The perils of parasailing

The Star Online's intrepid reporter takes to the skies for the first time in a parasail.

PETALING JAYA - Following the recent death of Saudi tourist Aldakhilallah Eman Mohamed last week while parasailing, The Star Online decided to go on the ground to find out safety measures undertaken by local water sports operators.

Most water sports operators at a popular west coast holiday destination have stopped parasailing activities due to safety concerns, although favourites such as jet-skis and banana boats remain widely available.

It took some beach-hopping to finally find one who imposed an initial charge of RM100 (S$39)per parasailer.

"There is no licence or specific monitoring body for these activities. In Singapore, however, there are licences for those operating kayaks or jet skis," he said when asked if any inspections were carried out by the authorities.

Even "big, big men can fly up", said his beach boy assistant when quizzed on whether parasailers had to observe a weight limit.

"We won't let you fall on the beach, and you'll only be dipped into shallow waters at waist level," said the operator, citing Aldakhilallah's death as reason for extra caution.

Asked why a high-speed jet ski was used to pull the parachute instead of the usual speedboat, the beach boy explained that parasailers were more likely to fall when a slower watercraft is used.

To ensure wind conditions were safe, the operator checked on its strength and direction by observing how a staked flag rippled in the breeze.

Our volunteer, a first-time parasailer, was provided with a safety vest, a harness and brief instructions on what to do when airborne, but no attempts were made to ascertain if she was physically fit to fly.

After getting fitted, she was set for her ride, although her spectacles had to be removed for safety reasons.

No alternative was offered when she voiced an inability to see their signals from a distance, only a reminder that, "if you're tilting left, just tug on the right strap."

The take-off was smooth and she was brought around in a circle before the jet ski slowed down in deeper waters.

Without warning, the wind suddenly picked up and whipped the waves into a frenzy, causing the jet ski pulling the parasail to capsize.

Our parasailer was still harnessed to the jet ski, but the operator had fallen into the water and was nowhere to be seen!

When approached, the resort's staff did not know to operate jet skis and were unable to offer their assistance as another boat was caught in low tide.

No lifeguard was at the scene, so the beach boy ran to a nearby jet ski and pushed it into the sea before zipping off towards our airborne reporter.

She was pulled down into the sea and told to swim to safety, but the choppy waters prevented her from heading back to shore.

Once the beach boy located the safety vest-clad operator who had drifted further away into sea, he retrieved our reporter and brought her back to the beach before going back for the man.

Despite the experience, our parasailer did not feel that her safety was threatened.

"I was more worried about the 'uncle' who disappeared. I tried to draw people's attention by turning around, but no one noticed," she said.

At another beach earlier, a local known as Jantan said two water sports operators used to offer parasailing, but both had to stop their services.

"The winds were too strong, so people kept getting stuck in the trees. And when they're up in the air, they don't follow proper instructions," he said.

With its many vacationers, narrow beach, and tall trees fringing the coast, the location was deemed unsuitable for parasailing.

"The local council found it dangerous and stopped the activity," added Jeffrey, a drink stall operator.

Calls to another popular resort revealed that the hotel itself did not offer said activity, but the receptionist said independent operators did, albeit on an erratic schedule.

At another beach touted as the area's best, a water sports operator warned: "When the waves are wild and strong, they (parasailers and operators) don't go out."

Although the water sports operator who took our volunteer parasailing was quickly rescued by his assistant, the lack of a clear contingency plan could have escalated the emergency into an actual tragedy.

Licensing limbo

In Penang, the Personal Watercrafts (Penang) Enactment 1999 details how private watercraft such as jet skis and water sports equipment require licensing.

"While several water sports such as jet skis have clearer licensing requirements, parasailing lies in a grey area between different regulatory bodies," said Penang Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow.

Parasails, which are usually attached to speedboats, are not covered by the enactment.

Asked why there was no provision to license parasailing, the Padang Kota assemblyman explained that it would require a boat licence, which is under the purview of the Marine Department and not the Penang state government or municipal council.

"On their part, the Marine Department provides boat licences and seaman certification. However, they do not provide licences for parasailing as it is external to the boat," he said.

A call to the Marine Department confirmed the availability of competency courses for boat operators, but no mention was made of parasailing regulations.

However, the Penang state government is now trying to amend the state enactment to include parasailing, which will allow regulation and licensing of the sport.

"We will also require beach boys to refer to safety manuals and give proper instructions before allowing anyone to use the beach equipment," he added.

Due to previous water sports accidents, the Penang state government has stepped up security measures by proposing stricter regulations, setting up water sports zones, and establishing safety boards.

According to Penang Watercraft Operator Association chairman Louis Lim, parasailing has been available at Batu Ferringhi for over 30 years, and accidents have occurred since "a long time ago."

