Florida’s limitless access to its many waterways makes it a popular destination to live, vacation and retire. Locals and visitors alike agree that boating is one of the best ways to spend leisure time in places like Tampa Bay.

In 2021, Florida had more registered recreational boaters than any other state in the nation, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The most boats were registered in Miami-Dade County, at 74,622. Pinellas had the second highest number with 53,867, followed by Lee County with 50,304, Broward with 47,741 and Hillsborough with 41,495.

However, with popularity comes risk. Florida tops the charts reporting more boating accidents and deaths than anywhere else in the United States. The state had 751 reportable accidents reviewed in 2021, 836 in 2020 and 723 in 2019.

Forty accidents were reported in Pinellas in 2021 with three fatalities and 32 injuries. The county’s accident rank was No. 5 out of 67. Most accidents in Pinellas involved personal watercraft and were caused by two vessels colliding or a vessel colliding with a fixed object, such as a dock. Flooding or swamping was third most often given cause of a mishap.

The most reported secondary cause was falling overboard, followed by being struck by a boat and falling in a boat. Many were cruising at the time and had no proper lookout or the lookout wasn’t paying attention. Other secondary causes were operator inexperience and machinery failure.

The majority of operators involved were men, older than 51, followed by ages 36-50 and 22-35. About half had more than 100 hours of experience.

Neighboring Hillsborough County had 40,009 registered recreational vessels, 20 reportable accidents, one fatality, 11 injuries and ranked No. 14. Pasco had 26,951 registered recreational vessels, 12 reportable accidents, one fatality, 10 injuries and ranked No. 23.

Florida uses education as a primary way to promote boater safety. Anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 is required to successfully complete an approved boater safety class and obtain a Boating Safety Identification Card before they can operate a motorboat of 10 horsepower or greater.  For more information, visit https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/faqs.

For a list of courses offered in the classroom and online, visit https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/courses. For information on getting an identification card, visit https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/id.

Top counties where boating education cards have been issued are Miami-Dade with 4,172; Broward with 2,162; Palm Beach with 2,140, Hillsborough with 1,961 and Pinellas with 1,462.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliaries, including Flotilla 11-1 that supports Coast Guard Station Sand Key and air stations Clearwater and St. Petersburg, offer public safety courses and provide free vessel safety checks. For information, visit www.clwboatingsafety.com or uscgauxclearwater.com

For information about courses offered by other auxiliaries, visit https://www.cgaux.org/boatinged.

Other initiatives to promote safe boating include National Boating Safety Week sponsored by the National Safe Boating Council. This year the week is May 21-27. The campaign is intended to encourage responsible boating and get boaters to wear a life jacket while on the water.

The National Safe Boating Council offers several tips for boaters:

• Take a boating safety course. 

• Check equipment. Schedule a free vessel safety check with local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present, working and in good condition.

• Make a float plan. Always let someone on shore know the trip itinerary, including operator and passenger information, boat type and registration, and communication equipment on board.

• Wear a life jacket. Make sure everyone wears a life jacket — every time. A stowed life jacket is no use in an emergency.

• Use an engine cut-off device — it’s the law. An engine cut-off device, or engine cut-off switch, is a proven safety device to stop the boat’s engine should the operator unexpectedly fall overboard.

• Watch the weather. Always check the forecast before departing on the water and frequently during the excursion.

• Know what’s going on around you at all times. Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2020 were caused by operator inattention or improper lookout.

• Know where you’re going and travel at safe speeds. Be familiar with the area, local boating speed zones and always travel at a safe speed.

• Never boat under the influence. A BUI is involved in one-third of all recreational boating fatalities. Always designate a sober skipper.

• Keep in touch. Have more than one communication device that works when wet. VHF radios, emergency locator beacons, satellite phones, and cell phones can all be important devices in an emergency.

“The best boating experience is safe boating,” said Yvonne Pentz, communications director of the National Safe Boating Council. “Have fun on the water, make memories with your family and friends — all while boating responsibly.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.