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What Chance Does Potential Bill Regulating Fla. Parasailing Industry Have Next Year?

U.S. Coast Guard Investigators are confirming that severe weather conditions and the boat’s closeness to shore were major contributors in a Panhandle parasailing accident in early July. The two girls injured in the incident are recuperating in Indiana, but their story is prompting Florida lawmakers to revisit regulating the state’s parasailing industry.

The Parasailing Crash

Stong winds and a slew of expletives can be heard on the cell phone video of eyewitnesses’ reaction as they stare in shock at two girls tethered to a parachute crashing into a condominium, then a power line, and later a parked car. The two Indiana teens, Alexis Fairchild and Sidney Good, had been parasailing off Panama City and stayed in a Bay County hospital for a couple weeks while the head and neck trauma they suffered was stabilized.

A preliminary investigation shows high winds from an incoming storm caused their parasail tow line to break. And, because the tow boat was just a few hundred yards from shore, they were in greater danger of hitting nearby buildings. What’s more, the U.S. Coast Guard’s report says there are no specific regulations that might have stopped the incident from happening.

Florida Lawmakers Renewing Push

"...Clearly, we cannot have people dying or be in tragic accidents...So, I think something will be done."

The girls’ story appears to be resonating with a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers, and is spurring discussion again of providing more scrutiny the state’s parasailing operators.

Several lawmakers have tried to pass such a law before, though. Former Seminole Republican State Senator Dennis Jones authored legislation while he was in office, and during this year’s legislative session, Democratic Senator Maria Sachs took up the reigns because of two tragic deaths in her South Florida district:

“Let me just say, that this is named after Kathleen Miskell and Amber White, two young ladies that lost their lives in Pompano Beach, and unfortunately, there were some deaths that occurred recently, and hopefully, with the passage of this bill, we’ll never have to get through those tragedies again,” Sachs said in early April.

But that bill died in committee.  Still, the recent parasailing injuries have renewed interest in such a law and this time, Senate President Don Gaetz is backing it.

“I met with parasailing folks from my district and they have some ideas for how training can be provided to people who might be in the parasailing industry, and that might help strengthen the bill. But clearly, we can’t have people dying and be in tragic accidents because we don’t have adequate training or oversight. So, I think something will be done,” Gaetz said a week ago.

The bill may also have an ally in House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“I want to spend some time with the Senator and find out exactly what type of regulatory environment they’re trying to create. What I would say is obviously the status quo has problems. Without any type of regulatory system, people are dying, as the Senate President said, that’s not a good thing, and we’ll work with the Senator to see if we can’t figure that out,” added Weatherford.

Sachs says her bill will include regular inspections of ropes and harnesses and only allow parasailing when weather conditions are safe.

“The bottom line is safety. Because, throughout our state, whether it’s North Florida and South Florida, we want to make sure we have a great water sports industry, we want to make sure we maintain them, but we want to make sure that safety on our beaches is the number one concern of everybody,” said Sachs.

Pompano Beach Democratic Representative Gwendolyn Clarke-Reed says she’ll sponsor the House bill again, like she did this past legislative session.

Florida's Parasailing Industry

The bill also has the backing of the Water Sports Industry Association. President Larry Meddock has helped write previous bills and adds his group was even approached by the U.S. Coast Guard to work on uniform standards to make the industry safer.

“This April, we passed the first standard on weather because if you look at the root cause of the majority of parasailing accidents, it’s weather. Inclement weather all of a sudden pops up, and somebody gets caught up there, they have a line separation, and it goes downhill from there. So, we passed a weather standard, and we have three new standards we’re working on right now,” said Meddock.

But, Meddock says the standards are optional for parasailing operators, which is why he supports going through the Florida legislative process and passing a statewide solution.

Several parasail operators in the Panhandle area contacted for this story declined to comment, including Aquatic Adventures—the company that owned the tow boat involved in the recent Panama City accident. But that company’s managing partner, James Vaught, did tell the Panama City News-Herald he opposed this year’s failed legislation.  Vaught says he supports Meddock’s standards, and he feels it should be up to industry leaders to regulate themselves.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.