Is Parasailing Safe?

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by Mario on May 25, 2012

in Boating Safety,Opinion,Water Safety

I’ve never done it, but it was on my list.  Parasailing; it just looks like fun, doesn’t it?  After spending most of my life evaluating what is safe or going after people who weren’t, hanging from a parachute high above the water seemed like a great way to have fun. The view has to be awesome; they make you wear a life jacket so that is covered; and you’re in a parachute for goodness sake.  If anything happens, you just float down to the water and wait for them to pick you up, right?  Well, maybe…but that depends…on a lot.

Since 2006, in the U.S. alone, there have been 8 deaths and 38 injuries associated with para-sailing. Personally, I blame the name; “Parasailing” – it even sounds soft…sailing and parachuting, gliding through the air, adrift.  But that is not what is happening.

At the most basic level, parasailing is strapping yourself to a massive object (the chute) that harnesses the power of the wind to pull you in one direction, while an engine with hundreds of horsepower tries to pull you in the opposite direction.  Now – being the”Pivot-point-in-a-high-intesnity-high-altitude-tug-of-war” doesn’t sound as nice as going parasailing, so they don’t call it that; but that is what it is.  There is an engine trying to pull you one way while mother nature fights to pull you the other way while tied together with a relatively thin line.

Most cases of injury or death associated with parasailing occur when the towline breaks.  In a Marine Safety Alert released last year, the U.S. Coast Guard stated “Failures occur significantly below the rated towline strengths due to a variety of reasons that may include cyclic loading, long term exposure to environmental elements, the presence of knots, and overloading.”  As wind speeds double, the load on the line can quadruple and these lines are exposed to saltwater and sunlight which weaken them a little with every use.

Now I know you think that you will just drift down to the water and wait for that ride, but consider that the big parachute (much bigger than chutes used for controlled descent) is still attached (to you) and can drag you across the surface of the water and into a pier, or drag you down the beach and into a fixed object, or into one of those nice hotels you were looking at before everything came undone.  And just because life jackets are worn, doesn’t mean that drowning is impossible. You may hit the water and be completely wrapped up in shroud lines and canopy.

All these variables can be covered – and some operators try to cover them – but they often are left in the “What are the chances?” box and operators simply hope they don’t happen.  They hope the line doesn’t break and they hope that if it does, the canopy doesn’t collapse on top of you or drag you towards the beach.

Many people believe, as I did, that the gear they use must be inspected and regulated, but it is not.  While some states have guidelines and standards – no one is coming out on a regular basis and inspecting the tow-line and winch to make sure everything is up to standards.  That’s because there are no standards.  The U.S. Coast Guard may inspect the boat (for parasail boats that carry more than 6 passengers) but they do NOT inspect the parasailing gear.  That task is left completely up to the owner.

The parachutes likely aren’t being cleaned and dried out of the sunlight (that weakens them); the harnesses and chairs that they strap passengers in (400-800 feet above the water in some cases) aren’t being routinely load tested and certified; the lines are weakened with every use and there is no way to know how often (or not) they are being replaced; and the industry itself has been unable to agree on standards for operating though they have tried.

I believe that parasailing can be safe – and I believe that most of the time, it is. But real safety comes with standards and regulatory inspections. Why do I think that? Because that is how we got safe everywhere else.  Until that happens, I’m leaving this one boating activity off my list.

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Note: Of course – there have been millions of parasailing rides with a fraction of them resulting in injury or death.  I’m just waiting for a reasonably enforceable standard and inspection (like that certificate in the elevator) that lets me know that someone – besides the guy selling me the ride – is looking out for the things I can’t (tow lines, hydraulics, harnesses.)  And also that the operator has been trained to handle emergencies and conditions relating to the activity (like dive masters.)

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  • Karen

    Several years ago a former fiance and I para-sailed in Cancun. While enjoying the view from the air I did try to figure out what I would do should that thin line break, and now I feel much less silly for doing so!

  • King_Buzzo

    My wife and I went parailing in Turks & Caicos a couple of years ago. I loved it. My wife was more frightened than I had ever seen. I told her before hand: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
    Now that I’ve read stories online like this one, I wouldn’t do it again. Had I read these stories before we went to T&C, I would never have tried it.

  • Rodrigo

    I have recently parasailed in Catalina Island, and while on the air I noticed the hook attaching the harness to the parachute was an *open* one (like an upside down question mark). I imagine that a gust of wind could have lifted the harness (or dropped the parachute) the half-an-inch that it needed to go free. Needless to say, I was terrified for most of the ride. I have no idea why they use an open hook like that!

  • Kerry

    thanks for writing this Mario… always wanted to do this.. now not so much !!

  • Ana Carrasco

    Obviously you gotta use your common sense to be able to do this. My friend and I were about to crash into a house the last time I did this but we just pulled how they taught us on one of the strings and we turned around safely. The worst thing that happened was my friend hurting her ankle while landing because she didn’t go with what her body naturally did.

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

    Are you thinking that the only people that got hurt or killed just lacked common sense?

  • Ana Carrasco

    Of course not! Accident happen, but there’s no need to be afraid of it, it’s like being scared of going on an airplane because of all of the deaths that have happened.

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

    I’m not suggesting that anyone be afraid of it – I’m suggesting that we insist on – just like the airlines have – reasonable regulation and inspection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Libertyracer Richard Forsythe

    Government can’t do anything right so regulating this will only cost us all more money in the end and won’t really save any lives. The few deaths that do happen are usually due to idiots who land the rider on a highway overpass or pull them into an object or let them drown covered in a tangled parachute when their boat breaks down.

  • http://mariovittone.com Mario

    I used to work for the government. I did a lot of things right, I thought. Your ideas about when these accidents happen are, well, completely untrue. The majority of parasailing injuries and deaths happen when the tow line breaks. (there is a link in the article that takes you to the data)

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone
  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone
  • Todd Smith

    Mario,

    I understand your point, but I take a bit of exception to

    “But real safety comes with standards and regulatory inspections. Why do I think that? Because that is how we got safe everywhere else. ”

    Only for “public consumption” activities.

    There are lots of dangerous activities that are performed safely without any government regulation or inspections. Of course those activities are performed by people who have been trained to safe standards, generally by the communities formed around those activities, which include volunteer organizations that promote voluntary safety standards. ( Activities such as: mountain and rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, surfing, etc ).

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

    Certainly – public consumption activities… or better still, “activities that sell the public on competence and safety of their operation.” The local parasail company here in Virginia Beach advertises “In business for ten years without a single accident.” They are convincing people “this is a safe activity.” This isn’t five guys going rock climbing after years of training and experience or a guided trip up K-2, these are tourist attractions in vacation towns. And for them, “real safety comes with standards and regulatory inspections. Why do I think that? Because that is how we got safe everywhere else. ”

    (By the way – locally they haven’t had a single accident, they have had more than one. Truth in advertising?)

  • Paul

    I did parasailing 2 weeks ago in Bali, Indonesia. I enjoyed the ride very much but I do remember wondering, while in the air, if the operator follows some kinds of standards or regulations…

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

    My “seriously doubt-it” meter is pegged.

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