Chattanooga Ducks' owner stresses safety after deadly Missouri sinking

Chattanooga Ducks' owner stresses safety after deadly Missouri sinking

July 20th, 2018 by Allison Shirk in Business Around the Region

A Chattanooga Ducks captain moves one of the company's DUKW's Friday afternoon to make room for tours to leave. The boats were designed and built by General Motors Corporation for the military to use in the World War II D-Day Invasion, said owner Alex Moyers. He said the boats have been updated since then and are inspected annually by the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates duck boats nationwide. (Staff photo by Allison Shirk)

Photo by Allison Shirk /Times Free Press.

After hearing news that 17 people had died on a duck boat Thursday evening when it capsized in Branson, Missouri, the owner of Chattanooga Ducks, Alex Moyers, stressed Friday the safety precautions that the local duck boat company and tourist attraction takes to keep passengers safe.

Moyers said the Branson incident was a "terrible accident." Investigators blamed stormy weather for the accident on Table Rock Lake in Branson, which Moyers described as an "open lake."

"The Chattanooga Ducks are fortunate that we are in Chattanooga and on the Tennessee River, which is a very protected waterway," Moyers said. "The duck boats in Chattanooga are never more than 50 yards from shore and never more than 100 yards from any bridge."

A Chattanooga Ducks captain gets ready to depart from the vehicles' spot at 503 Market St. in downtown Chattanooga Friday afternoon. Despite news that 17 people died when a duck boat capsized during bad weather in Branson, Missouri the night before, several locals and tourists to the Scenic City were ready for a Chattanooga Ducks tour Friday afternoon. (Staff photo by Allison Shirk)

A Chattanooga Ducks captain gets ready to depart...

Photo by Allison Shirk /Times Free Press.

And the news didn't keep locals and tourists from a day on land and water with the Chattanooga Ducks on Friday afternoon. Seating 25 passengers, the Chattanooga Ducks' boats were full Friday.

John Hochstedt was there with his family for the tour leaving at noon. "Instantly, your mind goes to the worse-case scenario," he said.

"Obviously, that was a freak accident up there. If you're going to go on any day then the time they are going to take more precautions is the day after," he added.

Moyers said that in the 21-year history of the local company, there have been zero passenger incidents. The U.S. Coast Guard regulates duck boats nationwide and could not be reached for comment Friday.

"We have weather apps on our phone, and we just don't go if the weather is bad or we think the weather is going to be bad," Moyers said. "We have a standing policy that we don't go if the wind is over 20 knots. We don't go if the river is flooded from rain. ... We just have standard procedures in place."

Twenty "knots" is about 23 mph. Winds were blowing as hard as 65 mph in Branson, according to the National Weather Service.

The tour, which lasts more than an hour, is given five times a day in the summer months. According to the company's policy, riders get a full refund if the tour is canceled the day of because of weather conditions.

Moyers bought Chattanooga Ducks in 2008 but started working as a captain for the company in 2002. They have 14 employees and five boats. Moyers says the company operates March to October, estimating they see about 50,000 riders a year.

Chattanooga Ducks uses original "DUKWs" that were designed and built by General Motors Corporation for military use during World War II.

Moyers said "not all duck boats are the same." He said the boats in many duck operations are not DUKWs and are much larger — built to replace the DUKW and carry more passengers. Of course, Moyers said, he has upgraded his boats since the war with electronic sensors throughout, fire suppression systems and other safety precautions.

All captains at Chattanooga Ducks also have a "master's" license, which means they can operate a 100-ton boat. One captain, with more than 30 years experience and who used to operate freighters, demonstrated where the life vests were in the boat for passengers before leaving the Chattanooga Ducks departure point at Fifth and Market streets Friday.

"All my guys are really highly experienced and most have been here a really long time," Moyers said. "Passenger safety is our No. 1 priority."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at ashirk@timesfreepress.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.