BRADENTON -- Dragon boats took to the water on the Manatee River on Saturday while spectators lined the Riverwalk.
Many braved the threat of rain and high winds to watch paddlers race their colorful boats in the inaugural Bradenton Dragon Boat Festival.
"I loved it," Darlene Neilson said. "I have never seen one of these races before."
Neilson, of Palmetto, has a friend back in Iowa who races dragon boats but has never attended an event.
"I had never seen the boats before," Neilson said. " I think they are really cool."
The festival was organized by Tampa-based Pan Am Dragon Boat and featured professional paddlers from around Florida as well as novice teams from Manatee County.
Severe storms and a tornado watch, however, forced organizers to end the events about two and half hours ahead of schedule. The threat of bad weather also resulted in the course being shortened to 150 meters as a safety precaution.
Teams consisted of 20 members, including a drummer and steerer, and they competed in three rounds of racing. Eleven of the teams were unable to complete the final race.
One of the teams unable to finish was Save our Sisters, a team of breast cancer survivors from South Florida.
"The really cool thing about this is it's not just about a race," team captain Kim Bonomo said. "Our mission is to leave an impression."
The team focuses on bringing breast cancer survivors together, not just in a race against other dragon boat teams, but in the fight against the disease.
"The disease is going to affect one in eight women," Bonomo said. "On the shore, we are sisters."
In preparation of Saturday's event, Save our Sisters also helped to create a local team of breast cancers survivors.
"So we leave behind a legacy," Bonomo said. "The race is not to the finish line, it is to the start line."
The teams will also compete in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission's Participatory Dragon Boat Festival at Nathan Benderson Park in October, which is expected to draw thousands of visitors to Manatee-Sarasota.
Despite the early finish, though, organizers were happy with the turnout.
"We had a great day," said Paula Jennings, Pam Am marketing event director. "We were very lucky with the weather, it was supposed to rain all day."
Practices leading up the event earlier this week were also very successful, she said.
"It would have been nice to have more spectators, but I'm sure they were afraid because of the weather," Jennings said.
For Kelli Lopez, who recently moved to Bradenton from Arizona, Saturday's event was also a new experience.
"It was interesting, we've never seen anything like this," Lopez said.
Lopez decided to bring her three children to watch Saturday's race after hearing about it at work earlier in the week.
"They were very excited watching, hanging over the railing, to see who is going to win," Lopez said. "It's something different, nothing you would see in Arizona."
Jessica De Leon, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.