Are you thinking about heading south to warmer climes to get a break from winter's snowy, slushy, icy punishment? It's a great strategy, but it means you’ll often rely on others for you boating-related activities. For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about what to look out for when you’re boating, but not on your own boat. Staying safe is still job one.
I’ve never gone parasailing, but it’s on my list. It 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 seems like a great way to enjoy yourself. The views are awesome; they make you wear a life jacket and you’re hanging from a parachute. If anything goes wrong, you just float down to the water and wait for them to pick you up, right? Well, maybe.
Statistically speaking, parasailing is very safe. Between 1982 and 2012, there were an estimated 150 million parasail rides with around 1,700 mishaps. An activity with .00001 percent chance of a bad outcome can hardly be considered “high risk,” but there are some things the bad rides have in common that are easily spotted and can help keep you on the good side of those numbers.
Show Me The Ropes
Most cases of injury or death associated with parasailing occur when the towline breaks. The Coast Guard states in a safety press release that, “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. Also, these lines are exposed to saltwater and sunlight, which weakens them with every use.
Do not parasail if the towline appears visibly worn, faded or dirty. All lines should look pristine, and good operators change them often. Capable operators are proud of their gear and will show it off to you without hesitation.
Many people believe, as I did, that the gear parasail operators use must be inspected and regulated, but it isn’t. While some states have guidelines and standards, no one is coming out on a regular basis and inspecting an operator’s towline and winch to make sure everything is up to standards. That’s because there are no standards.
Check The Weather
The Florida legislature passed a law prohibiting parasail operators from running in high winds or when storms are nearby, but in most other locations the decision to fly is based on the operator’s motives. If you’re not in Florida, you’ll likely be setting your own standards for what “high winds” are. My rule is if it’s too windy to set up a beach umbrella, then that’s not the day to be the pivot-point in a tug of war with a parachute and a powerboat. Wait for a calmer day and always avoid parasailing when thunderstorms are anywhere nearby.
Sitting Is Safer Than Hanging
There are two ways to parasail: hanging from a harness or sitting in a gondola. The gondolas are always a safer choice. Sure, the harness setups are more exciting, but should the towline break and you end up in the water, you are going to be safer sitting in a gondola, not wrestling with shroud lines and a massive parachute canopy. If you want to keep the illusion that your lifejacket will save you, do not read pages four through six of the National Transportation Safety Board special investigation report into parasailing safety.
If you do parasail in a harness, make sure the operator gives you a full brief of the risks. Check the harness — it should look as good as new. Also, be sure to ask the operator what their plan is and what actions you should take if the line parts. If he or she doesn’t have a plan, this isn’t the ride you want.
If you haven't been parasailing and are curious about how it works, this video explains the whole process, from donning the harness to takeoff.
Caution About Distance
A widely accepted rule in parasailing safety is the 3-to-1 rule of distance from shore. If the operator lets out 500 feet of line, he should be no closer to shore than 1500 feet. Ask your operator how much line he puts out during the ride and how far from the beach he will operate. If he brags about taking you close to shore, pass on parasailing with him.
Though higher seems better, I wouldn’t take the ride with more than 600 feet between me and the boat. Any farther and communication with the boat becomes difficult to impossible. Thousand-foot rides are just a bad idea.
I believe that parasailing can be safe and that most of the time it is. Still, don’t blindly trust anyone with your own safety if just a few questions can help you avoid trouble.