St. Thomas Parasailing Accident Brings Safety of Activity to Forefront.

parasailing

That is me (Cruise Arizona) in the photo parasailing in 1981 in Mazatlan Mexico during a cruise vacation. Who knows how safe the operation was that worked off the resort beach in Mazatlan? I did enjoy a great 10 minute ride around the bay, but I also nearly crashed into the hotel when I couldn’t fully understand the instructions of the Spanish speaking operators. I never really thought of it as a risky activity, but that operation is Mazatlan may have been one of the less safe versions of the activity that we sometimes hear about.

Tragically, in Mid-November 2011, a woman who had been traveling on the Celebrity Eclipse was killed in a parasailing accident in St. Thomas. Her daughter, was also critically injured in the incident. The accident apparently was the result of a fall from the parasail, but it is not clear at this writing as to the cause. The government of St. Thomas has issued a statement that they are investigating the incident. A report in the Virgin Island Daily News indicates that the tour was one that was booked through the Celebrity Shore Excursion Department and identifies the tour operator as Caribbean Water Sports and Tours. The crew delayed the Eclipse departure from St. Thomas and the captain reported the incident to the passengers. Currently, Celebrity has suspended all of its parasail excursions offerings.

This tragic incident shines a spotlight on the Parasailing industry as a whole. Here at Cruise Talk we try to stay away from sensational journalism, and present the facts about cruising and related activities. Having participated in and enjoyed this activity in the past, I wanted to research the history, risk factors, and real danger involved in this activity.

History of Parasailing

Parasailing became possible in 1961 with the invention of the towable parachute by French engineer Pierre-Marcel Lemoigne. Variations of the parasail, towing boats, towing equipment and take off and landing equipment have taken place over the last 50 years. The current mode of operation usually involves harnessed passengers ascending from the back of the wench boat via a riser line assembly. For detailed information on the history of parasailing, readers can visit the website maintained by one of its founders and patent holders, Mark McCulloh. His site www.parasail.org/index.html, contains a wealth of information on the both the activity and the industry.

Deaths and Injury from Parasailing

In 2001, the US Coast Guard, issued a report on accidents and deaths related to parasailing from 1992 to 2001. Two passengers and one crewmember died in activities attributed to parasailing in the United States during that ten-year period. By contrast a one year study of all boating related activities in 2010 by the Coast Guard reports 672 general boating activity deaths just in 2010. That same Coast Guard report states that there are over 12 million recreational water vessels registered in the United States. According to the information at the Parasailing Saftey Council, 3 -5 million people participate in parasailing in a given year. The area where the statistics are not clear are the world wide deaths or injuries from parasailing, as these US Coast Guard reports center around US based parasailing operations. Many of those operations are based in resort areas like Florida and Hawaii, but doesn’t include areas like the Caribbean Islands or Mexico. In 1999, 26 year old Tosha Walker lost her life while parasailing in the Bahamas. The rope towing her tandem rig snapped and she drowned when the parasail dragged her across the water.

In total in the there were 59 incidents between 1992 to 2001 that resulted in injury or death, but most were not related directly to the activity of parasailing. Examples include passengers diving off the front of the boat into shallow water and sustaining a neck injury or back and neck injury caused to boat riding passengers when the craft hit waves.

However, in the years since the release of that study, there have been several notable injuries and deaths that resulted directly from the activity of parasailing in the US.

In Feb 2010, 40 year old Joseph Job , a Carnival Cruise passenger, was parasailing in Cozumel, Mexico, when his harness broke and he fell into the sea.

Earlier this year, Sept 2011, David Sieradzki’s died when the engine of the boat pulling his parasail line in Bradenton, FL failed. He descended into the water and despite wearing a life jacket, drowned before the crew could pull him into the boat.

In August of 2009 two women were killed when their tow rope disconnected from the boat and the parasail then pulled them under a pier. A sudden shift in the winds and evasive action by the captain may have contributed to the cable snap.

In September of 2010: The tow line pulling a Georga woman at Clearwater beach snaps and she is draged over beach umbrellas and a vollyball pole.

In May of 2010 and man’s parasail tangles and he is killed when he falls into the water in Canyon Ferry Reservoir, Montana.

In April of 2009: Cole Ciliax, a boat crew member is killed after he tries to slide down a parasailing line and plunges 40 feet into the water near Hawaii Kai, Hawaii. The captain of the vessel later loses his license for permitting this activity to have taken place.

Pompano Beach, Aug. 19, 2007: A line snaps in high winds and two teenage sisters from North Florida are slammed into buildings on the beach, with one killed.

In May of 2011, a family of three had to be hospitalized in Hawaii after their tow line broke and they were dragged under water for some time. The crew report the line was less than three months old.

Conclusions?

Here at Cruise Talk, or philosophy is to present truthful unbiased information and allow our readers to draw their own conclusions. According to Mark McCollough of the Para Sail Safety council, the industry is largely unregulated. He stresses the need for responsible operations, proper equipment and proper training.

His website also provided us with the statistic of 3-5 million parasailers per year. If you compare the number of deaths with the number of participants, the accidents, though tragic, are still a very small percentage of participants. Obviously the parasailing providers need to work to get the number of injuries and deaths down to zero. According to the US Coast Guard report from 2001, “The apparent infrequency of accidents doesn’t beckon for special involvement of the U.S.Coast Guard in this area.” The Coast Guard further concluded the following points in that same 2001 report:

“The total number of parasailing vessels in operation is unknown. Thus, the data used for
this analysis can’t be normalized, (i.e., number of injuries per thousand vessels). We have
categorized the reported parasailing casualties as non-frequent occurrences, but cannot
definitively make this conclusion without knowing the extent of which this covers the
entire segment of the parasailing industry. Efforts to determine denominator data for the
number of parasailing vessels in operation or the number of passengers carried per year
would be burdensome to establish and maintain. As with any extreme activity it is
expected that there will be an occasional incident involving injury; therefore there is an
element of risk involved to the parasailing passenger. From the data available to the
Coast Guard, there doesn’t appear to be a major problem with deaths or injuries to
personnel or casualties to vessels within the parasail industry. The simple fact that
accidents continue to happen indicates that there is certainly room for safety
improvement, in order to eliminate casualties to vessels and risk of injury or death to
passengers.”

The Coast Guard also advises potential participants in the 2001 report:

“The data reported to the Coast Guard indicates that parasailing accidents occur
infrequently. The most common casualty was an injury from a fall aloft while tandem
parasailing from an un-inspected vessel, the fall being caused by an equipment failure or
vessel operator error. In many cases the prevailing weather conditions or a sudden violent
change in the weather was a contributing factor that set in motion the events leading to the
casualty. Operators of parasail vessels should be cognizant of current and forecast
weather and the limitations it will place on parasail operations. They should also be able
to recognize the formation of severe weather as it occurs. In the latter case, they should
be prepared to take appropriate evasive actions in sufficient time to ensure the safety of
their passengers and vessel. The condition of their equipment is also important.
Operators should be alert for signs of damage and unusual wear and replace items in a
timely manner. Our goal is for parasail operators to review this report and take away
lessons learned. Optimistically, they will be able to recognize a serious situation
developing and take appropriate action before a casualty occurs. We hope to keep history
from repeating itself.”