Mary Syrett - June 2008

Parasailing Over Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Mary Syrett

   It usually begins in my dreams. I race along the beach, flap my arms furiously, and before I know it, I’m aloft, high over water, feeling weightless and euphoric. Then I wake up.
    Only now, I’m closer to making my dream become a reality – because I’ve taken up parasailing, which is one of the fastest growing sports around. It’s certainly big all around Delmarva country.
    Although parasails launched from land have been around for 30-plus years, with the swing in the boat market toward multiple sporting activities, increasing numbers of people are out to have fun high over water. If you’ve ever been to a beach resort, you’ve probably seen parasails lifting riders skyward. All around the Caribbean, as well as off the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, as well as many lakes and bays, more and more of the brightly colored chutes can be seen high over water. If you’ve never parasailed, the freedom of flight awaits you.
    History – In 1961, Frenchman Pierre Lemoigne modified a round parachute to allow it to ascend when pulled behind a car. This activity was called “parascending.” It was developed to train novice parachutists by towing a modified parachute to a suitable height and then releasing it. Shortly thereafter, the Pioneer Parachute Company of Manchester, Connecticut, began manufacturing this modified parachute design and marketing it under the tradename “Parasail.”
    In 1962, parascending took another turn when an individual wearing a modified parachute was towed behind a boat and then soared off into the wild blue yonder. The participant was strapped into a body harness and given instructions to run along the beach while a towboat lifted him aloft. This activity was called “parasailing.”
    Before descending, the parasailor was signaled to maneuver the parasail over the beach in preparation for landing. The descent, however, was fraught with danger.
    In 1971, Mark McCulloh, an inventor, took the lead in setting parasail industry standards for safety and operations. His most well-received invention, the “self-contained winchboat,” used a body harness and helped expand the commercial parasailing industry by offering increased safety and efficiency.
    McCulloh was approached in 1992 by Orlando’s Walt Disney World to consider operating a parasailing concession on Epcot Center’s Bay Lake. In 1994, he signed a contract with Walt Disney to do precisely that.
    Requirements for Parasailing – Almost any boat capable of pulling multiple water skiers at 30-plus miles per hour can be used to pull a parasailor. Some enthusiasts have reported success using 50 to 75 horsepower engines; however, to fully enjoy parasailing, it is recommended that a boat be equipped with an engine of at least 100 hp. The takeoff and flight areas should be clear of obstructions, including trees and power lines. Also needed are a skilled driver and an observer.
    How to Parasail – A preflight inspection of all the necessary gear ensures flight readiness. Takeoff should be into the wind, not exceeding 15 mph. The flyer must wear a life vest. When all is ready, he steps into the harness and hooks into the parasail. With the help of a launch crew, the boat idles out until the towline is completely extended.
    The flight crew holds up the canopy of the chute on both sides; the signal is then given to “hit the accelerator.” The parasailor does not run toward the boat, but instead resists the forward aerodynamic pull in a tug-of-war to keep the line taut and maintain balance. After one to three steps, liftoff occurs.
    Parasailors ascend and descend from a small platform at the stern of the boat. Once aloft, flyers get comfortable in the harness by sitting down in it. Altitude is controlled by boat speed. The length of the towrope varies and is based on individual preference. A common length is 300 feet, which gives a maximum altitude of about 225 feet.
    With care, the boat can turn and travel with the wind; however, boat speed must be increased to maintain the relative wind speed of the parasailor. Whatever the speed, the parasailor gets a magnificent view of the Eastern Shore. The beautiful multi-colored silk parasail always attracts attention from people on the ground. The word is overused, but this truly is a surreal experience.
    For the wary, there are harnesses that allow people to parasail in pairs, either side by side or one in front of the other. Children enjoy parasailing in tandem.
    My First Flight – On a delightfully warm day, I found myself airborne by design, having been launched into the void over Chesapeake Bay behind an outboard with a 200 horsepower engine in the name of fun and an adrenaline rush. I had a swatch of silk flying over my head, connected to me by a tangle of paper-thin lines, while unruly breezes buffeted my body through the air.
    My first flight was alternately horrifying and inspiring. I hadn’t been in charge, my boat driver told me afterwards; the winds had been in charge of me. No kidding. I could have told him that when the first unrequested thermal flung me skyward, and I realized then and there I was where humans, anatomically speaking, shouldn’t be. In a short 60 seconds, I learned that parasailing, just like downhill ski racing, demands full concentration and total commitment. Also like downhill skiing, the ride seems too short only after it’s over; by then, the fear has faded enough that you’re eager to go back up.
    One concept crucial to parasailing is that speed is safety. Parasails are meant to fly, not float. Stalling destroys the delicate relationship that exists between the air and the shape of the wing that allows flight. In trying to stay airborne, one must dance on the winds and chase the currents. Parasailing is not parachuting.
    But in August of 2007, being at the mercy of the winds was something new to me, so unnerving that at first I fought their bullying influence tooth and nail. But that was missing the point. A great parasailing flight means achieving a state of grace, not by fighting wind conditions, but by working with them. When I finally stopped resisting, I learned that the winds were not such bullies after all, and that the air was actually calmer than I had originally thought.
    Where to Parasail – In Havre De Grace, head for Old Time Parasail at the Havre De Grace City Yacht Basin, 352 Commerce Street. In Virginia Beach, Adventure Parasail(757-422-8359) and Parasail Express (757-437-7700), both offer parasail rides. East of Chesapeake Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean, Ocean City Parasail and Watersports (410-723-1464) and Island Watersports (419-289-2896) will take you up.
    Who Parasails? – The sport is status blind. Devotees include bankers, grocers, house painters, landscapers, architects, dentists, jewelers, lawyers and trash collectors. For all parasailing enthusiasts, the pleasing thought of soaring gracefully over water takes one’s mind off such unpleasant matters as a tax audit, a root canal, unpaid bills and terrorist attacks.
    In the beginning, mankind could fly no better than rocks. People endured that seemingly unalterable characteristic for eons, even as they dreamed of sprouting wings and taking off. But along came the 20th century and a relatively simple arrangement of cloth and cable plus a dash of daring that allow most anyone to soar high over water like a bird, like a plane, like . . .? Those who have tried parasailing unanimously endorse the activity as the greatest high around. I certainly do.