So you want to be a Parasail Captain
Public service announcement by Joe Campana
There I was sitting in a pool at a well-known bar in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break in 1986. I was in my final year of college and was taking pictures of the 200 plus contestants of a Bikini Contest. Still wondering what I wanted to do when I grew up I was looking at my pictures and I noticed a Parasail in the background. My career path was born.
Water, boats and bikinis… Now that sounds like the business for me.
So I pursued my Captain License and got a job with a Parasail boat manufacturer. A dream come true. I spent the next several years working for the company traveling around the world setting up parasail operations and training captains the skills needed to run a parasail operation.
I landed in the Virgin Islands in 1992 where I assisted three parasail operations before finally purchasing my own company after a year. Over the next 22 years I grew the business to 7 parasail boats. We became the only parasail operation in St Thomas and our customers consisted of large companies such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Marriott Hotels, Ritz Carlton, Starwood Resorts, Rockefeller Resorts, Wyndham Resorts and many other small properties. It was not unusual for us to provide 200 to 300 parasail rides in a day.
Over the 20+ years in St Thomas I had many Parasail Captains work for the company. Some came to us with Parasail experience but many worked as Parasail crew and worked hard for their sea time. We trained and developed them into Parasail Captains.
These young men were always great guys who, like me, thought that being a Parasail Captain would be the coolest job in the world.
You know what – IT is… UNTIL….. It is NOT.
On November 15th, 2011 I was in Florida with my kids when the phone rang. It was the most experienced Captain we had on the phone. He was calling to inform me that what I thought could never happen to my company had happened.
He had a major incident and a loving mother and wife had been killed, her daughter had been critically injured. My heart sank and time stood still. A million thoughts went through my head. How could this happen? We were the best damn Parasail Company in the world. No one had more experience than us or better safety protocols. I often thought as a Parasail business owner- what is the worst case scenario? Of course a major accident like this would be horrible, but I thought we had all this covered and that this type of tragedy could not happen on my watch.
Well, reality hit. It can and did happen to us! Many people’s lives were changed that day and there was little I could do about it. I was helpless.
Now what happens? Well, to start, we immediately had the tour suspended from all the cruise lines and major resorts. I spent the next seven full days dealing with USCG investigators, local investigators, insurance investigators, and cruise lines investigators. The USCG came to our office and seized records, took pictures and looked over equipment. Staff members, as well as myself, were interrogated and completed reports for hours at a time. Very grueling, emotional time for my whole team.
It did not take long for the lawsuit to follow. I knew it was coming and rightfully so. A lovely mom, wife, sister was gone, and her lovely daughter was very seriously injured. No amount of money would ever compensate them for their loss. I think about them daily.
Without going into all the details of the accident, the Captain basically made a bad judgment call on weather. The weather was clear to the south of him, but there was a small storm uncharacteristically coming over the island. He got caught in a severe wind and almost had the guest back to the boat before the line parted. The effort he made to save these women was nothing short of heroic and he put his own life at risk. He did save the daughter’s life, but was unable to so with the mother.
You think his life was changed forever??
Of course it was, as was mine!!
Not only does he have to live with the fact that this happened because of his bad judgment call, but he has to relive the whole event regularly, which has been etched into the minds of both he and his crew forever.
Then, if this was not enough, one day a year after the accident occurred and the lawsuit was settled, there was an indictment pushed forward by the USCG and he was arrested.
Not long after, my corporation was indicted under the same charge.
The indictment was under
Title 18, USC Section 1115
The Grand Jury Charged that:
Count 1 (Misconduct or Neglect of Ship Officer) the Captain of vessel within the meaning of Title 18, United States Code , Section 1115, did by his misconduct , negligence ,or inattention to his duties on said vessel, cause the death of another person.
This statute is well over 100 years old and not developed for Parasail companies, but the industry has had too many incidents happen and the USCG decided to use this tool to get the industries attention.
I think it worked.
The Captain faced 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine. The corporation also faced a $250,000 fine. Now a Captain of parasail boats can make pretty good money, but the cost to defend you against these kinds of charges is huge and not many Captains have the budget to defend themselves against the United States Federal Government. The thought of a 28 year old Captain being sentenced to 10 years in prison for a making a bad judgment call on the weather is a scary one, and as one can see, life changing.
