The September 5 wrongful death of a Georgia woman who was parasailing in Clearwater has raised a lot of questions about who is responsible when someone is injured or killed in a parasailing accident.
Despite 15 fatal parasailing accidents and numerous injuries in Florida since 1980, no Florida or federal agency inspects parasailing equipment or certifies parasailing boat captains. No license or minimum insurance is required to operate a parasailing business. The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t regulate parasailing boats and captains any differently from others. It merely recommends following the guidelines of the Professional Association of Parasail Operators.
The fatal accident on Labor Day weekend has raised concerns even among those in the parasailing community who previously espoused self-regulation for the industry.
“No longer do I believe that voluntary regulation is going to work,” Mark McCulloh of the national Parasail Safety Council told the St. Petersburg Times. “If they don’t take charge of this, there is going to be more (death). It’s lawlessness.”
What Caused the Deadly Parasailing Accident in Clearwater?
According to investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which often investigates boat accidents, Alejandra W. and her fiancé Shaun L. went parasailing on the afternoon of September 5 through the Sky Screamer Parasail company, which operates out of the Clearwater municipal marina. The marina requires its operators to follow the safety guidelines of the Professional Association of Parasail Operators (PAPO).
The weather was threatening, with lightning and dark clouds looming offshore for several hours before the parasailing accident. According to the National Weather Service, the storm system was about 8 miles away from the beach at 3:00 p.m.
But the winds were good when the couple started out. According to another parasailing operator, the winds were steady at 6 mph at 2:48. By 2:54 the winds had risen to 22 mph. By 3:00 there were gusts of up to 35 mph.
The couple was in the air about a mile offshore when the winds whipped up. The boat’s winch “let loose and they flew to the end of the line.” Then the line snapped.
Shaun was able to get free, but Alejandra was dragged to shore, where she careened into beach chairs and umbrellas before ramming to a stop on a 4 x 4 volleyball net post.
The PAPO guidelines say no one should go parasailing if a storm system is within 7 miles, if there are sustained winds above 20 mph, or if there are dangerous gusts. Evaluating weather conditions is the job of the captain, and other area parasailing operators stopped operations between 2:00 and 2:30.
“We shut down because we saw inclement weather on the radar, and it looked like it was approaching pretty fast,” said Hale Wilson, owner of Eagle Parasail in Madeira Beach.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Tragic Parasailing Accidents?
State Senator Dennis Jones and former State Senator Jim Sebesta have proposed tighter regulation, such as requiring licensing and minimum insurance for operators, but each attempt has failed. The bill has never had a sponsor in the Florida House.
The Parasail Safety Council’s Mark McCulloh, who is not involved in the investigation of the Clearwater accident, agrees that more oversight would help.
“The penalties for breaking the rules are not severe enough,” he said. In past parasailing fatalities, he points out, he knows of only one operator who lost his captain’s license. “There are not enough consequences for doing something wrong.”
“Despite numerous tragedies, parasailing industry still lacks oversight” (St. Petersburg Times, September 8, 2010)