What is a duck boat? Orlando company recently purchased Ozarks duck tour

Amphibious vehicle developed for Army can drive on land, float on water

The Army DUKWs, pronounced DUCK, was used during World War II when no ports were available. (Photo: National Archives)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Seventeen people died Thursday after a duck boat on a Missouri lake capsized during a storm with strong winds that "came out of nowhere," the owner of the duck boat operating company said.

The Ride the Ducks Branson duck boat went down in Table Rock Lake, near Branson, with 31 passengers on board, said Jim Pattison Jr., president of the business's parent company, Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Ripley Entertainment Inc. is an Orlando-based entertainment company behind franchises including Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Guinness World Records. The company purchased the Ozarks Ride the Ducks tour in December of last year, according to a news release.

The link on Ripley Entertainment's website to the news release announcing the purchase now redirects to Ripley Entertainment Inc. homepage, according to the internet archive site Wayback Machine.

Fourteen people survived Thursday. Passengers and workers on the nearby Showboat Branson Belle helped to rescue them, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said.

What are duck boats?

Duck boat tours are a popular tourist attraction in cities with large bodies of water, including Miami Beach, Boston, Washington, D.C., Honolulu and Chicago. The vehicles can drive on land like a tour bus and then continue into water like a boat.

The amphibious vehicles were first developed by the U.S. Army in 1942 and were called DUKWS, pronounced duck, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. The acronym stood for D, for the year it was designed in,1942; U for utility, K because it was all-wheel drive like the K series GMC and Chevrolet trucks; and W for the dual tandem rear axles; according to DC Ducks, according to DC Ducks website.

The DUKW was developed by citizen scientists to be an Army truck that could also cross rivers and carry men and material ashore across beaches, but at first the Army wanted no part of the amphibious truck. Army officials were interested until engineers used a prototype to save seven Coast Guardsmen grounded in a storm near Cape Cod, according to National Archive records.

DUKWs were used during World War II to land troops on Normandy, France, and to shuttle supplies back and forth to ships unable to dock at a port, carrying 18 millions tons of supplies in three months. DUKWs were also instrumental after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The tour vehicles used today are long and narrow and usually have covered tops that are enclosed on the sides or open.

Why are duck boats dangerous for passengers?

Before the tragedy in Missouri, duck boats have been linked to other deaths both on land and in the water.

The Kansas City Star reports that before the duck boat in Table Rock Lake went down, the National Transportation Safety Board warned the boats posed a drowning risk, because of the canopy tops.

The canopy or other material tops can prevent passengers from being able to escape the boats that sit low in the water, according to an NTSB review after a 1999 Arkansas duck boat accident in which 13 passengers drowned. Even with life jackets, passengers can get pinned to the roof and become unable to escape.

Ride the Ducks tours have been linked to three other deaths in other locations, including Philadelphia, according to Philly.com. 

Footage from the Branson Ride the Ducks incident shows the boat's nose submerged as waves beat against the vehicle. The boat sank, wheels down, 40 feet down, and then rolled to an area 80 feet deep, the sheriff said.