The #1 Survival Lesson You Can Learn from the Duck Boat Tragedy

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By now, you’ve probably read about the duck boat tragedy in Branson, Missouri.  Whenever I hear about events like this, I analyze the situation to think about what might have altered the outcome for the better. After a tragedy, there is always at least one survival lesson we can learn that may help us if we are ever caught up in a similar incident.

In this case, it’s that you should always trust your own judgment in an emergency instead of the soothing words of people whose jobs depend on you not freaking out.

If you haven’t heard about the incident, here’s what happened. In Branson, a tourist mecca in the Ozarks, there is an outing you can go on called “Ride the Ducks.” The Ducks are amphibious vehicles that can be driven on dry land right into the water where they function as a boat. I’ve personally been on them more than once with my own family.

When you “Ride the Ducks,” they take you on a pleasant tour of the area with spectacular views and a pleasant boat ride on a large lake. For added fun, you get a “quacker,” which is a lanyard holding something that looks like a duck bill. You blow into it when you see another amphibious vehicle and it sounds like the boats are quacking at each other. My daughters still have their quackers (much to my parental dismay.)

Here’s what happened

Anyway, a few days ago, a sudden storm blew up and the 60 mph winds stirred up the lake. After a struggle, the duck boat capsized, and 17 of the 31 people on board perished in the waters of Table Rock Lake. Tragically, nine of the drowning victims were from a single family.


CBS reported:

Seventeen people were killed when a duck boat packed with tourists capsized and sank in high winds on a Missouri lake overnight, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader announced on social media Friday. The driver of the Ride the Ducks boat died but the captain survived when the boat sank Thursday night in Table Rock Lake in the Branson area, Rader said earlier at a press conference.

Authorities blamed stormy weather for the accident. Winds at the time were blowing as hard as 65 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Fourteen people survived, including seven who were injured when the boat went down, state police said. Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Jason Pace said those who died ranged in age from 1 to 70 years old. (source)

Those who survived were rescued by an off-duty law enforcement officer, marina workers, the crew of another boat, and an emergency room nurse who happened to be there on vacation.

When a Missouri duck boat carrying 31 people capsized…a nearby off-duty police officer didn’t hesitate to jump into the chaotic scene to attempt to save as many people as possible — and the cop wasn’t alone…

…Wade and Melissa Johnson, who were visiting from Iowa, were waiting to board the Branson Belle when the duck boat sank. Wade, a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and emergency room nurse, helped members of the showboat’s crew rescue and treat the duck boat’s passengers…

…Pat Cox, owner of a nearby marina, speculated the duck boats were trying to get back to shore as the storm suddenly swooped in. He praised a store manager and about 20 other employees who rushed to the scene with boats and safety equipment…

…Trent Behr and his girlfriend, Allison Lester, were having dinner on a nearby showboat when their boat’s crew began screaming for help. Behr said some of the crew leaped into the water to rescue people. (source)

One woman who survived, Tia Coleman, told CNN about the horrific incident:

Coleman, one of 14 people who survived after the boat went under the water, told CNN affiliate KOLR she was shouting but couldn’t hear or see anyone else. She had been on board with 10 members of her family, according to KOLR.

“And I was yelling, I was screaming, and finally I said, ‘Lord, just let me die, let me die,’ I said. ‘I can’t keep drowning, I just can’t keep drowning,'” she told KOLR.

“And then I just let go and I started floating. And I was floating up to the top. I felt the water temperature raise to warm,” she said. “And then I felt the temperature raise, I jumped up and I saw the big boat that sits out there,” she of spotting a riverboat that was docked nearby.

People were throwing out life jackets. (source)

Many residents and local businesses of Branson have stepped in to help the survivors and the families of the victims.

The survival lesson we can learn

There is one particular survival lesson that we can learn from this tragic event to help us be better prepared to deal with a similar emergency. The most important one is to use your own judgment.

Whenever I have taken my daughters on a boat, particularly when they were young, I always made them wear life jackets whether it was recommended by the crew or not. They didn’t like it and I didn’t care if they liked it. If they were getting on that boat, they were wearing a life jacket and if not, we’d stand there and wave at the people who got to go for a ride. And they knew I meant business, so they reluctantly put the life jackets on, every single time.

I was discussing this incident with a friend of mine and told him that I couldn’t understand why no one grabbed a life jacket when the water became choppy.  I know for a fact that the duck boats are equipped with enough life jackets for every single seat on the vessel.

