Nothing will bring back the 17 people who died last July while touring Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, aboard a modified amphibious DUKW boat from World War II. The tragedy created a fallout that will forever affect the lives of the families involved and will fill the courts for years. Just as it is important to mourn those who lost their lives in the incident, it is important to learn from it in terms of boating safety.
The facts as released by the National Transportation Safety Board are straightforward: The duck splashed into the water at 6:55 p.m. Central Daylight Time with 31 souls (including two crew) aboard in conditions described as sunny with light winds. Less than five minutes later, a storm swept down the lake, quickly churning the calm waters into a confused state with tightly packed waves up to 6 feet tall. Winds of 73 mph (hurricane-force winds are 75-plus mph) were recorded, and it’s been estimated that winds on the open lake might have topped 80 mph.
Initial reports indicate that the duck sank around 7:09 p.m., just 14 minutes after launching, taking those 17 people (including the captain) with it. What went wrong? What could have changed the tragic outcome?
As it is turning out, a lot. Here are some lessons that recreational boaters can take away from this tragedy.
One overused cliché about the storm that caused the sinking is “it came out of nowhere.” While storms can strike quickly, rarely do they pop up without warning. This particular storm system had already brought damaging winds to nearby Kansas and tornadoes to Iowa on previous days. Shortly before the storm hit Table Rock Lake, weather services reported hurricane-force winds just an hour away (the storm was moving at a brisk 50 mph clip).
More important, however, is that the National Weather Service had broadcast a severe thunderstorm watch for that area at 11:20 a.m. that morning, or more than seven hours before the duck splashed into the water. That was updated at 6:32 p.m. with a warning of 60 mph winds. In addition to these NWS weather forecasts, both television and radio news broadcast warnings, and anyone with a $20 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio would have received both alarms and forecasts. A weather-radar app on a mobile phone or tablet would also have painted a frightening red blob of severe storm conditions on the local weather map. Ditto for a marine radar’s display.
There is an old pilot’s adage that applies here: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were on the ground. Like pilots, skippers should start watching the weather days before a planned outing, using all resources available such as the NWS, the internet, mobile apps and TV.
Planning for Problems
This refurbished duck was considerably lower at the bow than the stern, and the side curtains were designed to keep out rain, not solid water. It wasn’t exactly well-suited to take on a head sea. No one knows why the captain stayed along his planned course after the weather turned, but he continued directly into ferocious 70 mph winds and waves that churned up to 5 feet tall. Available cellphone video footage shows the duck slamming into head seas and taking solid water over the bow, for which it was never designed to handle.
This duck would have fared better running with the wind and waves, especially since there was a state-park launch ramp just 3,000 feet (10 minutes away at 3.5 mph) downwind where, being amphibious, it could have run ashore. There is also a well-protected marina downwind that was just 4,300 feet away where, at worst, the duck could have tucked behind the floating wave barrier and ridden out the storm.
Listen to Your Boat
In the onboard video recovered from the duck, the bilge-pump alarm is heard to sound, and the captain reaches down and turns off the alarm. If your bilge-pump alarm goes off, investigate immediately. Know that 1 gallon of fresh water weighs 8.3 pounds — salt water weighs 8.6 pounds. A few gallons of water in the bilge can seriously affect the stability of the boat, and you need to take action to prevent more water from coming aboard.
Water in the bilge also impacts the handling of the boat, slowing it down and making it less responsive to commands from the helm, such as turning the wheel, setting the tabs, adjusting the throttles and so forth.
While the safest course for the doomed duck would have been to turn and run with the wind and waves, getting to that course would have been dangerous for an unskilled skipper. In large waves, coming about is a matter of carefully timing a turn so that you minimize your exposure when sideways in the trough of the wave, which can cause your boat to roll or even capsize.
How can you pull off this maneuver? Waves often come in sets, with a series of larger ones followed by smaller ones. Watch carefully and time your turn so that you are in the smallest waves possible, and use throttle and steering to set your downwind course as quickly as possible. Until you can make your turn, use trim tabs and drives to keep the bow as high and dry as possible, and shift crew weight as needed.
