Skipper Guy Ciletti touched a lever on his powerboat and a yellow and blue parachute billowed into the air behind him.
Harnessed to the chute, passenger Jody Takeshita rose steadily above the ocean at Dana Point, climbing 25 feet, then 50 feet, then higher still until she was a small figure framed by cumulus clouds--a human kite launched 250 feet into the sky and towed at 25 m.p.h. behind Ciletti's boat.
What Takeshita was doing is called parasailing.
Common for years at Mexican resorts such as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, it came to Dana Point for the first time in May, when the 34-year-old Ciletti, a tanned outdoorsman and entrepreneur, convinced skeptical Orange County officials that his parasailing craft was safe.
County officials had long considered Mexican-style parasail operations too dangerous to permit because passengers were launched from a beach or an offshore platform and risked being dragged along the sand or slammed into the platform as they landed.
But Ciletti and co-owner Glenn Norwood, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, got county approval for "Dana Point Parasailing" because their 28-foot boat carries an innovative hydraulic winch which slowly hoists passengers into the air for a thrilling 10-minute, $38 ride, then carefully lowers them into the boat--often without getting their feet wet.
Passengers such as Takeshita say they feel completely safe and at peace with the world as they fly far above the ocean--too far up to hear conversation from the boat or even the noise of its engine.
"I felt like I was floating up there," said a beaming Takeshita moments after Ciletti reeled her in and she unstrapped herself from the harness. "It was so serene."
Parasailing began in the 1940s when the Britain's Royal Air Force, needing to train paratroopers but unable to send all of them up in planes, began "towing people behind cars," said Ted Beck, a Honolulu insurance underwriter who is also president of the 3-year-old, 26-member trade group, the American Parasail Assn. During World War II, PT boats sometimes towed a paratrooper and chute in their wake in an effort to spot German submarines. In the late 1960s and '70s, a commercial variation of parasailing came to beach resorts in Mexico. A motorboat operator would attach a line to a parachute, strap a passenger to the chute and pull the chute aloft by speeding away from the shore. The passenger would have to "run like mad" across the sand until he too was airborne, Beck said.
Intrigued by what they saw in Acapulco, Americans brought the sport to Florida and Hawaii in the late 1970s and early '80s.
But the Mexican experience gave parasailing a bad name, Beck said. "You had problems where all of a sudden a person who's coming in for a landing on the beach is slammed into a palm tree--and in a couple of instances into the side of a hotel," he said. There were broken bones and even some fatalities, he said.
In 1980, Ciletti, who was running a scuba-diving business at the time, started one of Hawaii's first parasailing businesses off a platform he anchored half a mile from Maui's Lahaina harbor.
It was an overnight success. "I put up a parasail with no advertising, no brochures and the next day, there was a line . . . of people who wanted to try it," he recalled.
Ciletti ran Lahaina Parasail Inc. for five years, but after copycat businesses moved in and the ocean became crowded with chutes, Ciletti said he sold out and began a new parasail business, Island Cruzers, on Santa Catalina Island.
"It was a war," Ciletti's girlfriend and marketing director Carole Anderson said of their experience in Lahaina. "You would look across the water and see 12 chutes in the air."
There are now five parasailing firms on Maui, some operating several boats at a time, as well as three on Oahu and one in Kona, said Dave Parsons, boating manager for the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
The result is congestion on the seas, Parsons said, noting, "The visual aspect of people hanging on parachutes zipping up and down the coast in front of hotels gives the area a sort of Coney Island atmosphere."
Because of the crowding as well as complaints that parasail boats may be interfering with the migratory pattern of humpback whales, Parsons this October will be implementing regulations that for the first time will limit where parasailing boats may operate.
On Catalina, where Ciletti is starting his second season, he and Anderson operate the island's first--and only--parasailing business.
Island officials say they like the new venture.
Parasailing has been a boon to the island's tourist economy, said Wayne Griffin, executive director of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce. "Nobody comes to Catalina specifically to go parasailing . . . but it's one more thing people can do when they're here beside horseback riding, golf and tennis," he said.