Although customers are well aware of the risks, they are required to sign indemnity waivers before attempting any extreme sport.

"We follow procedure, but mishaps can happen. The wind can be nice when you take off, but it can suddenly pick up in a different part of the sea," said the 36-year-old.

While operators use their own judgement to determine if conditions are suitable, the Ferringhi Baywatch Tower provides assistance with their own markers.

A white flag on the beach indicates favourable weather, while a red flag serves as a no-go.

Asked if any equipment inspection takes place, he said that responsible water sports operators had to perform regular and independent maintenance as they needed to be accountable for the lives of "people hanging up there."

However, he added that customers themselves did not usually ask about the equipment as most were confident that operators "know what they are doing".

As for whether the operator's insurance provided coverage for any customer's accident, Lim clarified that it would only cover an external third party.

"For instance, if you go parasailing and rope hits an uninvolved person on the beach during landing, then that beachgoer can claim compensation," he said.

If injured, participants would have to foot their own hospital fees as it is "ride at your own risk" and pay for any damage personally caused to the water sports equipment.

Thus, Lim recommended that customers undertake personal insurance covering such activities.

Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, said that unscrupulous "commission boys" in Batu Ferringhi were a problem that needed government or police intervention.

"Unlike beach boys, they pester beachgoers to try out extreme sports at higher price. It's a public beach, so it's hard to control them. If it ends badly or the customers complain, they disappear," he said.

Over in Langkawi, Seeman Watersports Langkawi provides jet-ski and banana boat rides which are licensed by the local council.

"To be extra safe, we have insurance for customers and also rope off specific areas for jet skis away from the beach to avoid unwanted accidents," said company owner Seeman.

According to him, a jet ski has a shelf-life of only two to three years and requires monthly maintenance. Although the equipment can be used beyond three years, it will be unsuitable for commercial purposes by then.

Asked about parasailing, Seeman said that his company did not offer the activity because a specialised parasailing boat can cost up to RM280,000 and customers usually opt for cheaper, "illegal parasailing" operators.

"There is no specific licence for parasailing but you can get a licence for a parasailing boat at the Marine Department," he said, explaining that these boats were specially made to enable water take-offs and landing.

They are also made to be used further out in the sea to avoid ropes from tangling and harming beachgoers if conducted too near to the shore.

In respond to queries on whether certified lifeguards were present, Seeman said that he depends on his beach boys who are very familiar with the sea.

"So far, all the rescues I've seen are done by beach boys. They have years of experience and are very good swimmers. In fact, they are better than your usual professional lifeguards," he added.

Attempts to reach representatives from the Port Dickson, Penang and Langkawi municipal councils for comments were unsuccessful.
Water-sport mishaps in recent years:

Langkawi

- In July 2012, a heavy-set Arab tourist died in a freak parasailing accident in Langkawi. The parachute failed to lift him on the final attempt to get airborne and he fell to the beach before having breathing difficulties.

Batu Ferringhi

- On Oct 9, 2013, Saudi Arabian tourist Aldakhilallah Eman Mohamed, 35, died after plunging 10m into the sea while parasailing.

- In February 2013, an American tourist suffered a severe injury to her foot and another fractured her pelvic bone after a parasailing mishap.

- In January 2012, a local college student and his uncle got stuck in a tree after their parachutes got entangled in knots. They sustained minor scratches and bruises after falling on cushions placed by the watersports operators.

- In January 2012, Ehab Abunawas, a tourist from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia claimed that parasailing rope and hooks kept hitting him and his nine-year-old son while they were up in the air and no proper safety briefing was given prior to the ride.

- On Jan 24, 2012, a parasailing Chinese national hit a Singaporean when he landed on the latter.

- In June 2012, seven people in a team-building activity were injured and one hospitalised when a parasailing tourist fell on them while attempting to land.

- In June 2012, a female tourist was snagged on a cheek by a parasail's ropes.

- On Aug 27, 2012, an Arab tourist broke her right leg when she and her husband fell on each other just before taking flight.

- On Dec 24, 2010, seven-year-old Rina Aizawa from Japan was playing on the beach when a parasailing rope hooked her neck, lifted her off the ground and dragged her for a short distance. She sustained lacerations on her neck.

- In May 2010, a Jordanian woman had her parachute entangled in a coconut tree near a hotel.

- In June 2010, a drummer with the British samba band Inner Sense, Richard Sliva, fractured his left leg after plunging about 20m to the ground when his parasail failed to open properly.

- On Aug 31, 2011, a 40-year-old woman from Ipoh suffered lacerations on her neck and arm after she got entangled in the rope of a parasail while her teenage son sustained minor cuts while trying to ward off the rope. Two parasailers had landed near them when they were walking on the beach.

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