Unfortunately, according to survivor Tia Coleman, the captain told the folks on the boat that they were unnecessary.

“My husband would want me to say this. He would want the world to know that on this boat we were on, the captain had told us, ‘Don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets—you won’t need them.’ So nobody grabbed them as we listened to the captain as he told us to stay seated,” Tia Coleman told local television station FOX59 on Friday. (source)

It’s most likely that many lives could have been saved if the captain had instead advised people to don the life jackets. Since he survived, I imagine he is playing the scene over and over in his head and wishing he had given different advice. The guilt he must feel would be tremendous and my heart goes out to him.

But the survival lesson is: if you want to survive a disaster, you can’t always rely on the advice of others. If your gut tells you to grab the safety equipment, to evacuate the area, or to take an action for your own protection, LISTEN to it.

Things also might have been different if people had ignored the captain’s advice and grabbed life jackets anyway.

  • Trust your own judgment. Never, ever be concerned about what others think or advise if your judgment is telling you that a situation is devolving quickly.
  • Protect your kids. Never hesitate to equip your kids with the safety equipment you deem necessary.
  • Check the weather. Check the weather report before getting on a watercraft. Don’t rely on someone else to have checked it.

And for heaven’s sake, if you aren’t a strong swimmer, you should always have a flotation device at hand if you are going out on the water.

My deepest sympathy goes out to the victims, their families, and the witnesses of this tragedy.

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • I want to comment on the “check the weather” part, and can only do so knowledgeably because we were driving home from a trip through this storm on Thursday. One minute it was fine; the next, there was a downpour so heavy that we could barely see the road. My husband got on his phone to check the radar, and there was nothing there — every station that he found showed the skies as being clear. It lasted about 30 minutes and was just really freaky.

    My heart does go out to the captain, who will probably face all kinds of consequences, both from the family and his own conscious, but I completely agree with everything else you wrote. As a mother of young children, they know that life jackets go on whenever they’re in a boat, or else they’re not leaving the dock. You have to take _some_ responsibility for the choices you make, regardless of how the ‘expert’ advises you. We also heard that one family lost eleven people….I cannot even fathom.

    Driving home through that was scary enough; turning on the news and seeing what had happened at the same time was just tragic…

    • I have been a weather radar “freak” since 2011, and I’ve found that the radar is updated every 20 minutes and what we see on the internet on like NOAA or AccuWeather is 20 minutes behind what the weather actually is. I’ve watched a thunderstorm just literally “bloom” into life on the radar “out of nowhere” when 5-20 minutes before there wasn’t anything there. 20 minutes between internet radar updates is a LOT of miles of territory between what we see, at say 11:30, and what we see on radar 20 minutes later at 11:50. I haven’t figured out WHY online weather radar like NOAA and AccuWeather are NOT updated faster when there is severe weather in any area.

  • Good advice. My first thought was also one of disbelief that they weren’t wearing life jackets, especially in that weather and sea state. Those old Duck Boats are a cross between a truck and a boat. They don’t do either very well. Did I mention they are old?

    We have weekly, sometimes daily, reports of children and adults drowning in the many lakes around DFW. It’s bad enough the adults do stupid things (jumping off boats in the middle of the lake without a flotation device, drinking and boating, etc.) and risk their lives. Don’t risk your kid’s live also.

    This is what happens to the sheeple when common sense is no longer common.

    • Old sailor: yup, life jackets should be worn, proper boats for lake tours or bays near the coast where water is calm are pontoon style boats or at the great lakes ferry boats are used, also in Elliot bay in Seattle and other places. I guess it is hard to fix stupid. Law suits big time, will follow. Duck boats are military assault (water to land) and not suitable for touring. The owners and managers of Branson tours are lacking brain cells.

  • Hi Daisy!
    I agree with your advice, and thank you for the article.
    I was raised in Tampa FL, and everyone I knew could swim. We were all taught how to float and tread water. It was not until I was older and moved to different states that a realized alot of people are never taught to swim. I taught mt son and many of my nieces and nephews how to swim. I now live in Texas and most people I have encountered while living a large portion do not know how to swim. I’m not sure if it is a geographical or a sign of the times. I am in my late 50″s. Wherever I am kids seem to gravitate towards me. Last couple mini vacations I took when I was at the pool there were several kids of course and both times I found my self teaching them to float first then to swim. When my mom taught me the first thing she taught was how to float. That is what saved the woman in your article. When she quit fighting the water and relaxed she came right up to the top. Learning to float is a vital survival lesson.

