Arkansas company buys remainder of Branson duck boat fleet

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The company that originally owned a duck boat that sank on a Missouri lake last summer killing 17 people has sold the remainder of its fleet to an Arkansas-based investment company.

Stacy Roberts, who owns DUKW Arkansas, LLC, said that his Hot Springs, Arkansas company purchased 18 duck boats on April 23 from Ride the Ducks International, which originally owned the ill-fated Branson duck boat that sank in July.

Ride the Ducks International sold 22 boats to Ripley Entertainment for its Branson tours in late 2017. One of those boats sank last summer after getting caught in a storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri; 17 of the 31 people on board, including nine members of one family , died. The U.S. Coast Guard's investigation into the accident is ongoing.

Stacy Roberts said right now, he's not sure what his company, which is owned in part by his father, will do with their newly acquired boats. He doesn't intend to strip them for parts, nor will he sell them to his parents' duck boat company, National Parks Duck Tours in Hot Springs, which he says already has more boats than necessary since demand has dropped after the Branson accident.

It's possible he'll sell them, he said, citing interest in four of the boats from a possible buyer in Central America. Or he might — eventually — refurbish some so they're fully operational and run them elsewhere.

"It was a quick buy. It was just an investment," he said. "I'd love to tell you where we're going with them but we really don't know."

Of the 18 boats, Roberts said only eight currently run. The remaining boats have wiring issues, potential battery failure or missing drive trains, and some have not been used in five years.

The Coast Guard inspects all small passenger vessels which operate on federal navigable waterways. They're scheduled to preliminarily inspect the new Arkansas boats on Monday, Roberts said, but he doesn't anticipate getting them fully certified until the investigation into the Branson accident is complete.

"I think we're going to wait to see what the investigation shows, and any new regulations, so we can get those done at the same time and get them up to the Coast Guard's standard," Roberts said.

Duck boats were developed during World War II to get supplies and reinforcements to troops and were later modified for sightseeing. Safety advocates have complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.

Since 1999, they've been linked to the deaths of more than 40 people. In May of that year, the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, killing 13 people. After the accident, the National Safety Transportation Board recommended the industry remove the boats' canopies, which it said acted as a "barrier to vertical escape."

Lauren Jorgensen, spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard, said Ripley's ill-fated Branson boat was last inspected in November 2017. The Coast Guard found "no outstanding deficiencies from the previous inspection and none were issued at that time when it was inspected," she said.

Before Ripley purchased the 22 boats, they brought in Steve Paul, an independent inspector, to determine whether Ride the Ducks International's vehicles complied with U.S. Department of Transportation standards. Paul said he inspected 24 boats, none of which passed.

It's unclear which boats Roberts purchased, but he said much like the Coast Guard certification, he has no plans to immediately pursue DOT certifications. Whether he does will depend on what he does with the boats.

Ripley is facing several lawsuits alleging the duck boat launched despite severe weather warnings, and the boat's captain has been accused of not instructing passengers to don flotation devices.

Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala said the 21 remaining boats Ripley purchased will be put into storage. Ripley has said it will not operate duck boats this year in Branson, a town which boasts dozens of family-friendly tourist attractions. It does not operate duck boats anywhere else.

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Follow Hannah Grabenstein on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hgrabenstein.

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