Report Finds Regs Needed On Parasail, But OC Operator Maintains Industry Already Has Standards

OCEAN CITY – Following in the footsteps of the DNR requesting regulations be placed on the new watersport of jetpacks, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has submitted a request to require parasail operators carry a special license to operate following a recent investigation.

On Wednesday the NTSB released its first investigative report into parasailing safety, concluding the activity is largely unregulated with serious accidents frequently caused by faulty equipment.

Because of the nature of an activity that often occurs in changing weather conditions with parasailers suspended 500 feet or more above the water’s surface, accidents often result in death or serious injury. None of the accidents were reported in Ocean City or in any of the mid-Atlantic states.

“An afternoon of parasailing can have tragic results if something as simple as a weak towline, strong winds, or a worn harness causes a serious accident,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “It is crucial that operators are competent and aware of all the risks associated with parasailing.”

The report cited eight accidents that occurred in Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands that resulted in eight deaths and five injuries, including several in which individuals were dragged by an inflated parasail canopy across water and land and into obstacles.

During the course of its investigations, the NTSB identified a variety of safety concerns, including vessel operators who continued to operate in hazardous wind conditions, use of inadequate equipment or unserviceable gear, and towline strength that was in some cases compromised.

Although the safety of each of the estimated three to five million Americans who parasail in the United States and its territories each year is dependent on the skill and expertise of the parasail operator and the acceptable condition of the equipment, there are no federal standards regarding training of operators or inspection of equipment.

The NTSB said that some safety risks could be mitigated if operators were required to have at least a “minimum level of experience and professional competence,” so it recommended that the United States Coast Guard implement a special license endorsement for parasail operators.

OC Parasail owner Kevin Smith, who has been in business for over 30 years, said between insurance regulations and standards set by the Water Sport Industry Association (WSIA) it is his opinion the parasailing operation is already regulated.

According to Smith, there has not been a parasailing accident in Ocean City. Only captains operate the boats at OC Parasail, and they visually inspect all parasail equipment each day. He also there are rules and regulations the industry must follow even if not set forth by a government body. He said it is an insurance regulation that a parasail can operate only if the wind is under 20 mph.

“We have parameters that we need to abide by,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parasail operators around the United States, so it is a tough call. We definitely need standards but we do have WSIA standards that we put together as a group to limit wind conditions, size of the sails, the amount of weight that fly and so on. I think if people abide by those then the risk is much less.”

Smith questioned how parasail regulations would be enforced and by what outside agency.

“It is up to the individual operators to abide by the standards that are set,” he said. “The bottom line is you have to operate in the right conditions and that’s it. Most of the accidents have been associated to sudden changes in wind or weather that have happened, and like with any kind of watersport it is weather related.”

Last week the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted a formal request to the Maryland Administrative Executive and Legislative Review to establish emergency regulations to cover jetpacks, a fairly new category of recreational vessel that has sprouted up in and around the resort area.

Usually worn on the back, the devices use water jets to lift a rider as much as 30 feet above the water. The thrill rides can pose a danger to both riders and bystanders. In certain instances, they can also cause environmental and property damage, and pose a disruption to other boaters. Thus far, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Hawaii and some west coast states have enacted laws regulating jetpack use and Maryland could soon follow suit.

Currently in Maryland, there are three businesses, all located in Ocean City, which rent a different version of jetpacks. The operators all agree jetpacks should be regulated and have the past year working with DNR to develop emergency regulations.

During the 180-day emergency regulation period, set to begin this month, DNR’s Boating Services and Natural Resources Police will examine how the temporary rules affect the general public and boating operations. Depending on the results, DNR may hold a public hearing next January to possibly enact permanent regulations on jetpacks.