Inspector warned duck boat company of design flaws last year


Associated Press

A private inspector said Saturday that he warned the company operating duck boats on a Missouri lake about design flaws putting the watercraft at greater risk of sinking, less than a year before the accident that killed 17 people during a sudden storm.

Steve Paul, owner of the Test Drive Technologies inspection service in St. Louis, said he issued a written report for the company in August 2017. It explained why the boats’ engines – and pumps that remove water from their hulls – might fail in inclement weather.

He also told The Associated Press that the tourist boats’ canopies make them hard to escape when they sink – a concern raised by regulators after a similar sinking in Arkansas killed 13 people in 1999.

The accident Thursday evening on Table Rock Lake outside the tourist town of Branson also is raising questions about whether storm warnings in the area went unheeded and whether any agency can keep boaters off the water when inclement weather approaches.

“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.

A witness’ video of the duck boat just before it capsized suggests that its flexible plastic windows might have been closed and could have trapped passengers as the hybrid boat-truck went down. It does not show passengers jumping clear.

“The biggest problem with a duck when it sinks is that canopy,” Paul said. “That canopy becomes what I’ll call a people catcher, and people can’t get out from under that canopy.”

A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, the company operating the duck boats in Branson, did not respond Saturday to telephone and email messages seeking comment. Spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala has noted that Thursday’s accident was the only one in more than 40 years of operation.

An archived version of Ripley’s website said it operates 20 duck boats in Branson and described them as “built from the ground up under United States Coast Guard (USCG) supervision with the latest in marine safety.”

Since 1999, duck boats have been linked to the deaths of more than 40 people, with a troubled safety record on the road and water alike. Their height can obscure cars, pedestrians or bicycles from a driver’s view, and maintenance problems can be severe.

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