Four die in sinking of amphibious craft in Ottawa River

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 AM
Four people lost their lives June 23, when an amphibious tour boat sank in the Ottawa River near Gatineau, Quebec, just 100 yards from the safety of a marina.

Lady Duck, a converted Ford truck, sank as it was approaching a marina. The four people who died in the sinking were found inside the craft under the canopy. Lady Duck is shown here during an earlier outing.

Lady Duck, a converted Ford F-350 truck, sank suddenly after taking on water. The victims included a 43-year-old mother from Montreal and her two children, aged 5 and 13, and a 66-year-old nun from Sainte-Agathe, Quebec. There were 10 passengers and crew aboard the craft, which is owned and operated by Amphibus Lady Dive Inc. of Saint Isidore de Prescott, Ontario.

The amphibious craft sank almost immediately after its operator noticed that it was low in the bow and was taking on water. The bodies of the victims were found in the vehicle and beneath the canopy. Investigators for Transport Canada are examining the possibility that the canopy may have impeded their escape.

The latest sinking underscores the serious safety issues that were raised by the Miss Majestic incident in Arkansas three years ago. In April of this year, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations based on its investigation of the sinking of Miss Majestic. The NTSB called for operators of the boats to increase their reserve buoyancy so that they would continue to float even if they filled with water.

The NTSB report also cited inadequate maintenance and operational procedures as major factors in the Miss Majestic sinking.

Despite the NTSB recommendation for increased reserve buoyancy, the U.S. Coast Guard has not required operators of amphibious craft to install buoyant material or create watertight compartments. The Coast Guard cited practical considerations for its decision, noting that adding reserve buoyancy to these vessels would be difficult because of the amount of machinery and lack of void space. Because of the cramped interior spaces, installing more reserve buoyancy would be expensive and the hulls would be difficult to inspect, the Coast Guard explained.

Instead, the Coast Guard has stressed the need for better inspections and for more adequate and redundant bilge-pumping systems.

However, the loss of four more lives in the Lady Duck sinking did prompt the U.S. Coast Guard to revisit the issue of the safety of amphibious vehicles. Two days after the accident, the Coast Guard issued a safety alert.

"The consequences of poorly performed operational inspection procedures, inadequate maintenance and repair can be serious," the Coast Guard stated in the safety alert. "The Coast Guard strongly recommends that owners and operators provide suitable time and resources during daily operations to perform vessel safety inspections."

Ken Olsen, casualty analyst with the U.S. Coast Guard's Office of Investigations and Analysis in Washington, said that the issue of reserve buoyancy is still being considered and that the NTSB recommendations are under review.

The designs of amphibious tour craft vary greatly. Many of them are restored World War II-era DUKW landing craft. Both the Seattle and Arkansas accidents involved this type of craft. But others, like Lady Duck, are conventional trucks that have been converted for use as amphibians. The Coast Guard categorizes them all simply as amphibians for inspection and certification purposes. The general public commonly refers to them as ducks.

The string of accidents involving these craft has raised doubts in some people's minds about the inherent seaworthiness of amphibians and their use as tour boats.

Capt. Richards T. Miller, the retired director of ship design for the U.S. Naval Ship Engineering Sector and the former head of the Preliminary Design Branch of the Bureau of Ships, said that using DUKWs as tour boats is "not a good idea."

Unlike conventional hull designs, amphibious craft have little freeboard and tend to plow through the water, making them unsuitable for operation in rough or quick-flowing water. They are also more at risk of flooding because of the number of through-hull fittings. And their thin hulls make them more susceptible to puncture and cracking.

Canadian authorities have scheduled a number of stability tests to be performed on the recovered Lady Duck. Eric Snow, an analyst for the Transportation Board of Canada, hopes that the hydrostatic and dynamic stability tests will shed some light on seaworthiness and stability of the amphibious craft.

The sinking was the latest in a series of accidents involving amphibious passenger craft used as tour boats. They include:

• May 1999, Miss Majestic sank in Lake Hamilton, Ark., killing 13 of its 20 passengers.

• September 2000, Minnow, an Alvis Stalwart brand amphibious craft, designed and built for the British military around 1959, sank in Milwaukee's Lake Michigan Harbor when an impeller shaft bearing failed after passengers had disembarked.

• December 2001, an amphibious tour vehicle sank in Seattle's Lake Union. The occupants escaped injury when the operator of the boat intentionally grounded it.

• August 2001, a Super Duck based in Portland, Maine, lost steerage and had to be towed to shore. This vessel was a newly constructed amphibian whose propeller became fouled in a lobster trap and cracked a weld seam in the hull.

The Lady Duck tragedy in June was not the first time this amphibious vehicle had experienced problems in the water. A year earlier, on June 30, 2001, Lady Duck began taking on water through a faulty valve. In that case, the operator had enough time to run the vessel aground before it could sink. Following the incident, Transport Canada ordered Lady Duck out of service for a few weeks.

Whether the same valve played a role in the fatal sinking is under investigation. Transport Canada officials had most recently inspected Lady Duck on May 6.

The sinking of Lady Duck led Canadian officials to temporarily halt the operation of all amphibious tour operations in Canada until individual safety inspections could be performed. Transport Canada re-inspected 17 of the 19 vessels operating in the country and allowed most to return to service, according to M.J. DuBois, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada. Two other craft owned by Amphibus — Lady Dive I and Lady Dive III — have yet to be inspected.