[UPDATE: The NTSB has issued its preliminary findings. The operators of other vessels in the area recall hearing DUKW 34’s calls for help on Channel 13. The mate aboard the Caribbean Sea refused to speak with the investigators and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. I presume he knows he either failed to maintain a lookout or failed to monitor Channel 13 and is worried about a criminal manslaughter or negligence homicide claim.]

I don’t like to blog about tragic events that just occurred because it strikes me as macabre, but I can’t stop wondering (and can’t stop people from asking me):

How on earth was that Ride the Ducks boat run over by a barge?

(I already had this post largely drafted before the Inquirer posted "How did two boats crash on a sunny day?")

We don’t know all the facts, but we know enough facts to start asking the right questions.

The first obvious question is: how did the tugboat pilot not see the duck boat?

A picture is worth a thousand words. This image shows the comparative sizes of the vessels, and this image shows their apparent orientation before the crash.

I would not be surprised if the blind spot created by that barge was bigger than a football field, big enough that the tugboat would not be able to see low-lying watercraft, like the duck boat, for hundreds of square feet.

Limited visibility in a high traffic area — like the section of the Delaware River adjacent to Penn’s Landing — would, naturally, heighten the duty of the tugboat pilot to pay attention to radio communications and to limit, if at all possible, drifting or turning rightward, since the pilot would not be able to see any dangers in the water there. In the coming days, there will be a lot of questions about whether or not the tugboat followed Rule 5 by maintaining a proper lookout, explained further by the FAQ as:

The term look-out implies watching and listening so that he/she is aware of what is happening around the vessel. The emphasis is on performing the action, not on the person. Still, in all but the smallest vessels, the lookout is expected to be an individual who is not the helmsman and is usually located in the forward part of the boat, away from the distractions and noises of the bridge. While no specific location on a vessel is prescribed for the lookout, good navigation requires placement at the point best suited for the purpose of hearing and observing the approach of objects likely to be brought into collision with the vessel.

The size of the vessel and crew [a]ffect this answer, however, the emphasis in every legal decision points to the need for a proper, attentive look-out. While the use of radar to evaluate the situation is implied in the requirement to use all available means, that is still understood to be secondary to maintaining a look-out by sight and hearing.

Which brings us to the duck boat. A commercially operated vessel should not, in the ordinary course of business, start to smoke, requiring the engine be shut off. That said, no machine is perfect, and the extent to which design, maintenance or operation played a role in this accident is necessarily dependent upon very specific facts that we do not yet know.

There is one issue, though, that has troubled me.

It’s not the life jackets; although I personally feel everyone who goes out on the water should wear one, the Coast Guard studied the issue many times and has concluded that life jackets might do more harm than good in the context of covered vessels like the duck boats. Passengers in covered watercraft like duck boats are thus not required by federal law to wear life jackets, although the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that they should be. Government regulations are a floor for the standard of care — the indisputable bare minimum — not a ceiling, but the available research out there may be enough of a defense for Ride the Ducks’ practice of not requiring life jackets.

What troubles me is the apparent absence of any radio communications. For every vessel of any size, losing power in the middle of the shipping lane is an emergency that should be treated accordingly.

Yet, some reports say the duck boat did not get onto Channel 16 and call for help:

The Coast Guard monitors and records Channel 13 as well as Channel 16, the emergency and hailing radio channel. Gatlin said investigators reviewed the 45 minutes before the accident and shortly thereafter. From the Channel 16 recording, Gatlin said, there was only the sounds of the "scramble" in the final moments before impact, but "the final recording was not a call for help."

That, however, has been contradicted (in part) by accounts from the passengers:

When he spotted the barge, she said Fox, "tried to call three or four times," when he realized it was bearing down on his immobile vessel.

Marine radio broadcasts can be heard by anyone with a radio tuned to an identical channel. If Fox followed Coast Guard rules, he would have used channel 13, which the tug was required to monitor.

As Petchulat, a tourist from Missouri, recalled the scene, "He (Fox) said stop. . .we are anchored down and we cannot move. . .We are right here, please see us."

"They never responded," Petchulat said of the tug.

The above quote is curious — channel 13 is important and is the basic channel for commercial shipping communication, and vessels of a certain size or weight are required to monitor it (we’ll come back to that), but the channel 16 is the emergency channel the Coast Guard requires all vessels keep watch of:

In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate.