What’s more is the burden of proof for this statute is SIMPLE NEGLIGENCE. Typically to be facing prison time, one must commit a crime with some form of intent. Not in this situation. The burden of proof for simple negligence is quite low and the Captain had much to risk fighting the charge. So instead of fighting the expensive battle, a plea deal was agreed upon for the Captain and the Corporation. Really it was in a no win situation. Both parties were facing a huge uphill battle.
SO you want to be a Parasail Captain? I can tell you that it is an awesome way to make a living, but one must understand the incredible responsibility that goes along with it. People’s lives are in YOUR hands. Your decisions affect many people’s lives and making a bad judgment call is no excuse and is not going to help you when the shit hits the fan. A parasail guest does nothing wrong when an accident like this happens. They are just going for a ride. Their lives are in YOUR hands.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are considering this career path:
- As I often relayed to my team-Treat every guest like they are your own mother, sister, son or daughter. Would you take them for a parasail ride with the boat you are using and the weather conditions you are experiencing? Would you make sure that everything is right before providing them a ride?
- Don’t be complacent- When you give 50 to 100 parasail rides every day 6 to 7 days a week Complacency can be a major problem. The more experience you have the more complacent you can become.
- Be sure you have a good checklist program for Parasail equipment and boat. If God forbid you do have an incident, the first thing the Coast Guard is going to do is check and collects copies of these forms. It is critical that they are kept up on a daily basis and filled out completely.
- Be sure to follow all industry standards. There never has been a good set of industry standards, but the industry in now pulling together under WaterSports Industry Association (WSIA) and standards are being developed. It is your responsibility to understand and follow them because they will be used against you if you don’t.
- You are in charge-Not the owner of the vessel. Never let an owner pressure you to conduct a Parasail ride when you are not convinced that everything is in order. Boat, equipment and weather!
- Stay in tune with the weather and check it before every flight. Record the weather via photo capture on smart device and any other means possible. Most parasailing accidents are caused by weather issues and you want use everything at your disposal to evaluate it. Visual as well as technical tools. This is HUGE!!!!!!!!!
- Know your equipment- Understand the vessels Certificate of Inspection. Is the boat registration in order?
- Use good judgment- If you are flying someone and you are uncomfortable with the conditions or feel like you can open up a Heineken bottle with your butt cheeks STOP OPERATIONS. It is not worth it!!
- Constantly ask yourself, while flying a guest, what would happen if the boat stalled or tow line broke right now? Am I too close to anything?
- Practice emergency rescue drills regularly.
- Be sure your vessel is equipped with the latest emergency rescue equipment. There is some new stuff on the market and if an accident happened the world is going to want to know why you don’t have it on your vessel
- Get a good night’s rest the day before work. This is not the type of business where you want to be out partying the day before.
Here are a few things for Parasail Company Owners to remember:
- Keep great records of all maintenance and human resources information. Trust me you will need it!!! Most parasail operators are not known for keeping great records. If they were, they would be accountants or lawyers. We are watersports guys. Well, you if you want to last in this industry, either you do it yourself or hire someone who is sufficiently trained to keep these records.
- Follow all manufacturing recommendations and industry standards
- Never place pressure on your staff to fly anyone.
- Attend and be involved in industry gatherings. Stay in tune with industry standards. They are changing and you better be in tune with what is going on. It will be a huge factor if the worst were to happen to your company.
- Have a great insurance company and a strong relationship with them. I would have never made it through this without them. I often felt that they carried me through the process. First Flight Insurance. I can’t thank you enough for your help and the investigative team you sent to help. They were truly amazing!!!!
- AND ABOVE ALL… If you are struggling to make YOUR PARASAIL business work and if you can’t sustain a financial hit like the need for a new engine, or if the weather goes south on you for two weeks at a time and you can’t really afford for that to happen, THEN YOU NEED TO GET THE HELL OUT OF THE BUSINESS. It is not an easy one and trust me when I tell you. There are a lot easier ways to make a living.
The truth is if you follow the above- Owners and Crew- you should NEVER have a major accident like what happened to us. Parasailing can be safe. However, the complacency and financial challenges that many operators face in this industry today (and I know who many of you are) there will be more accidents and they will face the life changing results as we did.
Parasailing is a fun exciting career and provides a talented prudent operator the ability to travel to exciting destinations for work and as a Captain you can make a nice living. However; it is a huge responsibility and not worth the consequence you will face if you don’t take it seriously.
So as part of my plea deal. This is a public service announcement
Goodbye Parasail Industry. It was a memorable 24 years