The former owner of Ride The Ducks, a self-taught entrepreneur who grew the Branson, Mo., business by altering and manufacturing dozens of amphibious vehicles, possessed no engineering background, according to his testimony in a lawsuit.
Robert McDowell testified in a deposition last year that he taught himself how to maintain and rebuild duck boats, despite lacking training or certification in mechanics.
McDowell grew the Ride The Ducks enterprise, and its fleet of amphibious vehicles, to prominence before selling the business in 2004. Ride The Ducks, through its various corporate iterations in the years that followed McDowell’s sale, have been involved in several high-profile incidents, most recently the deaths of 17 passengers in a duck boat that sank during a severe storm at Table Rock Lake on July 19.
For years, the National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the safety risks of duck boats and the lax governmental oversight of safety requirements and maintenance of these vehicles first used in World War II and later converted to transport tourists on sightseeing tours.
Last week’s sinking of a Ride The Ducks vehicle has lawmakers seeking to re-examine the safety of duck boats and wondering why more has not been done by federal agencies since the first major catastrophe involving the vehicles back in 1999.
“We’ve had 40 deaths associated with the duck boats since 1999,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Yet there has been little done to address the inherent dangers of these amphibious vehicles.”
McDowell’s father, Jack McDowell, in 1976 bought what was then called Ozark Scenic Tours, around the same time McDowell quit his pre-med studies at Illinois Wesleyan University and went to work for the company that would later become Ride The Ducks.
McDowell testified that there were no manuals to help him learn the business, and that he picked up the basics by talking to a high school football coach who used to co-own Ozark Scenic Tours as a way to keep his kids employed while they went to college.
McDowell was testifying in a lawsuit filed in 2015 in King County, Wash. The lawsuit was filed by a group of plaintiffs seeking damages from a Sept. 25, 2015, incident in Seattle involving a Ride The Ducks vehicle that crossed a median and collided with a bus and killed five passengers, injuring several others.
The NTSB determined that the Seattle crash occurred because Ride The Ducks International did a poor job of manufacturing and maintaining the vehicle, dubbed Stretch Duck 6, which led to a mechanical failure that caused it to cross over in traffic and strike the bus.
McDowell could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Ripley Entertainment, which bought the Ride The Ducks operation in Branson in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment. The Ride The Ducks operation is Seattle is now a separate entity from Ripley Entertainment.
The vehicle involved in last week’s incident in Branson was Stretch Duck 7.
“It’s highly likely that the Branson stretch duck followed the same protocol that the Seattle stretch duck followed, more or less,” said Karen Koehler, an attorney representing a group of plaintiffs suing Ride The Ducks in the Seattle incident. “There were some different batches that he made, there’s a different method to how they built them, but essentially a stretch duck is a stretch duck.”
They’re called stretch ducks because McDowell would elongate the World War II-era duck boats he bought over the years by about 15 inches. By cutting the chassis of the vehicles in half and installing a section of frame from a surplus truck, more passengers could fit for a tourism ride.
No engineers were involved in the process of stretching the duck boats, the Seattle plaintiffs argue in a court filing. The document said that McDowell consulted with maintenance staffers of moving truck companies in Branson about his idea.
McDowell testified that in 1979, he had a shop built on the company property, which took over maintenance of the vehicles.
“He self-educated by going to auto parts stores and talking to different people,” a court filing in the Seattle case said.
In the 1980s, McDowell would start buying more duck vehicles and he and others at Ride The Ducks would go by junkyards to find used axles for the duck boats.