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Dragon boats ready to roar on Lake Lanier
Annual race, cultural festival returns Saturday to Clarks Bridge Park
Flowers are raised in the air Saturday during a breast cancer survivor ceremony at the Lake Lanier Olympic venue during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival.

Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival

When: 7:45 a.m. Sept. 10

Where: Lake Lanier Olympic venue, Clarks Bridge Park

How much: Free

No, that's not the Loch Ness Monster you may see peeking above the waves of Lake Lanier this weekend.

The 16th annual Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival returns Saturday, Sept. 10 to the Lake Lanier Olympic venue at Clarks Bridge Park.

The festival is highlighted by the popular Dragon Boat races, in which boats are decorated in the traditional Chinese décor and made to look like dragons.

The festival is steeped in Chinese custom and tradition. Spectators can expect to get a cultural lesson in addition to watching some great racing.

Festival director Gene Hanratty said the event began at Stone Mountain years ago, but quickly grew to need a larger venue.

"The (Olympic) venue is absolutely ideal. You can see the whole race from beginning to end. It's an absolutely ideal venue and everybody loves it," Hanratty said.

Although the highlight of the Dragon Boat festival will be the races, Hanratty said there is much more to be experienced.

"The ceremonies are always popular, particularly the dotting of the dragon's eye which symbolizes the awakening of the dragon," he said.

The festival will begin with a captain's meeting at 6:45 a.m., followed by a ceremony in which a Buddhist monk will bless the boats.

The first race is scheduled to begin at 7:45, with heats running every nine minutes. The opening ceremony will be held at 12:30 p.m. and will include the dotting of the dragon's eye ceremony.

Each year the event gets bigger. Hanratty said he expects a spectator crowd of between 6,000 and 7,000 people.

Only 72 race teams can be accommodated. Hanratty said the list is full and that organizers have started a waiting list.

"We have teams coming from all over the place - Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and, of course, all around metro Atlanta," he said.

The Atlanta Dragon Boat Festival is free to spectators, and Hanratty encouraged those in the community to come out and enjoy a fun day on the lake.

"It's the best hands-on cultural diversity event in the Southeast. It's fun, it's unique, it's just a great time," Hanratty said.