Once you’ve successfully turned downwind, be prepared to adjust your speed, slowing so that you don’t plow into the wave ahead, and accelerating to prevent the wave astern from coming aboard. Keep the bow trimmed relatively high to prevent stuffing.
About Life Jackets
We are advocates for wearing life jackets while on the water. However, be aware of wearing them in enclosed spaces or belowdecks. In the case of the duck, donning a life jacket could have been a death sentence, possibly pinning the wearer underneath the hardtop inside. In this situation, knowing how to get out of your life jacket could be just as important as knowing how to put it on. If you don’t wear a life jacket on a regular basis, you may have trouble finding and unlocking the so-called quick-release buckles. Practice that too.
Plan Your Escape
For whatever reason, there may come a time when you need to get off and away from your boat in a hurry. In the case of the duck, it had been modified from its original design to include a canopy that was fully enclosed with side curtains. It had only a single exit. As it began to sink, fewer than half the people aboard found their way out to survival. Aboard your boat, always do a pre-departure briefing, especially with first-timers aboard, and go through all the onboard safety procedures involving life jackets, fire extinguishers, VHF instructions, and how to exit the boat.
Tip: When people come aboard your boat, make sure to brief them about how to handle an emergency.
Know Your Waters
It’s been suggested that this storm might have been a derecho, which is essentially a thunderstorm on steroids. A derecho is a warm-weather occurrence usually cropping up from April through August mostly in the Midwest, which puts inland boats at risk.
Tip: Learn how the weather characteristics affect your waters and become skilled at reading the clouds. Remember that towering clouds can mean more than getting soaked.
Derecho or not, skippers of all boats inland and coastal should understand the concept of outflow boundaries, or gust fronts. We know that hot air rises and cold air falls, so when the inner air of a thunderstorm (especially those towering cumulonimbus thunderheads) cools, that air becomes a powerful downdraft, which hits the ground or sea and becomes a super-powerful blast of air that is far out of proportion to prevailing winds.
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In the case of the duck, the approaching storm was in an “outflow dominant” mode, meaning it was forcing out more air than it was inhaling. When you see a thunderhead approaching, be prepared — you might be in for more than rain and lightning. You might get a gust front. You don’t even have to be under the cloud and, in fact, you probably won’t be when the wind hits because it precedes the cloud, hence the name gust front. In shallower areas of lakes and rivers that lack the volume to disperse the conditions, this can create tall, tightly stacked waves.
History of the DUKW
The origin of the amphibious tourist ducks can be traced to the DUKW. In the manufacturer’s code, the D is for 1942, U for utility, K for all-wheel drive, and W for twin rear axles. The legendary yacht designer Rod Stephens designed the original DUKW. At the time of the design, America wasn’t yet in World War II but clearly needed an amphibious vehicle that could carry troops and cargo from ships to shore.
The Army originally rejected the amphibious DUKW until a crew aboard a prototype saved the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in distress in high winds and seas. Shortly after, the Army commissioned GMC to build a total of 21,137 DUKW craft, with 4,000 sent to Allies including England and Russia. Allied forces used the DUKW during the D-Day invasion, the invasion of Sicily, and in the Pacific at Guadalcanal.
Based on the six-wheel-drive military truck known as a Deuce, the original DUKW boats measured 31 feet long, and most used a GMC straight-six engine of 94 hp through a 10-speed transmission. They topped out at 6.3 mph on the water, 50 mph on land, and could carry 12 troops or 2.3 tons of cargo. The DUKW was also the first vehicle that allowed the driver to adjust the tire pressure from inside the cab, inflating the tires for roads and deflating them for sand beaches.
After the war, the Army sold many DUKWs as surplus, and many tour operators acquired them to provide combined land and sea sightseeing trips known as duck-boat tours. Many of the ducks, such as the one used on Table Rock Lake, have been modified from the original design. Others are knock-offs, not based on the originals at all. The National Transportation Safety Board has cited the design flaws of the modified ducks, replicas built for tourist purposes, and one-off amphibious tour boats.