The 17 people who were killed last week after a duck boat sank in Missouri were riding in an amphibious vehicle designed by a self-taught businessman who had no formal training in engineering or mechanics, according to court records.
Robert F. McDowell owned and ran Ride the Ducks in Branson, Mo., for nearly three decades. In the 1980s, he came up with the idea of redesigning the company’s amphibious passenger vehicles by stretching them by 15 inches, and by the mid-1990s, Ride the Ducks was manufacturing what’s called ‘‘stretch’’ duck boats, according to court filings from a pending lawsuit filed against the company over a fatal crash in Seattle. Fast-forward to 2018, one of those boats built based on McDowell’s design, carrying 29 passengers and two crew members, sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake amid torrential storms.
It remains unknown whether McDowell’s design was a factor in the boat’s sinking. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, confirmed that the vehicle that sank was, in fact, a ‘‘stretch’’ boat and said its design and how it was built are part of the ongoing probe.
Ride the Ducks’s boats, which the company said were replicas of World War II Army vehicles used in beach landings and were updated with modern safety equipment, and McDowell’s lack of formal credentials have been a concern among some lawyers in the last few years. Public officials also recently called into question the safety and structural integrity of the boats after the deaths of 17 the tourists in Branson last week.
McDowell did not have a degree or certification in engineering or mechanics. He spent 2 1/2 years as a pre-medicine student at Illinois Wesleyan University before moving to Branson in the 1970s to take over the management of Ozark Scenic Tours, which his father had bought and would later become Ride the Ducks, he said in a deposition as part of the Seattle lawsuit. He said he educated himself on how to run the boat operation by talking to its previous owners, a high school football coach and a doctor. He learned about mechanics and vehicle maintenance by spending a lot of time at auto shops.