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story.lead_photo.caption Some of the duck boats parked in a lot in the 4700 block of Central Avenue Thursday, May 2, 2019. (The Sentinel-Record/Richard Ramussen)

HOT SPRINGS -- The scion of a local family that has operated duck boats in Hot Springs since 1992 has acquired boats bearing the logo of the Branson, Mo., operator involved in last summer's fatal duck boat sinking.

But Stacy Roberts said amphibious passenger vessels emblazoned with Ride the Ducks markings seen in the area recently were not part of Ripley Entertainment Inc.'s fleet. Ripley is the owner/operator of Stretch Duck 07, the boat that capsized in the storm-churned waters of Table Rock Lake in July. Seventeen of its 31 passengers were killed.

Roberts, whose family owns National Park Duck Tours, said the 18 boats he purchased were owned by Ride The Ducks International, a nationwide operator/manufacturer of the World War II era curiosities. It sold its Branson operation to Ripley in December 2017. Stretch Duck 07 sank eight months later.

Ripley announced earlier this year that Branson Ride the Ducks will not operate this year as a result of ongoing investigations into the accident.

Roberts said his newly acquired boats were among 40 from which Ride The Ducks International allowed Ripley to choose. Ripley selected 22, leaving Ride The Ducks with 18 from its Branson operation. Roberts said only eight are operable, but the terms of the sale required him to purchase the remainder of Ride The Ducks' Branson fleet.

He said they were purchased for DUKW Arkansas LLC, a separate entity from the parent company that owns National Park Duck Tours.

"DUKW Arkansas LLC is only an investment company," he said. "We have no intention of running [the boats] in Hot Springs."

Roberts said he plans to apply for U.S. Coast Guard certificates of inspection for the eight operable boats. The Coast Guard said none of the 18 are certified to operate in Hot Springs. It's unclear whether they were among those identified as prone to sinking during an August 2017 inspection Ripley commissioned before acquiring Ride the Ducks' Branson portfolio.

Court records from lawsuits brought against Ride The Ducks and Ripley by victims' families indicate the inspector Ripley hired alerted the company to safety concerns with the boats. The pleadings maintain the company disregarded those concerns.

"Defendants were specifically told that the dangerous design of the duck boats rendered them susceptible to sinking in the event of rough conditions on the water due to the improper placement of the motor's exhaust in front of the boat and below the water line," the pleadings said, noting that Stretch Duck 07 was included in the inspection. "[The inspector] told defendants that in rough conditions water could get into the exhaust system, then into the motor, cutting it off."

The Coast Guard said conditions of operation were added to certificates of inspection issued to National Park Duck Tours. The certificates The Sentinel-Record obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the Lake Hamilton part of the company's sightseeing excursion is limited to 30 minutes, with boats prohibited from ranging more than 75 yards from the shore around St. John's Island to Majestic Point.

A minimum of 15.5 inches must be maintained between the waterline and rear deck.

"These were recommendations by the company that we agreed with," Chief Warrant Officer Chad Lankford said. "They have taken lessons learned from other operations to ensure they exceed our requirements and expectations."

Metro on 05/06/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas firm buys Branson duck boats

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