Parasailing can be both exhilarating and terrifying all at the same moment.
But for Matt Thomas his 13-year-old daughter Lucy and her best friend Gabi Hahn…
“It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I mean trying to protect my daughter, my daughter’s friend,” said Thomas.
On June 8, Thomas treated the girls to some fun at Gators Parasailing in John’s Pass.
After they were out awhile, he noticed a storm coming their way. But the fun aboard the boat Get-N-High continued.
Then the storm was on them.
Gusting winds blew open the massive parachute.
“The parasail was holding the boat, the back end of the boat stationary and the waves are getting 4 to 5 feet,” recalled Matt.
Water flooded over the stern. Waves washed the first mate overboard.
The parachute whipped the boat in whatever direction the wind blew. It tilted on its side.
“People were climbing up on the side, screaming, yelling,” he said.
The waves got bigger.
He urged the captain to cut loose the chute.
“I said, ‘do you have a knife?’ He goes ‘no, there’s nothing sharp on the boat.’ I think he said find some keys in somebody’s purse, so we were dumping out purses,” explained Thomas.
The boat twisting on its side and went down. Nine passengers jumped into the rolling gulf.
“Everybody’s crying, frantic,” said Thomas.
8 On Your Side has been looking into how well crews are trained following the deaths of a passenger and a crew member aboard the yacht the Jaguar in 2016 off of Pass-a-Grille.
Attorney John McLaughlin of Tampa is a critic of the parasailing industry.
“A problem developed and they didn’t know how to handle it,” said McLaughlin.
McLaughlin read over Thomas’ narrative to the Coast Guard.
“They were sending people up even when the weather was questionable,” he stated. “The guy is looking for keys to cut the line, I mean, come on.”
McLaughlin says the parasailing industry needs more regulation.
He does point out regulations prohibit sailing and flying in 20 mph winds.
“The winds were really gusting, well over 20 mph, maybe 30, even 40 mph,” Thomas recalled.
In the water, Thomas thought about survival and sharks.
The group stayed close together hoping to be spotted.
The waves he claims were 4 to 5 feet.
“As we come to the top of the waves, we’re looking for boats,” said Thomas.
After several minutes, they spotted a boat.
“The wind was going with our voices toward the boat so when we got to the top of the wave we all screamed together and when you’re in that kind of situation, there was some loud screams,” he explained.
The boat rescued Thomas’ daughter and her friend as well as another woman from Tennessee. Then it took off to search for the first mate, who was found clinging to debris.
According to Thomas, when the first mate went overboard, the propellor slashed his leg.
The boat returned to help rescue the remaining people in the water.
Thomas thinks the crew did all it could under the circumstances, but he has questions.
“Maybe the company should have radioed in and said, ‘there’s some storms in the area, you shouldn’t be out there,’ or, ‘hey maybe we’re going to put an emergency kit up on the parasail with some tools so if it breaks, you can take off,’ or give the captain some tools, where if it breaks, cut the line,” he said.
Gators Parasailing has not responded to our requests for an interview.
If you have something that needs to be investigated, call our 8 On Your Side Helpline at 1-800 338-0808.
Contact Steve Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org.