There’s a new sport on the water that’s got the look and thrill of parasailing but without the benefits of a parachute when the rider falls.
Thrill-seeking boaters have been introduced to at least two products in the last year that lift off the water when towed fast enough. But as their popularity has grown, so has their notoriety. Serious accidents and three deaths in the U.S. and Canada have prompted officials to recall one product and ban others on U.S. waterways.
“Your first clue is when you look (at the instructional video) and the guys are all wearing helmets,” said Alan Hendrickson.
Hendrickson bought a Sevylor Manta Ray about a month ago. Flying around Newman Lake at speeds up to 35 mph and heights up to 15 feet has been great, he said, but it also calls for a lot of caution.
“It’s fun, but you’ve got to be safe,” he said.
The Manta Ray looks like a giant imitation of its namesake and goes airborne when the rider pulls up on the front of it. When air catches the large surface underneath a so-called “tube kite,” it creates enough lift for a rider to hover over the water.
It’s sold at marine stores, online and in the Skymall in-flight catalog for $400 to $600, and news reports indicate they’ve been popular across the country.
“A lot of people liked them,” said John O’Reilly at the Valley White Elephant, which sells the Manta Ray.
“We could have sold a lot more,” he said, but they had to send several Wego Kite Tubes back to the company after a recall last month.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Wego manufacturer Sportstuff Inc. of Omaha, Neb., are asking people to return about 19,000 of the round, ten-foot-wide towables.
The product that had won the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association “Sports Product of the Year” award a few months earlier has been connected to 84 serious injuries as of July 27, said Julie Vallese of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The accident reports included broken vertebrae, ruptured eardrums, punctured lungs and people winding up unconscious in the water, among other injuries associated with falling at high speeds.
In April, a 33-year-old man died while tube kiting in Texas. In June, a 42-year-old man died in Wisconsin. In July, a 38-year-old man in Ontario, Canada, died.
In a news release, the company maintains that the Kite Tube is reasonably safe if used properly, and that many of the injuries happened on tubes attached to boats going faster than the 20 mph maximum speed printed on warning labels.
Just before the July Fourth holiday, though, the government announced that it was investigating the new sport because of safety concerns. A Consumer Product Safety Commission report indicated riders have limited control while the devices are in the air, and factors like boat speed and wind can send them nose-diving into the water or spinning out of control.
By that time, they were already banned in Glen Canyon National Park in Arizona and Utah, followed shortly by several bodies of water in the Midwest. Kite Tubes were banned on some reservoirs on the lower Columbia River. The Corps’ Walla Walla District has not banned them, but is warning users to be careful on the Snake and Columbia river reservoirs it controls in Washington.
On Lake Coeur d’Alene, Sgt. Matt Street of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s marine patrol said he’s seen a few people flying behind boats and hasn”t heard of any accidents.
He’s wary of the physics behind an airborne crash, though, because riders can get 30 feet into the air while being towed at high speed.
The toys themselves are legal on the lake, but Street said boaters still are subject to laws holding them responsible for the safety of water skiers and others being towed.
Hendrickson, the owner of a Manta Ray, said he crashed pretty hard his first time out, but once he got the hang of it, the ride has been a lot more controlled.
“It just all depends on the conditions,” he said.
The right weather, an attentive spotter and a driver who knows what he’s doing are also crucial to keeping the tube and rider soaring without incident.
“It’s OK, but you’ve got to be careful,” Hendrickson said.