The Parasail Safety Council, which tracks injuries and deaths nationwide, reports more than 70 people have been killed and at least 1,600 injured between 1982 and 2012, out of an estimated 150 million parasail rides during those 30 years.
That’s a casualty rate of about one per 90,000 rides. In comparison, the chance of being seriously injured at an amusement park is about one in 9 million rides, according 2010 data from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Despite parasailing’s inherent risk, few federal or state safety regulations exist for it. In Florida, which has by far the largest number of parasail operators at about 120, repeated efforts to enact new rules following fatal accidents have gone nowhere. Florida is seen by safety proponents as a national bellwether because of parasailing’s popularity in a state highly dependent on tourist dollars.
The lack of safety regulations frustrates Shannon Kraus, mother of two girls who crashed into a Pompano Beach hotel roof in 2007 when their parasail line snapped during a storm. One of the girls, 15-year-old Amber May White, later died of her injuries, while her sister Crystal, then 16, has had a long road to recovery from head injuries.
"Nobody has listened to me from day No. 1," Kraus said. "I’ve just been shoved aside. I’ve kind of been ignored and I’m pretty angry about that."
Crystal White, now a mother of two herself and a massage therapist, said most people who sign up to parasail have little idea it’s less regulated than the average carnival ride.
"They just need to know that if they go up, and something bad happens, there’s nothing they can do about it, because there are no laws, or rules, or regulations," she said.
Indeed, five years after the girls’ accident just off the same beach, a Connecticut woman died when her harness gave way and she fell about 150 feet into the ocean. The Aug. 15 death of 28-year-old Kathleen Miskell has prompted the first National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a parasailing fatality. Safety advocates hope Florida lawmakers will give the issue a fresh look.
Mark McCulloh, who runs the Parasail Safety Council, said in the U.S. and its territories about 620 vessels offer parasail rides to about 4 million people a year. He said only New Jersey and Virginia have relatively comprehensive regulations, while the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Coast Guard oversee some limited aspects of the activity.
In Florida, state Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Democrat, said the proposed regulations would include inspections of parasailing equipment, new rules restricting rides during certain weather conditions and prohibitions against parasailing near fixed objects such as power lines. The proposal would also require operators to buy insurance.
Margolis said past efforts have run into opposition by parasail operators and a general anti-regulation attitude among many lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
"When you get onto anything that’s recreational, you assume that somebody’s inspected it and everything’s OK. And you can’t assume that," she said.
Most parasail operators, however, are willing to submit to safety regulations as long as they are sensible, said Dan Breitenstein, who runs Miami Beach Parasail.
"If you have someone who has never been on a parasail boat or doesn’t know the workings of it, if they’re making up rules that would have little effect on what we do" it wouldn’t make sense, Breitenstein said. "There’s definitely things we can do."
People who sign up for Miami Beach Parasail generally pay about $75 for a 15-minute ride that can take them as high as 350 feet in the air. They sit in swing-like harnesses attached to a tow bar, which is connected by ropes to the kite-like parasail above and a winch in the boat below.
As the 33-foot "High Anxiety" boat moves across the water, the parasail passengers are slowly lifted into the air and the line is let out. After the ride, the boat is slowed gradually as the line is brought in so parasailors land back on the boat on their feet.
It all seems fairly safe, and you can’t beat the view, which on one recent day featured an umbrella-dotted South Beach and, beyond, its famed Art Deco hotel and entertainment district, with the greenish-blue Atlantic Ocean below.
The lack of regulation, however, means no one is looking over the operator’s shoulder to make sure ropes damaged by sun and salt water are replaced. There are also little or no rules regarding age limits or experience for "spotters" who observe the riders.
And there’s nothing beyond common sense to prevent an operator for taking people up in windy weather, which many people say is the one variable that can most often lead to an accident.
Breitenstein, who has radar on his boats, said he maintains a five-mile buffer from any nearby bad weather. But he said in Florida, storms can develop quickly offshore — and sometimes operators might be tempted to take a little risk to make more money.
"Weather is our biggest, toughest thing," he said. "Taking chances, that’s a bad habit to get into."