultimately paid $500,000 in fines for violations of federal safety regulations related to the Seattle crash. RTDI noted that the axle model had never before failed in service, and was rated for much more weight than applied in service on duck boats. The franchisee pulled the affected duck boat model from service in Seattle, and continues operations with a more modern version of the vehicle.

Ride the Ducks International maintains a manufacturing facility for the vehicles in Missouri and tour operations in multiple locations. Franchisees operate affiliated businesses in several cities. In total, 95 Ducks operate in six U.S. markets and serve 1,500,000 people annually, according to a company prospectus. The Branson, Mo. operation is owned by Ripley Entertainment, and it employs 22 duck boat vehicles for 70-minute tours on land and water.