Parasailing Safety - Expert Article

Parasailing as a recreational activity began in as an outgrowth of an activity called “parascending;” a land-based activity used to teach people how to parachute without having to use an aircraft. In 1974, an inventor in Florida began testing the idea using a “winch boat,” and thus modern parasailing was born. According to U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) estimates, in 2013 there were approximately 325 vessels conducting parasailing operations in the United States and territories, ranging from single vessel owners, to operators overseeing a dozen or more parasailing vessels working from multiple beach locations.

While parasailing, passengers are suspended 300-500 feet in the air. When parasailing mishaps occur, the injuries are often severe, if not fatal. In this article, Kyle McAvoy (Captain, USCG Retired) explains the technical components involved in parasailing operations, common failures and accidents, and the development of safety guidelines in the parasailing industry.

Parasailing Safety - Expert Article

Parasailing is a thrill. Passengers are held aloft by the aerodynamics and forces associated with the parasail (also called a “canopy”) being pulled by a high performance parasailing vessel (also known as a “winch boat”).

In a typical parasailing configuration:

  1. A passenger is strapped into a body harness that is suspended from a bar called the passenger bar.
  2. The passenger bar is suspended below a riser bar (or riser).
  3. The riser is attached to the canopy by canopy lines, and to the winch boat via a tow line.
  4. The end of the tow line near the passengers connects to a built-in yoke on the riser and,
  5. The other end of the tow line is attached to a hydraulic winch on the winch boat.

The deck hand on the winch boat generally operates the winch and controls the length of deployed tow line, while the boat’s skipper has the traditional responsibilities of passenger safety bestowed upon any passenger vessel captain. The forward motion of winch boat provides speed, and therefore lift and direction. Unlike waterskiing, the passenger/rider has little or no control over their speed, direction, or height in the air. In addition, passengers generally have no communication devices to signal the winch boat crew that there may be a problem.

Once aloft and in the thrill of the parasail ride, a passenger’s safety is almost entirely dependent on the crew and equipment. If the forward motion of the winch boat is disrupted for any number or reasons, or changes abruptly, the canopy and passengers may drift towards shore and crash to the ground or into obstructions such as power lines or buildings. Other failure points can lead to a passenger dropping to the water and potentially becoming ensnared in the rigging.

COMMON CAUSES OF PARASAILING ACCIDENTS

In 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began actively monitoring parasailing accidents and in 2014, they issued a Special Investigation Report on Parasailing Safety. Their findings indicated that in the majority of cases that they reviewed, failure of the parasailing equipment led to serious injury or death. The NTSB findings also estimated that while 3 to 5 million people per year participate in parasailing activities, there are no federal regulations or mandates that establish specific training or certification of parasailing operators.

The 2014 NTSB report outlined their examination of several specific accidents, and their forensic study focused on possible failure points regarding tow line strength, hydraulic winch performance, and passenger harness safety. While an incident or failure may arise from any of these three components, other problems may arise from:

  • Winch boat mechanical problems. If the winch boat loses power for example, issues with maintaining the forces and dynamics to keep the passenger aloft will develop.
  • Canopy rotation. If the canopy begins to twist or spin, the potential for line failure or rapid loss of altitude may develop.
  • Weather conditions beyond the canopy’s design criteria. Some canopies are designed to accommodate certain wind speeds and passenger weights, so ensuring that a properly rated canopy is being used for the given weather a condition is vital.
  • Winch boat piloting mistakes, or lapses in judgment by the winch boat operator. If the boat operator is not sufficiently skilled in piloting the vessel to tow a passenger aloft, issues of maintaining passenger altitude may develop, or potentially, in areas where coastal advertising banners are being towed by small aircraft, there is a potential hazard of a collision.
  • Tow line wear/degradation. Repeated use, repeated exposure to the elements (sun, salt water, debris on the deck of the boat, etc.), can degrade the strength of the tow line.
  • Or, since parasailing operations are also passenger vessel operations, more common boat incidents unrelated to being aloft, but still under the control of the winch boat crew (skipper and deck hand), can occur.

Parasailing fatalities have declined since 2014, largely due to the work done by the Water Sports Industry Association (WSIA) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). WSIA, at the behest of the USCG, lobbied its parasail operators to develop a voluntary American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard that parasail operators could use to improve their procedures, operations, maintenance, and inspection of parasail vessels and equipment. The ASTM standard also addresses weather monitoring, limits, crew requirements, and training.

While the state of Florida adopted the ASTM standard into Florida Code, for the rest of the parasail community, complying with the ASTM standard is optional. Though a “prudent” parasail operator may voluntarily comply with the standard, not all parasail operators are prudent, and passengers seeking a fun excursion ride while at the beach may not be aware of the potential hazards they are subjecting themselves to.

PARASAILING ACCIDENT INVESTIGATIONS

There are numerous details to be addressed for parasailing operations to be conducted safely, and failure to adhere to those details can have catastrophic outcomes. The Maritime experts at Robson Forensic have the training and experience to investigate cases involving parasailing accidents, safety measures, or other related incidents.

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