In Ocean City, a resort town almost completely surrounded by water, you can find water sports anywhere -- even on Coastal Highway, where rainy day drivers will attest that just traveling the puddle-scarred road is one kind of water sport.
Vacationers with more traditional recreational aims will find Ocean City full of people who want to get them in, on or over the ocean or bays, usually in the form of parasailing, jet skiing or windsurfing.
Joe and Tracey Emm operate Island Watersports (289-2896) out of a small white gazebo next to BJ's South at First Street and the bay.
For the past three summers, the company was known as Island Parasail, but it broadened its name this year when it added jet skis. In both sports, Island's south Ocean City location means beautiful views that make this friendly little company a good choice for water sports lovers.
Chris Meadows, 19, who apparently didn't get enough excitement during his recent six-month Army tour of duty in Saudi Arabia, came to Island Watersports recently. He and his father, David Meadows of Warrenton, Va., asked for what Joe Emm calls "the real thrill ride" -- a 500-foot parasail over the Atlantic.
It was Chris' first parasail flight. As instructor Shawn Peters strapped him into a harness and reminded him to keep his feet crossed in the air, Chris handed his camera to a fellow passenger.
"If I get sick, don't take a picture," he joked nervously.
Parasailing takes a little guts but almost no skill. You're harnessed to a parachute that pulls you into the air as a speedboat tows the chute. Doing nothing more strenuous than keeping your ankles crossed and holding onto the harness straps, you sail through the air at an altitude of 500 or 300 feet -- your choice.
Anybody of any age who weighs between 70 and 250 pounds can do it. The ride lasts about 10 minutes.
At Island Watersports, parasailing costs $35 for the 300-foot towline and $45 for the 500-foot. Those who aren't sure whether they have the courage to try it can ride along in the boat as a spectator for $10, which will be applied to the parasailing fee if they decide to fly.
Parasailing first gained recreational attention in the Caribbean during the early 1970s. In the 12 years since its introduction here, it has become a boom sport in Ocean City.
Mr. Emm says he takes out 100 boatloads of parasailors a day during July and August.
Island is the only Ocean City operation that flies its parasailors over the ocean. David Meadows, who had parasailed over the bay on a previous trip to Ocean City, preferred the view of the Atlantic.
"This is a lot better ride," he said afterward. "The bay is interesting, but being over the ocean is a lot more fun. What I liked best was the free fall. That felt great."
Those who aren't quite up to having their toes tickled by the Atlantic can contact O.C. Parasail (723-1464), at the 54th Street Marina. O.C. parasailors take off and land from a platform instead of the deck of a moving boat, and fly over the bay instead of the ocean. O.C. Parasail charges $35 for 10-minute ride, and guarantees a dry landing. Both Island and O.C. Parasail boast experienced crews and perfect safety records.
If you're more interested in skimming through the water than flying over it, try a jet ski.
Depending on where and how you try this easy, fast-paced sport, you may find yourself caught in the controversy brewing among several local dealers who disagree about the safest way to enjoy it.
Some purveyors say that jet skiers should stay within marked courses on the shallow Isle of Wight Bay; others say they should follow a tour guide and get out of the boat-crowded bay into the more scenic -- and deeper -- Sinepuxent Bay. Still others say anything goes.
Chris Casper of Baltimore, who has tried it each way, knows which he prefers.
"This was the best jet skiing I've done," said Mr. Casper, 22, of Baltimore, after he and two friends rented jet skis at Island pTC Watersports. Island sends a group leader out with each jet ski party. The leader guides the group through the 6 mph harbor and inlet area to the Sinepuxent Bay behind Assateague. There, skiers have 45 minutes to cruise free form at speeds of up to 35 mph.
"Other places, you just ski around in circles on the bay in an area marked by buoys," says Mr. Casper. "But [Island] took us behind Assateague, and it's beautiful. We saw the ponies and everything."
Jack O'Connor, manager of two Water Ways locations that rent, sell and service jet skis, worries that such freedom can come at the price of safety. Water Ways sets up triangular courses on the bay behind their 51st and 54th street shops, and sends a "chase man" with each group of riders to monitor their safety.
"We manage people from the time they sign up until they depart," says Mr. O'Connor. "We just don't believe it's safe for jet skiers to go free riding on the bay or on the ocean."