HOT SPRINGS — Ten of the 16 duck boats affected by a new interim rule issued by the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday are located in Hot Springs, and the rule will lead to a new look for the amphibious passenger vehicles.
The rule, which the agency said is “the first step to implement the statutorily mandated requirements for DUKW amphibious passenger vessels,” went into effect Monday, and operators of the vehicles have 180 days to comply with the nine requirements specified in the rule.
Stacy Roberts of S.T.D. Amusements, which operates National Park Duck Tours, said the business will work to comply with the rule.
“We’re working on … what they released [Monday],” he said. “I’ll get that done.”
The nine requirements include removing the canopies and any window coverings “for waterborne operations” or installing a canopy that allows “horizontal or vertical escape by passengers” in the event of flooding or sinking; requiring that all passengers wear a personal flotation device before the vessel enters the water; and closing “all unnecessary access plugs and [reducing] all through-hull penetrations to the minimum number and size” needed to operate the vehicle.
Additional requirements are to install “independently powered electric bilge pumps” along with at least four bilge alarms; to conduct an “in-water inspection” of the vehicles each time “a through-hull penetration has been removed or uncovered;” to verify “the watertight integrity” of the vehicles with “an in-water inspection at the outset” of departure on the water; and installing underwater LED lights “that activate automatically in an emergency” as well as to “comply with any other … Coast Guard guidance or instructions in the inspection, configuration, and operation of such vessels.”
“The middle 3-4 feet of the canopy is going to be removed,” Roberts said. “The problem in the South, it’s so hot, and that’s one reason why they did change to allow the Coast Guard to determine if the tops needed to stay [and] how to make them where there was vertical egress. With 115-degree temperatures, if it didn’t have a top, we’d have more people having heat strokes. That’s one thing they did modify from the original bill.”
While the appearance of the vehicles will change, Roberts said he does not “think it’s that big of an issue.”
“Most of that stuff is pretty simple,” he said. “They want the drain plugs either removed or welded up, so you can’t have someone pull a drain plug. … Underwater lights — if something happened, the lights cut out, then that’s a pretty simple fix. We’ve always looked at it as we make sure the vessel is safe, so this is all this above and beyond.”
Roberts said he disagrees with the requirements on personal flotation devices.
“The life jacket ruling — I don’t agree with that,” he said. “Touching on that, there’s several different [reasons] — if someone’s claustrophobic or it’s 115 degrees outside, wearing a life jacket is gonna put people again at risk of heatstroke. There’s still issues of that where people will have an option to not wear it.”
The rule from the Coast Guard notes this rule applies to “16 affected vehicles owned or operated by three companies.” National Park Duck Tours, which has operated duck boats in Hot Springs for 31 years, has 10 of the vehicles.
Jennifer Homendy, the National Transportation Safety Board’s chair, applauded Congress’ action in December when it passed the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act, which required the U.S. Coast Guard to create new rules in response to NTSB recommendations for the vehicles.
“We applaud lawmakers for their bold action to improve DUKW boat safety, something the NTSB has been concerned about for more than 20 years,” she said. “But it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to address known safety issues for any vessel, and it certainly shouldn’t take decades.”
According to the NTSB, duck boats were designed and built in the 1940s for military use during Word War II, and some were later converted for commercial service.
The mandated Coast Guard rules came after the the Stretch Duck 7 capsized during a storm in 2018 on Table Rock Lake in Missouri, killing 17 people, including two Arkansans.
The board said it made recommendations to the Coast Guard to improve the safety of the vehicles earlier, after 13 passengers drowned when the Miss Majestic sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs in 1999, but those recommendations “were not acted on” at that time.