Feds eye parasailing standards; local firms are already regulated

Even though it’s one of the lake’s most popular sports, a proposal that the federal government get i

The sight of thrill-seekers slung under colorful nylon sails being towed by a boat or drifting over Lake George’s southern basin is a common one.

Even though it’s one of the lake’s most popular sports, a proposal that the federal government get involved in regulating parasailing is unlikely to mean many changes here, where there are already lakewide regulations.

“Most of the stuff they are talking about we are already doing,” said Mike Wistuk, manager of Parasailing Adventures in Lake George.

The Water Sports Industry Association, whose members include parasailing companies, is in the process of adopting guidelines that generally reflect what the National Transportation Safety Board is calling for, he said.

The Lake George Park Commission has had a permit system for parasail operators in place since 1991.

The NTSB last week released a report looking into parasailing safety nationally that found the industry is largely unregulated, which it said may have led to serious and even fatal accidents. It is recommending operators be federally licensed.

The report cited eight deaths nationally in the past five years, due to such problems as broken tow lines or a separated harness. None of those deaths was in the Northeast.

“An afternoon of parasailing can have tragic results if something as simple as a weak towline, strong winds or a worn harness causes a serious accident,” said acting NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “It is crucial that operators are competent and aware of all the risks associated with parasailing.”

In parasailing, participants are pulled behind a motorboat while wearing a parachute that causes them to rise as much as 500 feet in the air.

Somewhere between 3 million and 5 million people parasail each year in the United States and its territories, the NTSB estimates. At Lake George, where two companies operate in the southern basin and a third in Bolton Landing, Wistuk estimated 25,000 people participate each year. He said the sport is growing in popularity.

“It is one of the most popular things to do in Lake George,” he said.

The NTSB said it has identified a variety of safety concerns with the sport, including vessel operators who continued to operate in hazardous wind conditions, use of inadequate equipment or unserviceable gear and towline strength that was in some cases compromised.

The NTSB report said some safety risks could be mitigated if operators were required to have at least a “minimum level of experience and professional competence,” so it recommended that the United States Coast Guard implement a special license endorsement for parasail operators.

There are currently no federal standards for training of operators or inspection of parasailing equipment.

The Coast Guard, however, has not shown interest in taking on the responsibility, according to an Associated Press report.

At Lake George, the regulation of activities is done by the Lake George Park Commission, not the Coast Guard. Three parasailing companies operate under permits issued through the commission, which include regulations.

“The regulations require them to have training and do inspections of equipment,” said Molly Gallagher, an environmental analyst with the commission who oversees the permit system.

The commission, which is a state agency, imposed a rule against parasails being operated when the National Weather Service has issued a weather alert — after an incident in 2011 in which high winds overturned a tow boat and left two people who were parasailing stranded in trees.

Gallagher said she believes the operations at the lake are generally safe, with no serious injuries having occurred. “I think we have good communication with our operators,” she said.

Wistuk said reputable operators will generally welcome government regulation, though he believes the industry already adequately regulates itself, through the rules of the Water Sports Industry Association.

“More than that, we are regulated by the insurance companies,” he said, referring to liability insurance costs and rules set by insurance companies.

Reputable companies check equipment such as harnesses and tow ropes every day to be sure they are safe for use, he said.

“We aren’t against regulation, because it weeds out the bad, the underfunded and the undercapitalized businesses,” Wistuk said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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