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Duck tours sail on in Boston, despite Philadelphia sinking

Two companies, tourists have plenty of confidence

'We don't have any concerns. We wouldn't be here if we did,' Kathy DaLecio, a California resident who is visiting with her children. "We don't have any concerns. We wouldn't be here if we did," Kathy DaLecio, a California resident who is visiting with her children. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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Early yesterday, Peter Mannion and his wife awoke in a Boston hotel and watched a television news report about the sinking of a duck boat in Philadelphia, which left two people missing.

The news did not faze the Australian tourists. Hours later, they were standing in line with scores of other tourists awaiting the 80-minute cruise across the Charles River and around Boston.

“We bumped up our insurance,’’ Mannion, 64, joked before boarding one of Boston Duck Tours’ 28 amphibious vessels. “We just thought this would be a reasonable way to spend a hot day.’’

Despite safety concerns — which prompted the Georgia-based company that owns the Philadelphia duck boat to suspend operations in the six cities where it offers sightseeing tours — hundreds of tourists, many of them with children, braved the risks in Boston.

Cindy Brown, general manager of Boston Duck Tours, said she had not seen a decline in sales and added that the company marked an all-time sales record for one day last Saturday, when it gave tours to 4,528 people.

She said the company has never had a significant injury on the water.

Asked whether her company would suspend operations or planned changes, given the similarity of their boats with the one that stalled and sank after being struck by a barge Wednesday on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, she said she had confidence in their equipment and maintenance. Both companies use amphibious landing craft from World War II or replicas.

“We’re operating as usual,’’ she said. “We don’t have the full report as to what happened, so we wouldn’t be able to make any changes until we get a final account. We’re very confident in our equipment, maintenance, and our safety procedures.’’

Brown and others on staff at Boston Duck Tours, which says it is the largest company of its kind and gave 600,000 people tours last year, said the Coast Guard inspects their equipment annually, and they employ 16 mechanics to maintain the vehicles.

They said their boats were refitted to repair flaws found to have been responsible for the 1999 sinking of a duck boat in Arkansas in which 13 people drowned. They added that all their boats carry extra bilge pumps in case they take on water, extra batteries to power their radios, and that they have been redesigned to make it easier to exit in case of an emergency.

“All our vehicles are maintained to a very high level of safety,’’ said Tony Cerulle, director of vehicle maintenance at Boston Duck Tours.

He added that their boats do not have the same challenges as those in Philadelphia, because barges and other large boats do not sail on the Charles.

But the other company in Boston that offers duck tours operates on Boston Harbor, among the nation’s more congested sea lanes, where large boats routinely sail.

Dennis Kraez, manager of Super Duck Tours, which has five vessels that last year gave tours to about 50,000 people, said there have been occasional mechanical breakdowns, but his boats have never been in an accident on the sea.

He said his boats are lined with foam and are designed to float even if broken apart.

In May, one of his company’s boats had to be towed to shore with 33 people aboard when its rudder failed.

Kraez argued his boats were safer in the harbor than those on the Charles, because he said there are more boats available to respond in the event of an emergency.

“Our boats are really unsinkable,’’ he said. “We do [a slow] 5.5 knots, so even if there is a collision, it’s not going to be great.’’

He suggested that the driver of the boat in Philadelphia may have been at fault. “Why didn’t he shoot off a flare gun? Why didn’t he use his radio?’’ he asked. “There are a lot of inconsistencies about why that accident occurred.’’

On the long line for duck boat tours near the Prudential Center yesterday afternoon, no one seemed too concerned.

“We’re all good swimmers,’’ said Willem Ledeboer, 79, of Stow, who came with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren.

Kathy Dalecio, 46, of California, said she decided not to tell her children about the sinking in Philadelphia.

“We don’t want to scare them,’’ she said. “But, really, we don’t have any concerns. We wouldn’t be here if we did.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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