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Want a short introduction on what it feels like to be a bird? Try parasailing. It's an experience that lifts you to new heights.

Parasailing, brought to the U.S. in 1971 and later to the rest of the world, uses a parachute, speedboat, winch systems and harnesses to lift willing parties about 350 feet in the air. The view will take your breath away. Parasailors take in the scenery while being slowly and safely towed, at about 20 knots, by the speedboat way below.

Jay Dalton owns a parasailing company in North Carolina. He does not consider parasailing a sport, but an experience. It doesn't require any physical effort, he says. The only requirement is that you must weigh more than 40 pounds and less than 300. He has taken an 82 -year-old parasailing, as well as a four-year-old. The physically challenged can also fly.

Do not confuse paragliding with parasailing. There is a big difference, says Dalton. When you parasail, you are the passenger -- the driver of the boat determines where you go and where you land. When you paraglide, you are the pilot. Paragliding, along with hang-gliding, is a sport that requires skill and stamina. Paragliding can also be dangerous. The heights from which you glide are dizzying.

Natalie Bourdos works for a parasailing company. She enjoys the views from 350 feet in the air when she parasails. The really unbelievable part, however, is how quiet it is. Bourdos says you can only hear the whoosh of the chute. She likes looking at the people below, who are all very small.

There is nothing to learn for new parasailors, says Dalton. But you do need to make sure the parasailing operator has a trained captain, a first mate and a sturdy winch system to reel you in from the air.

Alex Santoriello takes up to six customers at once out on the Hudson River in New York. There is a short briefing, but nothing to learn, he says. "When it is your turn to go, the mate secures you to a very sturdy parachute-type harness. The captain turns the boat into the wind and the mate inflates the parasail behind the boat," explains Santoriello.

"The first flyers step up to the flight deck and are secured to the parasail. A moment later, they're up and away." Flyers are returned to the boat without getting wet. You can fly solo or dual, says Santoriello.

The only thing that can throw a wrench in your plans, says Santoriello, is the weather. If the day is rainy or if there are strong winds, safe operators cancel flights. Dalton says he cancels about 40 percent of his flights due to winds or bad weather.

He doesn't want to compromise the safety of the parasailors. He explains that boat rides are the biggest danger in parasailing. "We don't go if the wind is above 20 mph, or the waves are above four feet," says Dalton.

Mark McCulloh pioneered the commercial aspect of parasailing by developing safe equipment. He runs the Parasail Safety Council, which collects data on the industry. According to the council, there are approximately 350 parasailing operations in the U.S. and thousands worldwide.

McCulloh believes the number of parasailing operations might be decreasing in the U.S., while increasing in other countries. "The future growth of parasailing in the U.S. is looking pretty bleak when you consider the glut of parasail boats on the market, price wars, diminished returns on investment, equipment limitations, market saturation and repeat customer slump," he says.

Getting Started

A parasailing shop, usually located along a water resort area, provides the equipment. "We have a custom-built boat, with a deck on the back, and a winch system to reel you out and reel you back in," says Dalton.

The price tag for the boat and equipment: $75,000. "You also need about a month of training, a boat captain and one mate in order to parasail," says Dalton.

Luckily, those of us who want to give it a whirl need only pay about $50 to go up in the sky for about 20 minutes. Santoriello sometimes treats locals on their lunch breaks to a different view of the city. He lets them look at one of the most famous skylines in the world from 350 to 450 feet above the Hudson River.

For those who decide to give it a try, Bourdos recommends that you find out as much as you can about the parasailing operation you hire. Ask them how many people they have flown, how old their equipment is and how much experience the company has.

"You want to make sure you're getting nothing but the best. The owner here has flown 25,000 people, and knock on wood, he has had no injuries," says Bourdos.

And who knows? One day, you too could own an operation. Or maybe you'll enjoy it so much, you'll split between being a commercial pilot and an owner of a parasailing operation. Perhaps you will be so entranced that you will invent new parachutes and winch systems that make parasailing even safer.


Parasail Safety Council
A complete information guide

Skydiving and Parasailing
Check out these links for adventure in the United States

Parasailing Tips
Learn how to stay safe parasailing

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