Bradenton native Jeff Reno returns for regatta as one of APBA’s top pilots

The story of how Jeff Reno became one of the top F-2 pilots in the American Powerboat Association starts with an absurd premise.

“One day,” he says, “I accidentally went to a boat race.”

It was about 30 years ago and Reno, a lifelong Floridian, had never even heard of competitive boat racing. He and some friends took a fishing trip off Jensen Beach and the water was a bit too rough. A weekend of fishing wouldn’t happen.

They retreated back to shore and found a mess of boats — about 150, Reno estimates — and they couldn’t even get back to their trailer. So they anchored down, hopped off the boat and swam to shore. Instead of a fishing trip, the weekend became a visit to the world of boat racing.

Three months later, Reno bought a boat.

“I was born and raised in Florida,” he said Saturday in Palmetto, “and I had never seen a boat race until that day.”

Now, the Okeechobee resident is one of the best boat racers in the world. He finished 2016 in a tie atop the Powerboat Superleague’s F-2 standings, settling for second only because of Ashton Rinker’s two podium finishes during final events. It was the first time in 30 years there was a tie atop the Superleague standings.

And although his racing career started long after he left his hometown of Bradenton, Manatee County still built the boating foundation which led him to the sport.

Reno was born in Manatee Memorial Hospital and attended Manatee Elementary School. He lived in Samoset and grew up fishing and swimming in creeks around the county, and in the Gulf of Mexico until he moved to Cocoa Beach at 13.

He’s bounced around the state, but never left Florida. In addition to Bradenton and Cocoa Beach, he lived in Miami before ultimately settling down in Okeechobee, where his house sits on one of the canals feeding into Lake Okeechobee. If he had known about boat racing, it may have become a passion earlier.

“I always wanted to car race, but didn’t know how to set a car up,” Reno said. “I’ve always been a NASCAR fan. I just never knew they raced boats.”

F-2 has become his home now. He’s spent 18 years in the division after racing smaller boats for the first decade-plus of his career, and his longstanding commitment to the sport has paid off as he nears his 20th season in the division. He’s ramped up the quality of his boat over the last year, he said, and is finally capable of driving like the pilot he always figured he could be.

The opening race of the season on the Manatee River on Saturday was a slight setback — he finished seventh in the Bradenton Area River Regatta after failing to finish — but he’s ready to continue his progress into 2017.

“I always felt aggressive, but I never had the proper equipment,” Reno said. “I believe what has made me more aggressive is the boat itself likes to be aggressive, so it liking that makes me drive harder.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2