Source: FCC 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.310, NTIA Manual, ITU RR 31.17, 33.18, AP13 §25.2

If the duck boat captain did try to radio the tugboat on channel 16, then the tugboat is primarily at fault, both for not monitoring channel 16 and because Rule 18 requires that all power-driven vessels (like the tugboat) keep out of way of vessels restricted in their ability to move (like the duck boat).

If the reports about there being no radio transmissions on channel 16 are accurate, however, then Ride The Ducks has some explaining to do:

"It’s my understanding that our captain followed all of his training, all of the Coast Guard training, all of the regulations required of a captain in that situation," Ride The Ducks President Chris Herschend said.

If the captain did not call for help on Channel 16, then he undoubtedly did not follow Coast Guard training:

You may only have seconds to send a distress call. Here’s what you should do:

Procedure for VHF Channel 16 MAYDAY:

  1. If you have an MF/HF radiotelephone tuned to 2182 kHz, send the radiotelephone alarm signal if one is available. If you have a VHF marine radio, tune it to channel 16. Unless you know you are outside VHF range of shore and ships, call on channel 16 first.
  2. Distress signal "MAYDAY", spoken three times.
  3. The words "THIS IS", spoken once.
  4. Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
  5. Repeat "MAYDAY" and name of vessel, spoken once.
  6. Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-know landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
  7. Nature of distress (sinking, fire etc.).
  8. Kind of assistance desired.
  9. Number of persons onboard.
  10. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
  11. The word "OVER"

The duck boat crew should have put out a call on the radio the moment they had a problem. That would have put the tugboat on notice that, somewhere near the Ben Franklin Bridge, a small, low-visibility vessel had lost power. If the captain was concerned the Coast Guard would find "Mayday" unnecessary for a loss of power without immediate danger, he could have called on channel 16 for PAN-PAN.

I don’t know the full facts, but I wonder about the timeline between the duck boat losing power, the captain first making calls on the radio, and the realization that the tugboat was bearing down on them. It seems that, although the duck boat lost power several minutes before the accident, no radio call was made (except perhaps to the company) immediately, and no one realized the gravity of the situation until "less than a minute before" impact.

A mayday to the tugboat seconds before impact is unlikely to accomplish much — consider this video taken of the incident. As far as I can tell, you thankfully can’t see any details of the accident, and that’s not why I’m linking to it. I’m linking to it to show how, more than 30 seconds after the person on the video has called 911, the 911 operator apparently still does not understand what the caller is trying to report. That’s not to fault of the person making the call or the operator, but to point out that, in an emergency, details and clarity are often lost.

It’s also possible the tugboat began veering rightward immediately before the impact, hence the lack of alarm until right before the collision. Indeed, the most recent pictures of the collision seems to show the barge traveling parallel to the bridge, indicating that the tugboat was executing a sharp turn.

Yet, tugboats can and do change course, and the tugboat had every reason to believe the shipping lanes were open and that small vessels would obey the right of way, which points the finger back at the duck boat crew: from the moment they lost power, they should’ve been doing everything in their power to assure themselves that every vessel in the area, including the tugboat, was aware of their presence and disability. Channel 22A, the non-urgent channel for the Coast Guard, would have been a good start. Failing that, Channel 16 would certainly get attention.

Finally, it’s possible that the duck boat sent out its distress calls on channel 13, which was not, at that moment, being monitored by the tugboat. As noted above, channel 16 is the actual emergency channel that ships are required to monitor, although most commercial ships monitor multiple channels, and "every power-driven vessel of 20 meters or over in length," including the tugboat with its barge, is required to also monitor channel 13. That would put liability on both the tugboat (for not watching channel 13) and on the duck boat (for not making the call earlier and for not using channel 16).

In short: since every vessel has a duty to warn others of problems, and every vessel has a duty to avoid other vessels, most marine collisions are the result of multiple failures by both vessels involved. This situation seems no different.

Although the Ride the Ducks sales likely cratered after the accident, rendering the question moot, I am nonetheless glad to see them suspend national operations voluntarily. Since they admittedly don’t know exactly what caused this accident, they don’t know if, for example, an inherent problem with the vessel caused it to lose power or if their training and procedures were flawed — like if they trained captains to issue maydays on channel 13, or did not appropriately train captains to declare themselves to be in an emergency immediately upon losing power.

If there is a silver lining to this dark, dark cloud, it is that few accidents are as thoroughly investigated as those involving commercial ships and airplanes. A single accident can result in nationwide changes in procedure that make people safer.