The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), reports that at least 38 people have died in Duck Boat casualties in the last 24 years. In 1999, the MISS MAJESTIC was carrying passengers on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Due to what would later be determined by an NTSB investigation to be the tour company’s failure to properly repair and maintain the vessel, the Duck Boat began listing hard to port and sank, taking the lives of 21 people on board. In addition, the NTSB uncovered several other safety issues, including a need for improved oversight by the USCG.
Despite the concerns, additional action was not taken by the USCG. Nearly 20 years later, another fatal sinking occurred on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri in 2019, which claimed the lives of 17 people when the STRETCH DUCK 7 took on excessive water during a severe weather event. That NTSB investigation found some of the same maintenance and safety related concerns previously outlined following the MISS MAJESTIC accident were contributing factors to the tragedy. We previously wrote about the criminal case against the former Master and Managers of the STRETCH DUCK 7, which was dismissed for lack of admiralty jurisdiction, and can be accessed here. That decision dismissing the government’s criminal charges under the seaman’s manslaughter act was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. United States v. McKee, 68 F.4th 1100 (8th Cir. May 30, 2023).
The USCG has now sought to enact regulations which would subject Duck Boat vessels, their owners and operators to certain uniform and regulatory mandated safety requirements. The 9 requirements of the Interim Rule, which took effect September 11, 2023 are:
(1) Remove the canopies and any window coverings of such vessels for waterborne operations, or install a canopy that does not restrict horizontal or vertical escape by passengers in the event of flooding or sinking;
(2) If a canopy and window coverings are removed from any such vessel pursuant to paragraph (1), require that all passengers wear a personal flotation device approved by the Coast Guard before the onset of waterborne operations of such vessel;
(3) Re-engineer such vessels to permanently close all unnecessary access plugs and reduce all through-hull penetrations to the minimum number and size necessary for operation;
(4) Install independently powered electric bilge pumps that can dewater such vessels at the volume of the largest remaining penetration in order to supplement an operable Higgins pump or a dewatering pump of equivalent or greater capacity;
(5) Install in such vessels not fewer than four independently powered bilge alarms;
(6) Conduct an in-water inspection of any such vessel after each time a through-hull penetration has been removed or uncovered;
(7) Verify the watertight integrity of any such vessel through an in-water inspection at the outset of each waterborne departure;
(8) Install underwater light emitting diode (LED) lights that activate automatically in an emergency; and
(9) Otherwise comply with any other provisions of relevant Coast Guard guidance or instructions in the inspection, configuration, and operation of such vessels.
Vessel operators have 180 days from the date of this rule’s issuance to comply. See 88 FR 62295.
To read the interim rule click here.