Few regulations govern parasailing in Florida

A photo from the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys shows a parasail draped on the old Seven Mile Bridge Monday, May 31, 2022. A woman was killed that day after she fell from that parasail, was dragged across the water and slammed into the bridge, authorities said.

A photo from the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys shows a parasail draped on the old Seven Mile Bridge Monday, May 31, 2022. A woman was killed that day after she fell from that parasail, was dragged across the water and slammed into the bridge, authorities said.

Parasailing is popular in most coastal resort towns, but it’s also lightly regulated and has resulted in several high-profile tragedies, including the death of a young mother and the serious injury of a child on Memorial Day in the Florida Keys.

Here’s what to know about parasailing:

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Two people parasail over Miami Beach, Fla., in September 2012. The only rules in Florida regulating the parasailing industry have to do with weather and insurance. AP File

Parasailing defined

The watersport’s name is a blend of parachuting and sailing. It involves one or more people harnessed to a cable and being lifted into the air by a parachute — or parasail — and then towed behind a boat.

Its roots go back to 1962 in Manchester, Connecticut, and it was originally marketed as a means to train parachutists, according to the Parasail Safety Council.

By 1963, the U.S. Air Force was using parasailing technology for water training for the Gemini space mission. It began becoming a popular recreational activity in the late-1960s to mid-1970s, the organization said.

Memorial Day tragedy

A 33-year-old woman from Illinois died after the cable attaching her to the boat snapped in sudden high winds, sending her and two children with her in the harness plummeting to the ocean off Marathon.

The winds propelled the parasail more than a mile across the water, dragging the victims behind, only stopping when she and the children were slammed into the Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Middle Keys city of Marathon.

Parasailing regulation

The only rules on the state books regulating the parasailing industry have to do with weather and insurance.

Commercial parasailing is prohibited if wind conditions include:

A sustained wind speed of more than 20 mph.

If wind gusts are 15 mph higher than the sustained wind speed.

If the wind speed during gusts exceeds 25 mph.

“That’s the gospel in this,” said Thomas Scolaro, a Miami-Dade County attorney who has represented several victims and their families in parasail accident civil cases, including the wrongful death lawsuit against Sunset Watersports in Key West following the July 2020 death of Nicholas Hayward.

Parasail operators also have to be insured by a reputable insurance company that specifically handles parasailing, said Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council.

“That was the key, because it forced everyone to get the right equipment,” McCulloh said.

Snapped cable in similar case

Like the woman who died Monday, Hayward and Azalea Silva were killed after the cable tethering them to a parasailing boat snapped in high winds and they were dragged by the parasail across the water for several minutes. Scolaro argues Sunset Watersports should never have let the couple go parasailing that day.

“What do these tourists know? They don’t know any better,” Scolaro said. “They should be able to rely on that business following the law.”

The boat captain, Andrew Santeiro was charged with negligent manslaughter in that case, which is still pending.

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Amber White, 15, left, died and her sister, Crystal White, 17, was seriously injured in a 2007 parasailing accident. Miami Herald File

Weather law approved after Broward case

The Florida Legislature passed the law regarding weather in 2014 as a result of the August 2007 death of Amber May White, 15, who died in Pompano Beach when she and her sister Crystal, 17, were hurled into the side of a building after high wind gusts snapped their parasail line.

Amber died one week shy of her 16th birthday. Crystal suffered traumatic brain injuries from the impact with the building.

Scolaro’s firm, Leesfield Scolaro, represented the White family and the case was settled out of court.

“Unfortunately, I’ve done way too many of these cases,” Scolaro said.

This story was originally published May 31, 2022 6:55 PM.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.