Zip Line Shore Excursions

| April 9, 2008

How to get the most out of this action-oriented tour option now available on many cruises.

Of all the things to do in the Caribbean or Mexico, one of the most popular attractions is zip-lining. You've probably seen it in action movies: It involves extending a long steel cable at a slight incline between two points. You then attach a wheel roller with a scoop in its circumference and a clasping clamp (a.k.a. a "pulley") to a halter that's strong enough to support a human body.

All tourist-approved zip-lining operations are also required to install a backup cable, to which another wheel is attached. The cables are strung one above the other about five inches apart. You will also receive a helmet and a pair of thick leather gloves to protect your hands in case you need to grab the cable for any reason while you are rolling.

After both pulleys are attached to the cables, you lift your feet from your lofty platform (generally high up a tree trunk) and let gravity pull you from the cable's high point to the lower platform on the next tree. In most cases, the descent is about 10 to 15 degrees and anywhere from 50 to 200 yards. Your speed varies depending upon the angle of the cable. Today there are many zip-lining opportunities available, especially in the Caribbean islands, but also in Mexico and even Alaska.

Typically, the zip-lining cable runs for tourists in the Caribbean skirt just above the rainforest canopy. There are usually five to eight different point-to-point stretches included in the tour. The maximum speed known for any existing zip-line in the world is an astounding 100 miles per hour (this is in South Africa), but on these shorter Caribbean runs, your maximum speed is probably closer to 30 miles per hour.

The typical Caribbean zip-lining experience involves a drive to a hilly area of the rain forest. You must sign the usual disclaimer forms and then you'll be outfitted with a halters, gloves and a safety helmet. The halters have the rollers permanently attached to redundant leather straps. There is also a safety clasp similar to the one mountain climbers use. These connect you to the platforms between rides on the cables.

How the Zip-line Works You begin by climbing a winding staircase to a platform high up in a tree. There, a guide will take your safety clasp and attach you to the tree as you wait your turn on the first zip-line. When your turn comes up, the guide will take your pulleys and attach them to the primary cable and the backup cable. You turn to face the cable, away from the platform, as the guide releases your safety clip. As soon as you lift your legs, sticking them straight out in front of you, you start to roll to the next landing platform.

A run probably lasts 10 to 30 seconds, but until you get used to the idea, your time sliding along that cable can feel like an eternity. At the receiving platform, someone will be waiting to "catch" you before you hit whatever the cables are attached to. Some operators install thick foam mattresses attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. If you are sliding very fast, you just might slam into these pads the same way a fast ball sinks into a catcher's mitt.

Tensioning the cable is critical. On some runs, the operator intentionally leaves some slack, which makes the cable sag the most towards the end of your run, slowing you down automatically. If you slow down too much, however, you have to travel the last few yards to the platform by pulling yourself hand over hand.

My Two Zip-lining Experiences I first tried zip-lining last year (2007) in Jamaica. While the course has no history of accidents that I am aware of, the operators seemed a little cavalier about safety for my taste. There was a little too much hot-dogging and a lot of joking around. They did things like clasp themselves to the back of the 4x4 jeep we were riding to the zip-lining course, with their feet on the bumpers and not holding on with their hands. That seemed reckless to me, but they thought we found it entertaining.

When I found these same people were responsible for making sure my zip-lining apparatus was safely configured, I insisted on having them double-check their handiwork. My concern became a bit of a joke with the rest of my crowd, but I cared less about being kidded than about my own peace of mind.

On this Jamaica run, the handlers did not teach us any stylistic methods or tricks to stop yourself from spinning around in your halter. On several of my runs, I found myself looking back at where I came from rather than where I was going. Thus I didn't know when the cable was ending, and I ran into quite a few of those catcher's mitt foam cushions at high speed. I admit that during this entire first tour I was a little too nervous to enjoy the experience.

On a zip-lining tour in St. Lucia just last month, the guide showed me how to use my left hand to encircle the cable behind the roller and apply a slight correction when I started to turn in either direction. This invaluable information allowed me to control my body while I was gliding, managing always to face forward, which made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the experience.

Using your hand this way may slow you down a tad, but not much. The St. Lucia run was far more enjoyable for me, and I was even able to get some great video footage of the experience, which you can see here: Royal Clipper Zip-lining: A shore excursion we took in St Lucia; zip-lining atop the rainforest canopy.

A Typical Zip-Line Course In the Caribbean, the zip-line experience typically has five to eight cable runs of varying lengths and degrees of descent. You reach the course by bus, hiking or 4x4 jeep. To get to the first platform, you usually walk up a hillside and then several stairs to get to a platform built like a tree house. The cable typically starts out anywhere from 10 to 50 feet above ground, but the maximum height you experience over the expanse of the cable can get much higher. Many cable runs take you over river gorges, waterfalls or steep canyons.

Between the cable runs you walk down from the tree platform via staircase to the jungle floor, then hike up and down pathways, stairs and ladders to more platforms built into the tall, strong trees. In St. Lucia we crossed several bridges built between the tall trees that were little more than 2x12 boards suspended from webbing. The web nets would keep you from falling off the bridge, but these suspended board bridges were very unstable. This is a not an experience for people with extreme fear of heights.

You should wear long pants, closed-toe shoes, and a t-shirt or work shirt that can protect your body from the rubbing of the harness. You should always wear heavy gloves to protect your hands, which the operator will provide to you. Some zip-line tour operators will not let you ride unless you are wearing closed toe shoes.

Just last month, a cruise passenger died on a zip-lining shore excursion in Roatan -- the sport's first documented fatality. Details are sketchy, but apparently Barbara Sue Fojtasek, 44, of Texas, was riding in tandem with a guide who may have forgotten to attach the backup roller to the safety cable. The primary line snapped and both fell 35 feet to the jungle floor. She died while the guide went to the hospital and survived.

Zip-lining Tours Available on Cruises These action-packed tours have become very popular in recent years, though they have been around for a long time. One of the best is said to be Royal Caribbean's record-breaking zip line at Labadee, its private beach getaway in Haiti. Dubbed Dragon's Breath, it stretches 4,000 feet and is billed as the "longest zip-line over water." Riders reach speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. The cost is $65.

There are zip-line excursions in most Caribbean Islands and ports of call. The most well-known are in Costa Rica and Roatan, Honduras. Tours are also available in St. Martin, Antigua, St. Lucia, Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, Panama and Calica, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

Here is a link to a video of the world's longest and fastest zip-line in Sun City, South Africa. Top speed equals 100 mph. Height: 918 ft / 280 meters; length: 1.2 miles / 2 km. Just click here to view it:

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