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Parasailing on Elephant Butte Lake

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Out and About

With the Wind

Parasailing doesn't require an ocean — just a big lake like Elephant Butte.

by Mary Syrett



It usually begins in my dreams. I race along the beach, flap my arms furiously, and before I know it, I'm aloft, high over water, feeling weightless and euphoric. Then I wake up.

Parasailing on Elephant Butte Lake. (Photos by Mary Syrett)

Only now, I'm closer to making my dream become a reality — because I've taken up parasailing, which is one of the fastest-growing sports around. It's certainly big at Elephant Butte Lake reservoir, north of Truth or Consequences.

Although parasails launched from land have been around for 30-plus years, with the swing in the boat market toward multiple sporting activities, increasing numbers of people are out to have fun high over water. If you've ever been to a beach resort, you probably have seen parasails lifting riders skyward. All around the Caribbean, as well as off the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, more and more brightly colored chutes can be seen high over water. If you've never parasailed, the freedom of flight awaits you. And now you don't have to trek to the ocean to try it.


In 1961, Frenchman Pierre Lemoigne modified a round parachute to allow it to ascend when pulled behind a car. This activity was called "parascending"; it was developed to train novice parachutists by towing a modified parachute to a suitable height and then releasing it. Shortly thereafter, the Pioneer Parachute Company of Manchester, Conn., began manufacturing this modified parachute design and marketing it under the tradename "Parasail."

In 1962, parascending took another turn when an individual wearing a modified parachute was towed behind a boat and then soared off into the wild blue yonder. The participant was strapped into a body harness and given instructions to run along the beach while a towboat lifted him aloft. This activity was called "parasailing." Before descending, the parasailor was signaled to maneuver the parasail over the beach to prepare for a landing.

In 1971, Mark McCulloh, an inventor, took the lead in setting parasail industry standards. His most well-received invention, the "self-contained winchboat," using a body harness, helped expand the commercial parasailing industry by offering increased safety and efficiency.

McCulloh was approached in 1992 by Orlando's Walt Disney World to consider operating a parasailing concession on EPCOT Center's Bay Lake. In 1994, he signed a contract with Walt Disney to do precisely that. With millions of tourists seeing the colorful activity every year, parasailing, well, took off.


Almost any boat capable of pulling multiple water-skiers at 30-plus miles per hour can be used to pull a parasailor. Some enthusiasts have reported success using 60- to 75-horsepower engines; however, to fully enjoy the experience, it is recommended that a boat be equipped with an engine of at least 100 horsepower. The take-off and flight areas should be clear of obstructions, including trees and power lines. Also needed are a skilled driver and observer.

A preflight inspection of all the necessary gear insures flight readiness. Take-off should be into the wind. When all is ready, the flyer steps into the harness and hooks into the parasail. With the help of a launch crew, the boat idles out until the towline is completely extended.

parasailing two
Once aloft, flyers get comfortable in the harness by sitting down in it. Altitude is controlled by boat speed.

The flight crew holds up the canopy of the chute on both sides; the signal is then given to "hit it!" (the accelerator). The parasailor does not run towards the boat but instead resists the forward aerodynamic pull in a tug-of-war to keep the line taut and maintain balance. After a few steps, lift-off occurs.

Parasailors ascend and descend from a small platform located at the stern of the boat. Once aloft, flyers get comfortable in the harness by sitting down in it. Altitude is controlled by boat speed. The length of the towrope varies and is based on individual preference. A common length is 300 feet, which gives a maximum altitude of about 225 feet.

With care, the boat can turn and travel with the wind; however, boat speed must be increased to maintain the relative wind speed of the parasailor. Whatever the speed, the parasailor gets a magnificent view of the New Mexico countryside. The beautiful multi-colored silk parasail always attracts attention from people on the ground.

For the wary, there are harnesses that allow people to parasail in pairs or a threesome, either side by side or one in front of the other. Children enjoy parasailing in tandem.


On a warm July day, I found myself airborne by design, having been launched into the void over Elephant Butte Lake behind an outboard with a 200-horsepower engine in the name of fun and an adrenaline rush. I had a swatch of silk flying over my head, connected to me by a tangle of paper-thin lines, while unruly breezes buffeted my body.

Home to the largest and most popular lake in New Mexico, Elephant Butte Lake State Park provides a beautiful setting for every imaginable water sport, including parasailing. The name "Elephant Butte" was derived from the eroded cone of an ancient volcano, now an island, in the fanciful shape of an elephant.

At Sports Adventure on Long Point (tel. 575-744-5557) visitors can arrange a parasailing trip, Memorial Day through October. At Rock Canyon Marina in Rock Canyon, visitors can also arrange parasailing (575-744-5462). Elephant Butte Lake State Park is located five miles north of Truth and Consequences via I-25, exit 83; see Elephant Butte Lake State Park's website for more information.

My first flight over Elephant Butte Lake was alternately horrifying and inspiring. I hadn't been in charge, my boat driver told me afterwards; the winds had been in charge of me. No kidding. I could have told him that when the first unrequested thermal flung me skyward, and I realized then and there I was where humans, anatomically speaking, shouldn't be. In a short 60 seconds, I learned that parasailing, just like downhill ski racing, demands full concentration and total commitment. Also like downhill skiing, the ride seems too short only after it's over; by then, the fear has faded enough that you're eager to go back up.

One concept crucial to parasailing is to keep in mind that speed is safety. Parasails are meant to fly, not float. Stalling destroys the delicate relationship between the air and the shape of the wing that allows flight. In trying to stay airborne, one must dance on the winds and chase the currents. Parasailing is not parachuting.

But on that July day, being at the mercy of the winds was something new to me, so unnerving that at first I fought their bullying influence tooth and nail. But that was missing the point. A great parasailing flight means achieving a state of grace, not by fighting wind conditions, but by working with them. When I finally stopped resisting, I learned that the winds were not such bullies after all, and that the air was actually calmer than I had originally thought.


The sport of parasailing, I soon learned, is status blind. Devotees include bankers, grocers, house painters, architects, dentists, trash collectors, jewelers and lawyers. For all parasailing enthusiasts, the pleasing thought of soaring gracefully over water takes one's mind off such unpleasant matters as a tax audit, a root canal, unpaid bills and never-ending political campaigning.

In the beginning, mankind could fly no better than rocks. People endured this seemingly unalterable characteristic for eons, even as they dreamed of sprouting wings and taking off. But along came the 20th century and a relatively simple arrangement of cloth and cable — plus a dash of daring — that allows most anyone to soar high over water like a bird, like a plane. Those who have tried parasailing unanimously endorse the activity as a great high. I certainly do.



A freelance writer and photographer, Mary Syrett has published articles about many sporting activities.


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