    • This is such a tragedy. And no, it is not a sign of the times of people learning or not learning to swim. I am in the same age group as you and I was never taught. Though I live in the Tampa area now 🙂 I grew up in central New Jersey. We were barely ever around water, therefore, it was never a priority. And I still don’t know how to swim very well. But, am thankful that my children learned. We are surrounded by so much water from ocean, lakes, retention ponds & pools. Now, I am thinking I should maybe take a lesson!

      And I do agree, Daisy. Our gut instincts will tell us what to do.

  • OMG, this was scary. I lived in Missouri for 17 months, out on the other side of it in Kimberling City. When I first moved to that area I toured the strip. I actually (like you) rode the “DUCKS”…I remember blowing the noisemaker they gave us, (what fun).
    The day I was out was about 80 degrees, clear, sunny, no problems. I remember getting seated and the man (I assume the Captain) came around and I asked him if we have to put on the life preservers and he said, “NO, we usually don’t insist on that, it’s up to you”…SO, I know at that time it was an option whether to or not. Water were CALM, weather beautiful, so I looked around to see if anyone did. A few mothers/dads made their kids, but otherwise nobody put one on.

    I never dreamed anything would happen. But I think it’s like going anywhere that you’re going to have fun, people just may not be thinking that anything is going to mess up their fun!!!
    We can learn a lesson from this tragic accident…ALWAYS WEAR PROTECTION (LIFE JACKETS) WHEN ON ANY BOAT, unless (as you stated) you are an excellent swimmer (which I am not)…

    Go with your gut, YES-excellent advise. If you think something might happen, take immediate action whether everybody else is doing it or not. Many people will be going to hell b/c of the way they lived, so don’t follow the crowd. The majority is always wrong (as we have found out) … Take the path less chosen. And as you well know it’s better to be safe than sorry…I know there are some grieving hearts right now and I feel terrible for the families of these people that are left behind to deal with these tragedies. I did NOT wear the preserver that day, however I do have common sense, and if I saw waters getting choppy and wind picking up, clouds getting darker, I would have grabbed one and put it on immediately whether anyone else did or not. Usually I don’t follow the crowd. I am able to think on my own. So, as I just said if the condition on the lake were NOT calm, I would have taken action.

    Just the thought of what those people went through sends chills up and down my spine…

    THANK YOU for writing what you write, b/c it may make people think next time they are on the water or even at a amusement part (even at Disney Parks) things do go wrong.

  • Another unnecessary situation resulting in death for the unprepared. When listening to the news about this situation, another matter came to light. Had the passengers been wearing flotation devices, they would have faced an additional problem. As the flotation devices would begin to rise, they would encounter the canvas tarp that would be pulled down with the boat, causing them to be “sandwiched” in the water as the boat continued to sink. Always carry a knife with you! You never know when you might need it to cut through some material or break through some glass.

    • Yes, exactly. In this situation, wearing a life preserver actually could have been a detriment. Poor design of the craft/canopy is to blame there. But of course 99 out of 100 you’ll want your life preserver.

  • What seems to be unnoticed or ignored is the incompetence of the boat operator/captain. That boat should have run before the wind/turned downwind when the short storm arrived. The boat would have survived with crew and passengers.

  • What a tragedy. But each person (adults especially) is ultimately responsible for his own actions. No one can totally blame the captain for the accident. Common sense should kick in and each person should be able to judge for himself what is the right thing to do. Didn’t a similar thing happen at 911, where people were not immediately told to evacuate?

  • I totally agree with you on your first assessment. TRUST your instincts. If something don’t look right, MAKE it right with yourself or family.

    I never heard of a duck boat but judging what I see how it operates; a LIFE VEST worn should be a REQUIREMENT!

  • This article brought to my mind that terrible plane crash in San Francisco years ago (Asiana, I think). A passenger was interviewed and said that after the plane was on the ground, the captain came over the intercom and told passengers to stay in their seats all the while the jet was on fire and smoke was filling the cabin. This survivor said passengers got up and started filing to the exits. Many survived this horrific crash. So I agree with Daisy, always use common sense and your own good judgement. It could save your life.

