Recently-passed US National Defense Authorization Act includes duck boat safety provisions

Stretch Duck 7 after it was recovered from the waters of Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, following its sinking during a heavy-winds storm on July 19, 2018. The incident left 17 people dead. (Photo: NTSB/Brian Young)

The James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which was recently signed into law by US President Joe Biden, includes a number of maritime safety improvement provisions, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has confirmed.

The legislation advances NTSB recommendations for amphibious vessels known as DUKW boats or “duck boats” and requires the US Coast Guard to provide an initial response to new NTSB recommendations within 90 days.

Duck boats, were designed and built in the 1940s for military use during World War II. Some were later converted for commercial service.

The NTSB said duck boats are unique vessels with special challenges that must be addressed to ensure passenger safety. They require greater reserve buoyancy, canopy removal, and other modifications before waterborne operations and training for crews.

The NTSB first identified these safety issues in 1999 with the sinking of the duck boat Miss Majestic in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where 13 lives were lost. Although the NTSB issued recommended actions, they were not acted on and again the board made recommendations following the 2018 sinking of Stretch Duck 7 in Branson, Missouri, where another 17 lives were lost.

The act mandates that the US Coast Guard initiate rulemaking within six months requiring:

  • Reserve buoyancy through passive means and watertight compartmentalisation;
  • Identification of limiting environment conditions, such as weather, in which DUKWs may safely operate;
  • Proceeding to harbour in case of wind warning;
  • Maintaining and monitoring weather radio;
  • Informing passengers not to wear seatbelts in water, performing visible seatbelt checks and maintaining a log recording actions; and
  • Annual training for operators and crew.

The legislation includes an interim requirement, within 180 days, to require removal of canopies and window coverings, require passengers wear life vests, re-engineer vessels to minimise hull penetrations, and require bilge pumps and LED lighting.

The legislation also brings the US Coast Guard in line with Department of Transportation agencies, which are required to respond to new NTSB recommendations within 90 days.

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