Perched on the edge of a cruising powerboat, a thrill-seeker in a tethered parachute soon is flying hundreds of feet in the air.
Parasailing has grown in popularity in recent years, in places including Ocean City and Havre de Grace. But so has the number of fatal and near-fatal accidents. A federal agency said this week that licensing and regulations are needed to keep participants safe.
One of the sport's pioneers agrees that without such regulation, parasailing could go the way of bungee-jumping — the industry crushed by prohibitive insurance costs.
Mark McCulloh, chair of the Parasail Safety Council, has spent years meeting with lawmakers and agencies to push for regulation that, while costly in the short term, he feels will ensure parasailing's future. Roughly half of the parasailing industry — which draws 3 million to 5 million customers a year nationally — operates in boats that aren't even subject to annual federal safety tests, he said.
If nothing is done, McCulloh said, "I believe the insurance [costs] will become so prohibitive that parasailing could disappear because it's uninsurable."
The National Transportation Safety Board added its voice to the discussion Tuesday when it issued a report calling attention to the risks and asking the Coast Guard to begin licensing boat captains who operate parasails and inspecting the boats. Parasailing has "no federal standards regarding training of operators or inspection of equipment," the agency said.
"Passengers seeking to enjoy the thrill, adventure and panoramic views of parasailing risk becoming accident victims," the NTSB said. "Due to the nature of parasailing, accidents usually result in either serious injury or death." The report cited no fatal accidents in Maryland.
But the NTSB highlighted several incidents in its report, most of them in Florida, where the activity is most popular, in which faulty equipment or irresponsible captains led to injuries.
In one case, a woman in Pompano Beach, Fla., died after falling 450 feet into the ocean when her harness broke free from the flight bar in August 2012. In another, two teenagers in Panama Beach, Fla., were seriously injured in July 2013 when their towline broke in high winds and their parachute hit a condominium building.
No accidents have been reported recently in Maryland, but the state's parasail operators say incidents like the ones in Florida take a toll on their summer business.
"Parasailing was slow last year," said Mike Andrew, who owns Inlet Sea Doos in Ocean City. "I don't know if it's because of the accidents."
Glenn Myers of Old Town Parasail in Havre de Grace, said "it does reflect on us" when someone is injured or dies, even when it happens hundreds of miles away.
If the boat captains are doing their jobs properly, Myers said, "parasailing is one of the safest things you can do."
When they're not, the results can be disastrous.
"When accidents happen, it's because they're overflying — they're being greedy," Andrew said. "There are guidelines. You're not supposed to fly in winds over 20 mph. They're flying in high winds and not monitoring the weather."
Andrew, who has owned his Ocean City jet ski and parasailing business for almost two decades, said he and Sea Doos' other captain talk to boaters and check conditions regularly, since winds can change quickly. Sea Doos also parasails in the ocean instead of Ocean City's bays. The ocean water can be choppier, but it's less crowded, Andrew said.
Andrew said he would encourage additional regulation, because he said Sea Doos already practices safe parasailing. If lawmakers adopt the NTSB's regulatory recommendations, it could draw customers in, he said. "Maybe they'd feel more comfortable."
Andrew hopes lawmakers or regulators consult with operators if and when they're writing new safety rules.
Myers, who has been parasailing for 22 years, five of them over the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace, said he favors increased regulation but is skeptical that it would ensure that some operators obey the rules.
"Oh sure, but that's not going to stop them," he said. "There are just some captains — whether they need the money or think they need the money — who don't care."
Some of the industry's regulatory deficiencies are intrinsic to parasailing. A boat captain is under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, but when a parasail participant launches into the air, the Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for oversight. For accidents in which the parasailor crashes ashore, the local police department gets involved.
The overlap makes it difficult for the agencies to police captains operating unsafe parasailing businesses, McCulloh said.
The best place to begin, he said, is for the Coast Guard to require captains to have inspected vessels in order to parasail. The agency could then put additional mandates in place that would apply to the entire industry.
"Then the Coast Guard could make these guys jump through hoops," McCulloh said. "When the Coast Guard makes that move, the FAA could then join forces in a mutual cooperation."
A spokesman for the Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, the FAA said, "Aviation safety is the FAA's top priority, and the agency will consider efforts that could further reduce the limited risk of midair collisions between aircraft and parasailing operators. As the NTSB notes, the FAA has limited authority to regulate parasailing operations. However, the agency will carefully review the board's three recommendations and will remain open to discussing this issue with the Coast Guard."
McCulloh, who has watched parasailing explode into a mainstream beach activity since the 1970s, said he planned to send a letter to the NTSB in response to the proposals, asking it to encourage the Coast Guard to mandate that parasailors fly only from regulated vessels. Such a transition would take several years and make it costlier to operate a parasailing business, McCulloh said, but it could save the industry in the long run.
"I think it should start with the NTSB," he said. "They've shot the warning shot. The next step would be getting into more of the details."
McCulloh said Florida passed state safety legislation, which was a good idea, but that federal action needs to be taken. To prevent accidents, the industry needs to be held to nationwide standards on operator training, boat size and speed, equipment condition and weather rules, he said. When accidents happen, he said, operators and equipment manufacturers should be held accountable with strict federal penalties.
"What we have now is a disorganized, fractured community of parasail operators running by the seat of their pants," he said. "Federal regulations would bring unity in how people operate. We need continuity. Everybody needs to be doing the right thing."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
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