  • Unfortunate, but doesn’t surprise me today. It’s the typical anglo non-denominational anti-Catholic types today that ignore risk. See it every day. It’s the pale white F-150 drivin suburban living piece of trash that listens to country music and has a wife that’s way too good for him that drives down the residential areas or interstate 40 mph above the speed limit rain, snow, or shine. Having caution today is seen as being “timid” and “shy” and “weak” and “boring” and “reclusive”. Nah, you gotta ignore risk because as long as you are the fat loud outgoing fat funny guy with the hot girlfriend that’s way too good for him, the secret to life is having zero concern for safety because nothing will happen to you as long as you have “confidence”. Anyone with a brain would have shut the operation down for the day if bad weather was on the radar. Duh. But, they all put their lives into the dumb country Ozark music listenin anglo hands because he’s all about “risk”, and “nothing will hurt us as long as you ignore it and hit it head on!!!”.

    I see it all the time today. Reminds me of the time years ago when it was beginning to sleet outside and a bunch of country music listening post divorce second wife-husband multiple sets of kids suburban trash driving their Tahoes and F-150s passed me at 90 mph on the interstate on a Sunday. I got home, turned on the news, and saw that there was a 70 car pileup on the same interstate miles on down the highway due to sleet and fast speeds…….same people that passed me. Idiots. Same type of idiot was driving the boat.

    • Dindunuffins, that’s a heck of a lot of generalization you’ve got packed into two paragraphs. You have absolutely zero proof of what you’re saying and you are insulting an entire group of people from the Ozarks because of your imaginary theory about the people on the boat. Unless you, personally, were ON that boat, I’d say that you have absolutely no idea about the people who were there.

      Plus…you sound like an awful person yourself. Perhaps you should work on some self-improvement before trashing people you don’t even know.

  • A note on the life vest. I advise to have it in hand and NOT wear it on a duck, and here is why. I am from Hot Springs Arkansas and we had a duck sink a few years ago due to a mechanical failure. It too had a large with a large number of deaths. The reason people had on life vest and became trapped under the canopy. I am a strong swimmer, but I make myself and everyone else wear a vest if we go on the water. But if you have a canopy above you and the only exit is out the gap on the side, wearing it is going to trap you. So, I say look at any situation be it a boat sinking or a populated place an active shooting might happen and think “what would I do if……?” It takes just a few seconds and can save your life because you already know what you need to do to save yourself and your family.

    • A inspector had warned the Duck boat company of design flaws a year earlier citing the canopy as a critical flaw , which would trap people in a sinking & prevent them from escaping.

  • don’t know about that particular Branson “Duck operation” – but if it’s similar to the tour operation run up in the Wisconsin Dells – the “Captain” could be a summer hire of college age – the Duck driver maybe not even that old ….

    First thing you learn up in the Dells area – don’t challenge the Ducks and stay the hell out of their wayyy – bad rep for driving tooooo fast & wild …

    • At the time I rode them the Wisconsin Dells ducks didn’t have canopies installed. That seems to be a factor in this accident.

  • Except it wasn’t a pop up storm. They had warnings out all day for inclement weather, and they issued a severe thunderstorm warning 30 minutes BEFORE they went out. They should have never set sail. It was a senseless tragedy that could have been prevented if someone had just been paying attention.
    And to what “dindunuffins” said, you sound like the very asshole you have described.

  • Thought & prayers to those who lost their loved ones in this accident.
    There should be a mandatory requirement for wearing life-jackets on any boat.
    Missouri is notorious for extreme storms, there had been storms & bad weather warnings in the area. By looking at the duck boat on the land, it definitely did not appear to be safe or a sea worthy vessel.

  • When I heard that a supervisor told employees to go back to their desk during 911…. that’s when I decided that I would think for myself!

  • Key element for survival…

    Never, ever, ever get on a 70 year old, WWII era duck boat, piloted by some teenage snot-nose kid.

    Very bad for your health.

  • Most people are not students of history.
    In 1942, the USS Juneau sank with five
    Sullivan brothers aboard. A 5 brothers died.
    Maybe, the 1st lesson should be
    “Do not put 5 members of your family on a boat.”

