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Life, business can be forever changed from one bad call

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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 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. That sounds like the business for me.

So I pursued my captain’s 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 with 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 seven parasail boats.

We became the only parasail operation in St. Thomas and our customers consisted of large companies such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines, Marriott, Ritz Carlton, and Starwood hotels, and many other small properties. It was not unusual for us to provide 200 to 300 parasail rides in a day.

Over 20-plus years in St. Thomas, I had many captains work for the company. Some came to us with parasail experience but many started as 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. And it is, until it is not.

On Nov. 15, 2011, I was in Florida with my kids when the phone rang. It was the most experienced captain we had 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, and her daughter had been critically injured. My heart sank and time stopped. 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 or safety protocols than us.

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.

It can. Many people’s lives were changed that day, and there was little I could do about it.

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 days dealing with U.S. Coast Guard investigators, local investigators, insurance investigators and cruise lines investigators. USCG came to our office and seized records, took pictures and looked over equipment. Staff members as well as myself were interrogated and asked to complete reports for hours at a time. It was a 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 every day.

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 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 with the mother.

You think his life was changed forever? Of course it was, as was mine.

Then, if this was not enough, a year after the accident and after the lawsuit was settled, the USCG pushed forward an indictment 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 “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 statue 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 industry’s attention.

I think it worked.

The captain faced 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine. The corporation also faced a $250,000 fine. A captain of parasail boats can make pretty good money, but the cost to defend yourself against these charges is huge. Not many captains have the budget to defend themselves against the U.S. 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, the burden of proof for this statue is simple negligence. Typically, to face 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 my corporation. It was a no-win situation.

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. Your decisions affect many people’s lives and making a bad judgment call is no excuse. A parasail guest does nothing wrong when an accident like this happens; they just go 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 as if they are your mother, sister, son or daughter. Would you take them for a parasail ride with that boat and that weather? Would you make sure that everything is right before proving them a ride?
  • Don’t be complacent. When you give 50-100 parasail rides every day, 6-7 days a week, complacency can be a problem. The more experience you have, the more complacent you can become.
  • Be sure you have a good checklist program for equipment and boat. If, God forbid, you do have an incident, the first thing the Coast Guard will do is collect 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, including the 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, including visual as well as technical tools. This is huge.
  • Know your equipment. Understand the vessel’s certificate of inspection. Is the boat’s registration in order?
  • Use good judgment. If you are flying someone and you are uncomfortable with the conditions, stop operations. It is not worth it.
  • Constantly ask yourself, what would happen if the boat stalled or the tow line broke right now? I am 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 in 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 for accountants and lawyers. We are watersports guys. Well, if you want to last in this industry, either do it or hire someone to do it.
  • 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.
  • And above all, if you are struggling to make your parasail business survive and if you can’t sustain a financial hit like the need for a new engine or two weeks of bad weather, then get out of the business. It is not an easy decision, but 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, because of the complacency and financial challenges that many operators face, 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. 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. Good-bye parasail industry. It was a memorable 24 years.

Joe Campana was the owner of the parasail company Caribbean Watersports & Tours in St. Thomas. He has relocated to St. Augustine where he is opening a company to offer zipline tours. Comments on this essay are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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