(Para) Sail Away Over the Gulf

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ORANGE BEACH, ALABAMA — I’m being hauled out to sea on a fast boat called High Maintenance along with a dozen or so folks, our bottoms bouncing as we break through the waves once we past the bridge that separates the bay from the Gulf of Mexico. All of us hold on to the handrails or the cargo holds below, both to keep from being flung overboard and to avoid future chiropractic appointments. At least that’s my plan. I’m at least a generation older than just about everybody else on this vessel. There are a half-dozen teens, a couple ten-year-olds, a few young adults in their 20s, a couple of moms in their 30s, and me. The two crew members are lean, fit and annoyingly young.

I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.

I cannot believe that song keeps going through my head. It is like an annoying television commercial that keeps popping up in the screen that passes before my eyes. I don’t even like that song. It’s insipid, but while I’m headed out to sea I cannot erase it from the iPod in my brain.

On the cusp of turning 58, I am about to go parasailing for the first time in my life. For 10 glorious minutes I will dangle beneath a parachute 800 feet in the air while being towed by High Maintenance over the Gulf of Mexico. Scratch one from the bucket list. Admittedly it was pretty far down the list, just above riding in a hot-air balloon. I plan on doing that soon as well. My last attempt came 30 years ago when I was going to do a feature story for a newspaper, but the flight got scrubbed because of high winds.

I pondered parasailing for the first few days of vacation, watching the boats pulling folks across the horizon while sitting on the beach. “Reckon what could go wrong?” I asked my Beautiful Mystery Companion. “If the rope breaks, seems like you would just float gently down into the ocean, and you’re wearing a life jacket.”  She said she had no idea, but told me to go for it. Finally I called to make a reservation.

When I told the fellow I was sailing solo, he asked how much I weighed. About 145 pounds, I said. You need to weigh at least 160 pounds, he said. Otherwise a wind gust can send you plunging 800 feet into the ocean at breakneck speed and kill you. And we wouldn’t want that. No, we would not want that, I allowed. Still, he told me to show up first thing in the morning, when the winds were calmer, and he would see what we could work out. Besides, I was fudging about five pounds light on the weight. And, I must say, this is the first occasion in many years where I have been told that I did not weigh enough.

Everyone on the boat had a partner except for a young woman probably in her late 20s, and me. She was a few inches taller than me and probably weighed about the same, though I wasn’t about to ask. We were going to be the last to sail away into the sky, first me solo and then her. She had already gone up the day before, and planned to do it again later that day. Clearly, she was hooked. By then, having watched a pair of 10-year-olds lift off from the stern, what few butterflies fluttering in my stomach had vanished. I was raring to launch myself up into the sky.

The deckhand turned to us. “It’s too windy up there. Y’all really need to go together,” he said. “If you go up alone, that rope is liable to break.” Then what happens, I asked. Well, you’ll probably die, he said, because the parachute will start twisting around like a kite whose string has been cut.

Ok, that’s all I needed to know. I introduced myself to the young woman, and we were strapped in side-by-side. Up we went, that blasted song still circling inside my skull.

The flight was all too brief but just lovely. It was so quiet. Neither of us said much. I admired the sky, looked down at the ocean from above, hoping to see dolphins without luck. The wind rocked us as if we were swinging in a park. Too soon we were being reeled in, landing on our feet back on the boat’s deck. That could be the best $48 I ever spent.

I don’t know if I’ll parasail again, unless the ride is longer and a bit less touristy. But I must say I believe I did fly for a few minutes, and I wouldn’t trade having done it for anything.

I’m just glad that song has quit playing in my head.

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