  • 30 yrs ago I went to CO to a dude ranch..while there my older son (11 at the time) and I took a ride up in a big, commercial hot air balloon. It ws a calm, warm late afternoon..perfect “balloon weather”.. up in the CO foothills & there were at least 12 folks aboard + the captain.
    We had a fine ride til we started down..and the wind picked up as we got about 10 ft from landing. . The balloon began sliding along faster and the two men who had grabbed the “guide ropes” were lifted off the ground. .. and the basket was dragging and bouncing along the ground, tipped at about 45 degree angle! Alot of folks were screaming.
    I looked up and saw the balloon basket was heading for the edge of what looked like a cliff or dry river bed ..I quickly picked up my son, threw him out the side and I jumped out right behind him, and we rolled to a stop..dusty and bruised, but OK. I saw the basket and balloon drop over on its side in what ended up being about a 10 ft ravine and folks come scrambling out in all directions. .I don’t remember there being any serious injuries, but who knew. THAT cured me and the rest of the family of balloon rides!!

  • Daisy, there are a couple of other things about this that are going through my mind. I live a bit south of Branson. I would think any business that takes people out on a boat, would be constantly monitoring the weather radar, as easy as it it with phones and computers nowadays. I was on the radar map that day, and saw they had a weather alert out for that front, well before it came. In fact, I remarked that it sure looked to clear for that to happen, but we were watchful anyway, and sure enough it came through like gangbusters.

    I agree with your statement about life jackets. Hard to believe they don’t have people wear them, and at the least be holding them in case. If the very poor video I saw was clear enough, it looked as though they were driving those boats parallel to the waves instead of pointing into them. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

  • Great article! One point though. I had an EMT friend that used to work water accidents. The one thing he hated to hear more than anything else was some friend or relative of the victim tell him what a strong swimmer they were. More often than not it was the strong swimmers that got careless about conditions or safety equipment.

    • Yes, about the comment on being a strong swimmer! All four of my children are excellent swimmers and strong athletes. Three have been on the high school swim team and one worked as a lifeguard for two summers. Nonetheless, I always remind them to be cautious and never be overconfident about their abiliteies, especially at the ocean or in choppy water. I’m grateful we have never had to be in this kind of situation. Tragic.

  • My heart goes out to the people who were involved in this horrible accident.

    Actually, there were many weather alerts that day before the accident happened:

    Also, there is an issue with TWO agencies making the rules for the amphibious vehicles….NTSB and the Coast Guard….They are NOT on the same safety page. One says to wear a seat belts but not a life vest, the other says to wear a life vest but not the seat belts.

    If you are going to go out on the road….you put on the seat belt. If you go out on the water….you put on the life vest. In the case of these things…you might want to do both. It don’t take but a couple of seconds to unbuckle a seat belt so you can get out of the thing.

    There is going to be a LOT of questions for the “captain” of this vehicle as to WHY they went out on the water KNOWING that there was severe weather moving into the area.

  • Sorry to hear about the tragedy Thanks for the article. I first heard of the incident on which reports that the weather recently is getting erratic. I now have a backyard of fallen trees due to lighting over two separate days of usual continuous heavy storms that underscores this. Always trust your own judgment in an emergency should be a mantra.

    Along with Janie comment above “Didn’t a similar thing happen at 911, where people were not immediately told to evacuate?” I remember listening on television how people who had left Building One were told it was safe to go back to their offices, and they did.

    Also, I agree NOAA has a time lag in its radar. After the dismal weather forecasts of Hurricane Irma from MSM news last year I would not make a judgment even partially based on them.

    Two cents advice: I learned in an emergency, auto collisions, try to make quick binary decisions. Look at the situation then make a choice of two alternatives. Make it and repeat the loop.

  • Very tragic sinking. many issues involved. I have had a captains license for 35 years.I also own a dukw [duck]. the dukw-353 was tested in beech landings up to 15` seas. 700 were used in the normandy landing being launched 14 miles offshore with 5000# loads, in the English channel in very ruff seas. This dukw did not sink from a 2-3`choppy sea. There must be a large leak. We well soon learn. I agree with many of the comments made. I road on a duck in Branson last year, I took a seat at the stern, near the exit, It is easy to see getting trapped unless there are exits forward. Wearing a coast guard approved life vest is very bulky, a ski vest would make sense , but it is not approved. caring a knife makes a lot of sense, but is not common do political correctness , TSA, schools miopic thinking, ect. Seat belts no way. Push out exit windows might help. We do not know experience of crew or condition of vessel. Could add more but need to wait CG investigation.

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