Visitors and residents love the quiet and the spectacular view that comes from parasailing over the Atlantic Ocean off the Broward and Palm Beach county coasts. But the experience can also turn deadly.
"I thought the worst thing that could happen is you would fall slowly into the water," said Jason Chalik, a Plantation lawyer who's become an outspoken critic of Florida government, which doesn't regulate parasailing. "It's a dangerous activity that doesn't look dangerous."
In the last 12 1/2 years, 20 parasailing accidents have resulted in 20 injuries and six deaths in Florida. Though U.S. government agencies oversee some elements of parasailing, no federal or state entity inspects or governs the entire activity from stem to sail in Florida. Operator quality varies, with some who adhere to a voluntary standard and others that don't.
Suddenly, there's new momentum behind legislation to regulate parasailing. For years, there'd be a burst of talk after each accident, but the efforts died in the Legislature's back rooms as public attention waned.
The most recent accident, July 1 in Panama City Beach, took place in the district represented by state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. As president of the Florida Senate through the 2014 session, he's in a position to advance parasailing legislation.
"Clearly we can't have people dying and be in tragic accidents because we don't have adequate training and adequate oversight," Gaetz said in response to a reporter's questions during a recent appearance in Fort Lauderdale. "So I think something will be done."
The other key player, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he hasn't studied the issue, but said he was open to state action. "Without any type of regulatory system people are dying," he said. "We need to find a way to try to clamp down on some of the challenges that we have in that industry."
Parasailing boats don't have to carry marine weather radios, aren't required to have insurance, don't face inspections of their ropes, and have no rules about when sails must be replaced.
State Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat who represents Pompano Beach and other coastal communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties, sponsored parasailing legislation in the 2013 legislative session. Among its provisions: a requirement for $2 million of insurance and a ban on operating in high winds or other inclement weather. And parasail boats would have to have a weather radio.
"When you pay money and have your child go up over Florida's waters you need to know the state of Florida stands behind the safety of that operation," Sachs said.
The bill passed one Senate committee, then stalled. The House didn't even hold a hearing.
Earlier this month, Alexis Fairchild and Sidney Good, 17-year-olds from Indiana, were aloft off Panama City Beach, when heavy winds kicked up. The tether to the boat snapped, and the girls slammed into the 13th floor of a high rise, hit power lines and landed on top of an SUV. They were hospitalized for weeks in Panama City, and are now in therapy and recovering in Indiana.
A preliminary Coast Guard report severe weather and the boat being too close to shore were "substantial factors" in the accident.
Last summer, Kathleen Miskell, 28, of Wethersfield, Conn., was parasailing in tandem with her husband when her harness broke and she plunged more than 150 feet to her death into the ocean off Pompano Beach.
In the summer of 2007, Amber May White, 15, of Summerfield near Ocala, was parasailing with her sister off Pompano Beach. After the line snapped in high winds, the girls were slammed into the roof of a hotel. Amber May died and her sister was critically injured. An investigation found the operator ignored a thunderstorm warning.
Wayne Mascolo, whose Aloha Parasail operates in Broward and has operated in Palm Beach County, blamed problems on bad operators. "You've got people out here flying when they shouldn't be. They push the envelope for the almighty dollar." He said he'll cancel parasailing excursions if bad weather is possible, even if he has paying customers waiting.
Still, he said, a new layer of government bureaucracy isn't a good idea. "They're going to regulate something they know nothing about," he said. "The state of Florida regulating it, no, that's not the way to go."
Chalik, who has represented clients injured in parasailing accidents, blamed state legislators' reflexive objection to government regulation for the state's failure to act. "The bottom line is the atmosphere in Tallahassee right now is that any regulation is bad regulation in just about any industry," he said.
Without regulation, Sachs said the state's tourist economy — and the businesses of high-quality parasail operators — would be damaged if Florida is seen as a state that doesn't care about the safety of its visitors.
To win approval, Sachs said she may have to use an approach that allows lawmakers to avoid a vote that could be seen as favoring government regulation. Her idea is to require parasail companies to be heavily insured, coverage that would be difficult for substandard operators to obtain.
"I don't care how we get at this," she said. "It may not be pretty. But it's going to work. And it's going to make the parasailing experience safe."
If that happens, Sachs said she'll be parasailing herself — something she last did 30 years ago during her Broward County honeymoon. "It's a great adventure," she said. "Perfect for Florida."
Video report on push to regulate parasailing at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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Parasailing safety tips
Watch the weather: Avoid parasailing in high wind, rain, fog or an approaching storm.
Safety briefing: Make sure you get adequate instructions before your flight, including what to expect, emergency procedures, and hand signals while airborne.
Established operators: Use one that operates from an established location. Ask if the captain is licensed by the Coast Guard. Check the operator's credentials; some have background on their websites. Find out how long the operator has been in business.
Insurance: Look for an operator that carries insurance.
Boat size: A larger boat indicates a serious operator who has a big financial investment.
Age and weight: Parasailing is usually not recommended for people younger than 16 or who weigh more than 300 pounds.
Sources: Parasail Safety Council, Parasailing.com, Aloha Watersports.