MARATHON, Florida Keys — The waters off Sombrero Beach are to transform into a swift racecourse for the Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival set for Saturday, May 8.

Marathon’s Sombrero Beach offers spectators a pristine setting and a unique direct-from-the-beach launch for the sleek, 40-foot-long race boats whose elaborate designs originated in ancient China.

Dragon boat racing, one of the world’s fastest-growing water sports, involves 20 paddlers moving in unison — a combination of strength and teamwork that attracts men and women of all ages and abilities who possess a competitive spirit and the ability to work together.

The legend of dragon boat racing can be traced back to the fourth century B.C. and the Ch’u dynasty in China. The emperor’s personal advisor, Qu Yuan, drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in defiance of the ruler’s corrupt and indulgent lifestyle. Local fishermen, in an effort to keep the river’s water dragons and fish from consuming Qu Yuan’s earthly body, beat drums and vigorously splashed the water with their paddles.

The modern dragon boat race is a re-enactment of the fishermen’s race to save their martyr Qu Yuan from the creatures of the deep. The dragons are a strong and powerful symbol of spring rains and growth in Chinese culture.

Early check-in for the Keys’ race is scheduled for 7-9 p.m. Friday, May 7, at the Hurricane Grille, located at 4650 Overseas Highway, with live music and a party to follow.

Saturday’s action-filled day of racing is divided into qualifying heats, semifinals and finals — more than 25 races. Races can be decided by a fraction of a second and become progressively more competitive with the division championships providing edge-of-the-beach-chair excitement. Each team is guaranteed to compete in at least three races.

Team check in begins at 7 a.m. and racing begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, with an awards ceremony and Last Splash Island Party set for 6 p.m. at Latitudes Tiki Bar, located at 19 Sombrero Road.

According to event organizers, more than 20 Keys-based teams are recruiting paddlers, with an overall goal of up to 35 local and traveling teams competing. Already registered are team boats paddled by breast cancer survivors with inspiring team names such as Save Our Sisters and the Pink Dragon Ladies, who regularly participate in a countrywide race circuit, as well as teams representing the Keys’ Conch Republic Navy, Conch Republic Air Force and the Twitter Dream “Tweam.”

Great White North is returning to serve as race day officials and is setting the 400-meter course parallel to the beach. A 2,000-meter race, described as a steersman’s race, is being added for an endurance challenge for the top six competitive teams.

Food, beverages, merchandise, a variety of entertainment and kids’ play areas are available shoreside during the races.

The festival is free and open to the public, as are a Paddler’s Party and Last Splash Island Party.

Attendees can park for $3 at Marathon High School and take a free shuttle to Sombrero Beach, courtesy of Kukukonkanut’s flaming pink bus.

Team registration and entry deadline is April 24.

For more information, contact Karen Bowers at lunarchik@earthlink.net, call 305-766-1053 or visit www.battleinthebay.org.

To find out about area accommodations, call the Marathon Chamber of Commerce at 800-262-7284 or 305-743-5417, e-mail visitus@floridakeysmarathon.com or visit the Florida Keys & Key West Web site at www.fla-keys.com.

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