Despite fatalities, parasailing unregulated in Florida

Jul 4, 2011

The following article was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on July 4, 2011: 

Despite fatalities, parasailing unregulated in Florida

By David Fleschler

As the boat rocked in the swells off Fort Lauderdale‘s beach, Lauren Chubb and her sister-in-law Sky Prince wriggled into harnesses.

The boat picked up speed, and Chubb shrieked as a blue parachute attached to a nylon-Kevlar line hoisted them about 350 feet in the air, giving them a commanding view of the ocean, Port Everglades, hotels and a row of cargo ships. “It was awesome!” Chubb said. “Very calm. Relaxing.”

But parasailing has the potential to be dangerous. Several people have been killed over the past few years — including one last week in Sarasota County — and the activity takes place with virtually no government safety regulation. Bills to impose equipment and safety standards for parasails failed again in this year’s state legislative session.

An estimated 70 to 120 commercial parasail operators do business in Florida, largely in tourist-oriented cities such as Panama City, Key West, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach. Hard numbers are not available because no government agency tracks the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration classifies parasails as “kites” and regulates them only to the extent that they’re objects in the air, attempting to keep them away from flight paths. The Coast Guard licenses captains and inspects boats, if they’re above a certain size, but otherwise does not inspect or set standards for parachutes, harnesses, training or procedures.

The Coast Guard says eight people have been killed in parasailing accidents in the United States since 2002, not counting last week’s death. The majority occur because of towline separation, either in high winds or because of equipment failure, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In a 2009 case, two women were killed off North Carolina when the line broke in high winds and they were slammed repeatedly into the ocean, hitting the tow boat and becoming entangled in a fishing pier.

The latest accident took place June 27 off Longboat Key in Sarasota County, when a South Carolina man died after the tow boat’s propeller failed and the parachute lost buoyancy, plunging him into the water. The accident remains under investigation.

Wayne Mascolo, owner of Aloha Watersports, which operates in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach Shores, keeps a weather radar and National Weather Service radio in his hut on the beach in Fort Lauderdale to ensure safety. He refuses to allow flights when the weather is questionable but said he’s watched other operators allow flights with high winds, distant lightning and other disturbing patterns.

“We’re in Florida, we have thunderstorms and funnel clouds,” he said. “We need to watch the weather so it’s safe for everybody.”

State legislators have repeatedly introduced bills to establish safety standards, such as maximum wind speeds, insurance requirements and minimum distance from shore, usually drafting the legislation after an accident.

In summer 2007, for example, Amber May White, of Summerfield, near Ocala, went parasailing with her sister off Pompano Beach. The operator ignored a thunderstorm warning, the line snapped in high winds and the two girls slammed into the roof of a hotel and some trees. After a few days on life support, Amber died.

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Sunny Isles, introduced the “Amber May” bill to set safety standards, including a ban on operating in winds higher than 20 mph. It died in committee, with one committee chairman, Margolis recalled, railing about “too much government and too much regulation.”

“To me it’s a must,” Margolis said. “They should absolutely not be coming near the shoreline. People literally go into buildings. The wind blows them into buildings and they die.”

Last September, Alejandra White, 27, was parasailing with her fiancée off Clearwater, when the line snapped in high winds. She was dragged on shore across several beach umbrellas and struck a volleyball pole.

After her death, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, introduced the “Alejandra White” bill to establish safety standards. It died in committee.

Mark McCulloh, a former parasail operator and manufacturer who founded the Parasail Safety Council, said a handful of operators came in and said they couldn’t afford it. Of particular concern, he said, was a requirement for quick-release harnesses and a short training session for riders.

“They were complaining it would cut down on their rotations,” he said. “Instead of doing 50 trips a day, they could only do 40, and they’d lose that business.”

Larry Meddock, executive director of the Water Sports Industry Association, said his organization supports safety rules but stressed, “If you look at the number of flights compared to the number of accidents, you would find it to be incredibly safe.”

Coast Guard Lt. Commander David Webb said the Coast Guard has started working with the industry to develop voluntary safety standards, with mandatory ones an “option down the road.”

“The Coast Guard traditionally hasn’t regulated recreational activities,” he said. “We regulate the vessels. We don’t, for example, regulate recreational diving. We feel as a first step, voluntary consensus standards should be the way to go.”

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