Chuting the Breeze

My main fear, other than those two hillbillies from “Deliverance,” has always been heights– otherwise known as splattaphobia. Somehow, though, on a recent vacation to Orange Beach, Alabama, my middle daughter, Anna, was able to convince me to take her parasailing, which involves paying actual money to be strapped to a parachute and then pulled behind a boat until the chute does the opposite of its intended purpose. Instead of gently descending to the safety of solid ground, the parachute transforms into a giant kite that carries its occupants to an altitude sufficient for sharks and other marine predators featured in horror movies to examine you carefully and decide which of your appendages to devour first.

The parasail company we chose allows three victims to parasail together, so my father-in-law volunteered to join us in order to provide adult supervision. Our ordeal began by signing a release form that absolved the company of all responsibility in case the tow rope broke and we wound up in Narnia or embedded in the spark logo on a Walmart sign. We were then led by an elderly lady (who appeared to be in charge of the whole operation) to a rack of faded Civil War-era lifejackets, from which she selected according to our body sizes. She seemed to have trouble deciding on a jacket for me and eventually settled on one from the maternity collection.

Once we were outfitted like evacuees from the Titanic, we were invited onto the vessel by the captain and his first mate, both of whom appeared to have reached puberty earlier that day. Despite their youth, they did seem knowledgeable as they went over the safety rules, which, among others, included reminding us to refrain from using another passenger’s swimsuit as a seasickness receptacle. As the boat pulled away from the dock, the captain also offered instructions for what to do in case he and the first mate became incapacitated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the roar of the motor, so I naturally assumed that we would just languish in the open ocean until we resorted to cannibalism.

When we reached the lift-off point, the first mate equipped each of us with a harness that resembled an enormous jock strap and warned us that if we allowed the belt behind our thighs to slip upward, we would be hauled behind the boat by the crotch. (At that point, I knew why my wife had encouraged me to do this.) One at a time, we waddled in our harnesses to the rear of the boat and sat together gripping a padded bar while the first mate secured us and my father-in-law reminded me that crying would only upset the other passengers.

After a thumbs-up from the captain, the boat accelerated, and we gently made our ascent into the cool ocean air. When I regained consciousness, I soon discovered that all of my fears were unfounded as we peacefully sailed a few hundred feet into the sky, accompanied only by the wind in our ears and graceful seabirds that had been bombarding us on the beach all week with their droppings.

Suddenly the serenity of the experience was shattered by Anna’s excited exclamation, “Look, Dad, a shark–and some rays!”

Focused on the area where she was pointing, I could clearly see the ominous shapes cruising just below the surface. From our height, it was hard to tell whether these were a great white and a couple of his homies, or some of my missing bathtub toys. Regardless of their size, I did my best to appreciate the majestic wildlife we were witnessing and remind myself that I look nothing like Robert Shaw. Once we were well beyond the view of the local sea monsters, I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself for avoiding both the dreaded slipping-harness crotch drag and becoming the mystery ingredient on the aquatic carnivore version of “Chopped.”

The conclusion of the ride involved a slow descent that included a couple of “dips” into the water before finally landing feet-first back onto the boat platform where we started. Due to the speed of the boat, these playful splashdowns turned out to be supersonic salt-water enemas. When we landed and I asked the first mate if there was an extra charge for the cleansing treatment, he responded that my mistake was raising my feet before I hit the water. (Fine time to tell me now that half of the Gulf of Mexico was lodged in my colon.)

On our drive home from vacation, we all took turns sharing our favorite parts of the trip, and Anna and I agreed that ours was parasailing. In fact, our enthusiasm has convinced my wife to give it a try at her next opportunity. I’ve even written a little rhyme to help her prepare:

When you sail into the sky,
It’s ok to scream and cry.
When you come down, it’s really neat!
Before you splash, just lift your feet!
Take that, Wordsworth!

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