New Jersey a leader in parasailing safety

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Gazette Reporter Christopher South parasailing for a story. Gazette Reporter Christopher South parasailing for a story. CAPE MAY – “New Jersey is the safest place to parasail in the country,” said Andy Barber, owner of East Coast Parasail in Cape May.

Barber said New Jersey was the first of two states in the nation to regulate parasailing, the second being Virginia, which used New Jersey’s statute as a model.

Seeking a local reaction to a report issued July 1 by the National Transportation Safety Board, calling parasailing “risky,” The Gazette talked to business owners from the local parasailing industry.

Barber said New Jersey parasailing operators have been on the forefront of safety and establishing regulations for the industry. Barber is not alone. 

“Every time there is an accident everybody in the paper says we are unregulated, and have no guidelines. That is false,” said Matt Traber of Atlantic Parasailing in Wildwood Crest.

Traber said when he began his business in 1989 he was the first parasail operator in New Jersey. Barber said when Traber began operating the New Jersey State Police Marine Division looked at what he was doing and said, “You can’t do that.”

Traber said a discussion on the safety of parasailing was started, which led to the first regulation in 1992.

Barber said New Jersey parasailing operators have continued to meet with regulators to tweak the legislation and make it safer.

New Jersey Register, Title 13. Law and Public Safety, Chapter 82. Boating Regulations, Subchapter 6. Parasailing, outlines how parasailing businesses must operate in New Jersey. Barber said it was the operators who pushed for certain regulations to be added, such as: parasailing vessels should not operate within 600 feet of one another, parasailing may not be conducted when winds are 20 mph or higher, towlines must not be deployed more than 500 feet from the vessel, the towline, winch and other equipment must be inspected daily, and the parasail operator must maintain a vessel log documenting inspections and maintenance of the towline, winch and other parasail equipment.

The law also requires anyone engaging in commercial parasailing to notify the state police 10 days in advance of starting their season.

Barber said he is happy his business is regulated because it protects the professionals in the industry.

“I don’t want people just to go out and start a parasailing business – just buy a parachute and go out,” he said.

Starting out right in the parasailing business requires an initial investment of about $350,000. The parasail operators begin with a boat that is specifically designed for parasailing.

Rob Guarini of Commercial Water Sports (CWS) builds the boats in Clermont and sells them nationwide, and even to foreign buyers. Guarini said the boats are molded in Lower Bank and transported to Clermont where they are rigged for parasailing.

“They do all the (fiber)glass work, and we set the stringers, all the crucial parts of the hull, the engine beds,” he said.

The boats, sold under the name Ocean Pro, come in 31- and 35-foot lengths. Guarini, who also operates Sea Isle Parasail, said they create the whole interior of the boat, which is designed to carry passengers for parasailing. The hull is made so it is a good ocean riding boat, he said. The boats are inspected by the Coast Guard at least three times during the building process and inspected after they are put into use.

Barber’s three parasail boats carry an inspection sticker from the Coast Guard. He said the Coast Guard ensures the boat is seaworthy and that they have the appropriate safety equipment, such as life jackets. Barber said they go well beyond that to be able to recover the chute and rider if an accident were to occur.

The NTSB had issued a safety alert saying towline failure was the leading cause of injury and death in parasailing accidents. Barber said they pushed for daily inspection of towlines in the legislation, but they take other steps, such as beginning the season with a new line and replacing that line on Aug. 1, after roughly a month’s use.

Barber said the towline is the weakest link in the parasailing operation, and that is how it should be. If conditions are such that a breakage should occur, the towline is generally where they want it to happen.

Given that, there are other safety features in place, such as a chute wrangler. It would be deployed by the rider in the event of a break, and it acts like a brake for the chute so it doesn’t drift in the wind. There is also a sea anchor on the boat, which will help control the boat from drifting as they try to recover the rider.

Another precaution is the length of the towline line. Barber said operators in Florida, who are currently unregulated, operate with lines of 1,000 or 1,200 feet. Barber said by operating with a 500-foot line, there is much less distance to cover to get to a rider in the event of a line break.

Accidents cited in the NTSB report include those from Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., on Aug. 28, 2009, when a towline broke in high winds; Pompano Beach, Fla., on Aug. 16, 2012, when a harness separated from the flight bar; and Panama City Beach, Fla., on July 1, 2013, after another towline broke in high winds.

Florida is currently working on establishing regulations for the parasailing industry that are in line with NTSB recommendations, including a “minimum level of experience and professional competence," and a special license endorsement for parasail operators, issued by the Coast Guard.

Taber said he, Barber, and Guarini have been helping to educate the Coast Guard on parasailing operations and equipment to aide them in becoming better at their job.

“For the last two years we’ve had a meeting with Coast Guard representatives (in Cape May) and have been working with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to write standards everyone would have to adhere to,” Traber said.

He said the regulations also give insurance companies a standard under which to operate.

“We are very fortunate to be operating under these guidelines,” Traber said.

Traber, Guarini, and Barber would all like to see uniform regulations in the industry. They take part in the Water Sports Industry Association’s Parasail Operators Symposium each year. The three men indicated it has been difficult to get all 350 or so parasail operators attending the symposium to get on the same page. Some want to continue using the longer lines, which they feel have contributed to past injuries or deaths.

“It’s safer to fly less rope,” Traber said. “You have closer contact with people in the air, and if they go into the water you are close by.”

Some want to be able to operate in higher winds than the New Jersey regulations allow, they said. Guarini said most of the accidents in other states were weather related, with operators ignoring the danger or trying to push the envelope.

“To be fair, often they are being pushed by the customers and unfortunately they give in to the pressure,” Guarini said.

He said some of his customers have gotten mad because they said it was too windy to go out. However, Guarini said he wants people to enjoy themselves, and they are not going to have a good time if the seas are too rough.

“They will be fine while they are flying, but they will take a pounding in the boat,” he said.

He said if people start getting seasick they have to bring the boat back to dock.

Guarini said by ensuring customers have a good time, half of his business is from repeat customers.

Traber said once everybody has regulations under which to operate they will have something to adhere to and it makes it easier for them to operate.

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