The story of a recent duck boat disaster in Missouri began long ago off the coast of Cape Cod. One stormy day in 1942, a US Coast Guard vessel was grounded on one of the countless sandbars near Provincetown. The seven servicemen aboard found themselves stranded, shivering in the cold, watching as the powerful surf threatened to capsize their boat and drown them all.
Through the wind and waves, they saw salvation in the form of an awkward amphibious vessel riding frighteningly low to the water, breaking over the crests, fighting through the surf. The vehicle had been created by an MIT-trained serviceman to carry troops and supplies from ship to shore, but the American military had rejected it for production. Why it was rejected has been lost to history, but one such experimental vehicle happened to be on the Cape for testing.
The Coast Guardsmen jumped into the vessel and were ferried back safely to shore, in a vessel that seemed to embody the same ingenuity and calculated risk-taking that has shaped mariner culture for thousands of years. The rescue also assuaged doubts about a vehicle that soon went into wartime production and ferried supplies from ship to shore on D-Day.
Three-quarters of a century later, the duck boat is far more familiar as a sightseeing vehicle in places like Boston or, fatefully, Branson, Mo. Yet the convoluted way in which the United States regulates the maritime industry, including commercial tourism boats, is better explained by maritime tradition than by modern safety standards.
In the age of sail, ships vanished, sailors were lost, and people erected plaques in their honor. What happened at sea was a mystery. Everyone knew it was a risky business. But people were drawn to it nonetheless: Life on the water meant life beyond the niggling rules that apply on terra firma. Out of sight of land, not another boat on the horizon, the law of the sea takes over. Mariner culture is synonymous with independence — you are the master of your vessel and your own fate.
The maritime industry predates the laws of this country, and maritime culture has shaped how it is regulated, yielding a crazy patchwork of laws. Nearly all of the rules are reactive — that is, written in response to major marine casualties.
In contrast, the airline industry, which had no such history, was instantly beset with standards and laws and best practices from the get-go. The seeds of its sole regulatory body — the powerful Federal Aviation Administration — were introduced in 1926 at the urging of the leaders within the nascent industry itself who fretted that without strong safety standards, the skies would become deadly, instantly destroying the public’s faith in air travel. There is no maritime equivalent of the FAA.
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After the successful demonstration off Provincetown, thousands of these DUKW boats — in General Motors shorthand, D stood for the year the vehicle was designed, U for utility, K for all-wheel drive, and W for two powered rear axles — were put into service.
The DUKWs had problems from the start. Because they sat so low in the water, they were exceptionally vulnerable to waves washing up and over the deck, so they relied on a powerful bilge pump system to stay afloat if too much water poured into the hull. Regardless, they served the military well.
After the war, tour operators acquired the surplus vehicles and started making money off of them. They were big, funky, and awkward, and were given cute names that made them seem friendlier than perhaps they first appeared.
But at 31 feet in length, the DUKWs are unlike any other passenger boats regulated by the US Coast Guard. Other passenger vessels are required to be built with “reserve buoyancy” — watertight compartments filled with foam or air that can keep the thing afloat, at least for a little while, in the event of flooding. Reserve buoyancy is like a life jacket for the boat itself. That’s why, when a sailboat flips, it still floats and you can hang onto it until you’re rescued.
The DUKWs had been designed as heavy-duty utility vehicles, every inch of their capacity dedicated to open storage for quick loading and unloading of military supplies, not people. They are big bathtubs equipped with an engine, drive shaft, and wheels below. Like a bathtub, they’d sink on a dime if the bilge pump system failed.
That’s exactly what happened in 1999 to Miss Majestic, a DUKW in Arkansas. On a clear day, the boat leaked, the bilge pump failed, and the vessel went down in 30 seconds, killing 13 passengers.
The investigation of Miss Majestic revealed not only the bilge pump problem, but also the fact that wearing life vests on DUKWs could actually lead to loss of life. As soon as the vessel went down, many of the people donned their life vests and then found themselves trapped under the vessel’s canvas canopy. They had to fight to get out from under it. Only seven were able to escape.
This is eerily similar to what happened in Branson recently. When a storm rolled in quickly, bringing with it 60-plus mile-per-hour winds and 5-foot chop, Stretch Duck 7 turned around and headed back to the dock. The DUKW never made it. Overwhelmed by water, it submerged quickly. Once again, panicked passengers found themselves trapped under the vessel’s canopy. Survivors described having to fight their way out in the murky deep, unable to determine which way was up, hoping the forces of nature would send them back to the surface. An unprecedented 17 people perished.
The horrific loss of life in Branson once again exposes the many shortcomings in America’s maritime safety laws.
Like every major incident, the Branson tragedy has triggered an investigation; the National Transportation Safety Board will issue a non-binding report which includes a list of recommendations for changes or additions to the existing maritime code. Congress may pass new legislation, but interpretation of that law will be thrown back onto the Coast Guard.
Over a protracted period of time involving several back-and-forth negotiations between the Coast Guard and industry representatives, eventually these may be shaped into new regulations for the DUKWs. Or not.
The transportation safety board may focus on the weather. The boats should not have gone out with a thunderstorm imminent. But who was watching the forecast at Duck Boats Branson? How well did that person understand the forecast and its implications? How well did the operators understand the serious limitation of their World War II-era vessels?
Ultimately, why are these vessels, designed and built nearly 80 years ago for the sole purpose of carrying supplies from ship to shore, being used as passenger vehicles on lakes and rivers across America? The answer is in the backward way that we oversee safety in our maritime industry. If we can’t make these things safe on our streets or waterways, it’s time to send the DUKWs to the scrapyard.
Rachel Slade, a Boston-based journalist, is the author of “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro.”