Sunken Ride the Ducks Boat Had Reduced Bilge Pump Capacity

Salvors raise Stretch Duck 07, 2018 (USCG)

Published Apr 9, 2019 1:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to documents obtained by the Kansas City Star, the Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle that sank in Branson, Missouri last year had been refitted with less capable bilge pumps prior to the accident, with the U.S. Coast Guard's approval.

When it was manufactured in 1944, the military DUKW that became Stretch Duck 07 was fitted with an engine-driven Higgins bilge pump, which was capable of removing up to 250 gallons per minute. Several years before the accident voyage, the Higgins pump was changed out for three electric pumps capable of removing only 20-33 gallons per minute each. 

This change - along with use of "flapper valves" instead of manually-operated shutoff valves for the bilge discharge lines - was approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, but only on condition that the vessel should not operate in waves over two feet in height. The waves on Table Rock Lake at the time of the casualty were over four feet. 

“The Higgins pumps were removed and replaced with independent electric bilge pumps with Coast Guard input and oversight, and were ultimately approved as meeting all safety requirements before any boat was allowed on the water," said a spokeswoman for vessel owner Ripley Entertainment in a statement.

Ripley also maintains that its employees complied with the Coast Guard's two-foot wave height limit - at the time that the vessel departed the dock. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning about 20 minutes before Stretch Duck 07's departure, but the predicted high winds did not arrive until after the vessel was on the water.

The Coast Guard approval for the change occurred before Ripley Entertainment took ownership of Ride the Ducks Branson, and it covered multiple duck boats with similar retrofits. 

On July 19, 2018, Stretch Duck 07 flooded and sank on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri. 16 passengers and one crewmember died; the victims included nine members of one family. The vessel's master, Kenneth Scott McKee, has been charged with multiple counts of negligence and misconduct resulting in death. Prosecutors contend that McKee failed to properly assess the weather before departure. 

The vessel's operator, Ride the Ducks Branson, has closed for the 2019 season. Owner Ripley Entertainment is repurposing its location as a laser tag venue.