OCEAN CITY – All tour-boat operations in South Jersey are at the mercy of the weather, but perhaps none more than the parasail businesses.
Rain, lightning, wind, fog or heavy seas can scuttle business for days at a time.
This year has been particularly foul for operators such as Joel Richard, of Upper Township, owner of Ocean City Parasail.
"We've had the worst season this year. Dealing with the elements and conditions is the biggest challenge – if it's too windy. You have fog or poor sea conditions," he said. "We're not off to a good start."
Richard worked for New Jersey's first parasail company, Atlantic Parasail in Wildwood Crest, before starting his own operation in Ocean City in 1995. For years he followed good weather across the Caribbean to Florida and New Jersey to make money giving parasail rides.
The business requires a large initial investment. Boats specially outfitted with a "flight deck" and winch for parasailing cost between $190,000 and $250,000.
The parachutes, ropes, harnesses and rigs are expensive as well. Parasail crews in New Jersey require a commercially licensed boat captain and an observer who keeps an eye on the flying passengers.
"We've been here 19 years with a perfect safety record. It's a fun, safe activity to do," Richard said. "Just go with experienced operators."
Parasail accidents get a lot of attention. Family members or friends often videotape the flights for posterity, so accidents sometimes get recorded and make national news. That's what happened in Panama City, Fla., on July 1, when a parachute broke free of its tow boat, sending two teenage riders into a building.
"It goes on YouTube immediately," said Matt Traber, of Lower Township, owner of Atlantic Parasail. "You have to have a safe operator and don't operate outside the window of bad weather."
Today, parasail companies are found on nearly every barrier island in South Jersey.
The United States has about 238 commercial parasail operations, according to the Parasail Safety Council, a nonprofit trade group. Nearly 4 million people go parasailing each year. The sport has seen 73 fatalities during an estimated 130 million flights since 1982.
This cottage industry is strictly regulated in New Jersey, one of the few states that impose any restrictions. New Jersey law limits operation to daylight hours, restricts the tow line to 500 feet and requires a licensed commercial boat captain and observer.
Boats that fly passengers over the Atlantic Ocean must keep their distance from the beach and land - at least 3/8 of a mile - and must stay away from bridges and other vessels.
Operators in New Jersey are not permitted to operate under adverse weather conditions, including winds of 20 mph or seas of 5 feet or greater. The rules are enforced by the New Jersey State Marine Police.
Traber said he welcomes the strict rules, which he credits with keeping New Jersey tourists safe from potentially irresponsible parasail operators. Some operations outside the United States fly tourists at more than 1,000 feet and dangerously close to shore, he said.
"I think that makes New Jersey safer than other states. We have rules and regulations we follow. We fly 500 feet of line in New Jersey, not 2,000," he said.
But 500 feet still puts people higher than most other landmarks in South Jersey: higher than the Cape May Lighthouse (157 feet); the Giant Wheel at Gillian's Wonderland Pier (141 feet) or if stretched to the limit, the B.L. England smokestack (480 feet).
Some people might consider parasailing to be a thrillseeker's idea of fun, but Traber said his customers often are surprised by how relaxing it is up in the air.
"After the first two people go up in the air, everyone is relaxed once they see how easy it is. And you're out on the water enjoying a tour of the inlet," he said.
The season in New Jersey typically runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, which does not give operators many flying days. Traber said it's not always easy for new operations to secure insurance, which can pose a financial barrier to entry.
"I've been doing this for 26 years with a perfect safety record. When you don't have any claims, you get discounts," he said.
But there are intangible benefits to running a business like his, he said.
"The most rewarding thing is the look on the faces of the kids when they're done," he said. "They're so happy."
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