John Malouf knows that Seattle may not be keen on the idea of someone launching another fleet of amphibious vehicles on its waters and roadways.
It was just six years ago that a Ride the Ducks of Seattle vehicle loaded with tourists broke an axle and crashed into a bus filled with international students, killing five people and injuring 60. Millions were paid out to victims and their families, resulting in the tour company closing and filing for bankruptcy in April of last year.
“I know your history well,” Malouf said of the crash, and the legal journey that followed.
Still, Malouf thinks this is a prime spot to launch his Seattle Splash Tours, an “amphibious adventure” scheduled to open this summer, offering 90-minute rides on land and water in Hydra-Terra vehicles built for tourism by Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International.
“This is a completely different amphibian, built for tours,” said Malouf, who has been running Alaska Amphibious Tours in Ketchikan, Alaska, for the last 20 years.
“It really comes down to safety.”
Unlike the Ducks vehicles — some of which were built in the 1940s and ’50s for use in the military, and maintained for decades — Seattle Splash Tours will use newer vehicles made with modern parts. The oldest vehicle in his fleet is 20 years old, he said, and the aluminum hull is filled with Coast Guard-approved buoyancy foam, “which is a huge advantage.”
“You can’t sink ‘em,” he said. “They are positively buoyant.”
His vehicles have “proven performance” in 16 countries, and he called them “the safest amphibious vehicles for tourism.”
His tour company has had one death in its history: In 2004, a pedestrian walked in front of a vehicle and was killed. Investigators found the company was not at fault.
Malouf has received a two-month permit from Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation to launch the vehicles at the Sunnyside Avenue North boat ramp, where the Ducks used to launch, and where he hopes good times will begin again.
“We feel there is a bit of a vacuum there,” Malouf said of Seattle, a city he got to know well as a harvest diver. “There is a good market there. Seattle is a great tourist destination, and it has taken a hit in the last couple of years.
“It could use a little splash and fun.”
Where the Ducks tours had a more comedic tone — “Captains” at the wheel with funny names and crazy hats, punning and playing loud music — the Splash tours will be more informative, but still a good time, he said.
“We like to have fun,” Malouf said. “I think Ride the Ducks had huge local sponsorship, and after the accident, they had a hard time getting through that.
“We’re going to stand on our own,” he continued. “We’re a different company and do things the way we like to do it. And safety is our priority, coming in.”
In February 2019, after a four-month civil trial, a King County jury awarded the victims of the crash $123 million. The jury determined that Ride the Ducks International — the Branson, Missouri-based manufacturer of the Duck amphibious vehicle — bore 67% to 70% of the responsibility for the crash; and that Ride the Ducks of Seattle was 30% to 33% at fault. Awards to each of the 40 plaintiffs ranged from $40,000 to $25 million.
After the crash, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates commercial charter buses and tourist vehicles statewide, suspended the local company from operating its 20 tourist vehicles and also found that Ducks Seattle had 463 safety violations.
Last year, four U.S. senators introduced the Duck Boat Safety Enhancement Act, after a 2018 duck boat accident in which 17 people were killed on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri.
The bill passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and is expected to be considered by the full Senate this year.
If passed, the law would reinforce National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, requiring the use of life jackets and equipping all operating duck boats to be more buoyant in case of emergency flooding. The law would also require the logging of safety actions; annual safety training for crew members; and the consideration of safety recommendations in previous incident reports.
Ride the Ducks left Seattle for good last July, when the 19 remaining vehicles were put up for auction, and sold for between $5,000 and $45,000; the higher bid was for a vehicle painted with the University of Washington colors and logo.
“They exceeded the best expectations we had,” said Colin Murphy, of the James G. Murphy Company, which handled the weeklong auction. “And we didn’t have a clue what they would go for, because they aren’t really for sale on the open market.”
The vehicles were sold to mostly private owners, from Mount Vernon in Skagit County to New York, Maine and Florida.
“They landed everywhere,” Murphy said, adding the Ducks portable ticket office sold for $4,500.
Malouf has no set start date for selling tickets. But he expects a little pushback, considering what has happened here, and in other parts of the country where amphibious vehicles were involved in accidents.
“Of course, there is going to be resistance,” he said. “There are always going to be haters. But you just keep a smile on and keep on trucking.”
And floating. That, too.