After its captain officially received radio clearance for "splashdown" Wednesday morning, a duck boat eased into the Delaware River more than nine months after an accident that killed two Hungarian exchange students.
Norcross, Ga.-based Ride The Ducks gave a preview tour for media and other invited guests, a short journey that showcased a new water route for the amphibious vessels that will be reduced from 30 minutes to about 10 minutes and go only about 70 to 100 feet from the shoreline. In addition to the truncated water route, a spotter boat will be present to help respond to any potential emergencies.
After starting with a brief tour of the city's historic section, the boat's captain, Norm Schultz, received radio clearance for the water portion:
"Duck 51, entering the Delaware River," he reported. With that, the vessel broke into the murky waters amid cloudy skies, providing up-close glimpses of the Ben Franklin Bridge and other sites, but not the extensive water tour given before.
Ride the Ducks President Chris Herschend said the changes were made in consultation with the U.S. Coast Guard, and that they make the tours even safer than they were before. Public tours begin Thursday.
"We want to get back to business," Herschend said.
Two Hungarian students were killed July 7 when a 2,100-ton city barge struck a disabled duck boat in the shipping channel, sinking the tour boat and dumping 35 passengers and two crew members into the river. The pilot of the tug boat pushing the barge was distracted by cell phone calls about a family emergency, the National Transportation and Safety Board revealed in a recent report. Federal prosecutors are reviewing whether any charges should be filed against him or others in the crash.
Ride the Ducks tried to move its operations across town to the quieter Schuylkill River, but the city rejected the plan amid concerns the tours would interfere with walking and biking trails there.
In other changes under the new protocols on the Delaware River, riders also won't be given their noisy "duck whistles" until the end of the trip, due to concerns expressed by people in the neighborhoods covered during the ground portion of the tour.