By Thomas Hartwell
An estimated 2,300 boats of various shape and size, most decked out with American and Donald Trump flags, as well as flags supporting police, covered the water at Lake Lanier for a parade.
A handful of small planes and helicopters also flew overhead, buzzing the Great American Boat Parade, some showing their own support.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to a request for confirmation of how many boats attended the parade. But some authorities said the gathering was the most vessels they’d ever seen on the lake.
Dustin Melton, the Gainesville firefighter and Cornelia resident who organized the event, estimated 2,300 to 2,400 boats turned up to participate, based on the nearly 1,700 boats that responded to an RVSP request, as well as the 500 to 600 boats that he said appeared to join the parade on the spot. Hundreds more gathered on shorelines at parks and marinas to witness the spectacle.
“It was amazing,” Melton said, adding that he rode on a personal watercraft to better stage the boats. “It blows me away the support that North Georgia gave us. It just shows people coming together and supporting our great nation.”
The thousands of people who’d shown up to hop on boats bound from the Buford Dam to Port Royale Marina in Forsyth County and back dressed in red, white and blue, throwing a fist in the air and trading horn blows with others whose boats were decorated in the same style. Many waved Trump signs or posed with carboard cutouts of the president as they made their way around the lake from about 11 a.m. until around 2 p.m.
Melton added that the group had also observed a moment of silence and prayer for Department of Natural Resources region supervisor Capt. Stan Elrod before setting off. Elrod, 49, was a 28-year veteran of the department who worked in the DNR’s Gainesville office. He was killed Thursday, Sept. 3, after being struck by a car.
“That was great just to see how many people respected him as a person and as a law enforcement officer and to see everybody come together and celebrate his life and what he’s done for our community,” Melton said.
Similar parades supporting patriotism and Trump have been happening around the country in recent days, and more are planned in days ahead.
'I don’t think we’ve ever seen this’
The parade set off from the dam around 11 a.m., just after the National Anthem could be heard blaring from a loudspeaker. At the end of the song, bellowing cheers grew from the crowd of boaters and boat horns drowned out the noise from birds chirping and waves breaking on the shores at West Bank Park.
That's where Cumming residents Mary and Jim Fasano stopped by to see the gathering.
“I think it’s great, and it’s a great sign of patriotism, to say the least,” Jim Fasano said, adding that the couple has lived in the area for two decades. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen this.”
While the couple has a boat, they opted to stay off the water and watch the parade from the shore on Sunday. That many boats in one area is just too much action on the water, they said.
“There’s a lot of new boaters, and there’s people who will rent a boat, and they have no clue how to drive a boat,” Mary Fasano said, her husband adding that wind and the choppy water caused by the number of vessels are also concerns.
While most were supportive or indifferent to the parade, others watched in disappointment.
Sisters Ahtziri, 15, and Ibana Giron, 13, of Atlanta, called the parade “disgusting.” The two said they couldn’t understand the support of the president, who they called a racist. They said it made them uncomfortable while watching from the shore as their family, all people of color, prepared food over the grill.
“After everything that man (Trump) has said toward women, immigrants, Hispanics, Black people, I feel like it’s very disrespectful toward them to have a parade,” Ahtziri, a high school sophomore, who is Hispanic, said gesturing to her family’s picnic. “It just ruins the mood.”
Ibana, an eighth grader at Tucker Middle School, said she asked a nearby boat if they would move farther away from her family’s picnic, and was cursed at.
“They’re very disrespectful,” she said.
At Old Federal Park in Flowery Branch, Gainesville residents Phil and Debbie Loveless searched for the best observation post near the shore, dressed in American flag attire.
“I’ve just been watching it on TV,” Debbie Loveless said, referring to other boat parades that had taken place. “If there’s something that comes close enough to us, then we need to go.”
Debbie Loveless said she hoped the boaters would be safe, noting a boating accident that sunk “several boats” at a similar parade in Texas Saturday. But, she added, she wasn’t too concerned.
Both Phil and Debbie Loveless said they wanted to come show their support for the president, who they say has delivered on his campaign promises and whose political beliefs align with their own.
Dawsonville resident Michael Stull echoed the Gainesville couple. He said when he found out about the parade, he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Stull stood with a crowd of others on the partially constructed bridge that will replace Browns Bridge on Ga. Highway 369 while waving a large Trump flag and trading cheers as boats passed underneath him at around 2 p.m.
Passing motorists honked their support at Stulls’ group as they drove by. Near where the crowd gathered, a man sold Trump shirts, flags and bumper stickers.
“I think we should keep doing this. I think we should do it every week until everything’s said and done,” he said, referring to the Nov. 3 general election. He paused to cheer when a boater approaching the bridge honked a horn and shouted “12 more years” from below. “He’s just an awesome president.”
At the parade’s halfway point, Cumming residents Katherine and Corey Wayland relaxed with a group on a friend’s boat after participating in the parade earlier in the day.
Other parade-watchers who’d come to the Port Royale Marina to see the mass of vessels showed their American spirit, one dressing as George Washington and another dressing in a full-body American flag suit.
The Waylands said they, too, showed up to support Trump and said they were proud of his work on immigration and the economy.
Katherine Wayland called the parade “unbelievable.”
“Chills. I had chills the entire time. It was amazing,” she said, adding that even on choppy water, attendance was worth it. “We saw Mexicans, Black people, we saw every race holding American flags and cheering. … (It was) 100% the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Law enforcement on lake reports no incidents
As of 5:15 p.m., the Department of Natural Resources reported smooth sailing on the lake, with no citations, injuries or drownings so far.
Mark McKinnon, a spokesman for DNR’s law enforcement division, said the agency sent five or six boats out on the lake with two game wardens in each boat during the parade. He also said the agency would ask any groups of 50 or more to disperse, if they were not properly distanced. None that he knew of had to be asked, McKinnon added.
Game Warden Kevin Goss, who attended for a patrol, said he’d never seen more boats on the lake before.
“It was busier than July Fourth on a Saturday with clear weather,” Goss said.
Forsyth deputies and park rangers were seen Sunday morning asking motorists who stopped on the dam to take pictures of the parade to keep moving.
Neither the Forsyth County nor the Hall County sheriff’s offices deployed additional deputies for the parade or for its traffic control, according to the agencies’ spokespeople. However, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office does have additional deputies, including a marine unit, on patrol for the holiday weekend, spokeswoman Stacie Miller said.
Hall County, meanwhile, had its regular patrol shift working this weekend, sheriff’s office spokesman Derreck Booth said.