Thousands of yellow rubber ducks are dropped into the ocean off the Huntington Beach Pier during the 2012 Duck-A-Thon. (KEVIN CHANG / May 19, 2012)

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They have retrieved every rubber duck that's been tossed off the Huntington Beach Pier for the last 20 years.

A pair of skip loaders typically dumps around 4,000 bright yellow artificial waterfowls over the railing for the annual Duck-A-Thon, an event that raises funds for the AltaMed Medical and Dental Group in Huntington Beach. This year's event will run May 17 through 19.

A group of about 50 volunteers watch over the bright-yellow artificial waterfowls, making sure that the thousands of bathtub toys make it back to shore, Duck-A-Thon co-chairman Warren Conde said. From Marines one year to Girl Scouts the next, the retrieval committee ensures that every duck is accounted for.

"One time 2,000 ducks came [back] in 20 minutes," Duck-A-Thon co-chairwoman Maggie Conde said, adding that participants waited three hours one year for all the rubber ducks to wash onto shore. "It's mother nature. You never know. You're at her mercy."

The three-day event — which encompasses a wine tasting, various vendors and the duck drop — has raised more than $3 million over two decades for the health provider, which serves uninsured patients in the city, AltaMed spokeswoman Michele Warner said.

Warner said the Huntington Beach clinic daily sees almost 130 patients, 46% of whom are uninsured.

"Without this fundraiser, it makes an incredible difference," she said. "If it costs us $180 per visit. That's significant and we're really appreciative."

Participants can buy and name a duck for $10, and the first one to reach the shore wins a $1,000 grand prize for the owner. Other prizes will be handed out to owners of the first 60 ducks that arrive at the beach.

A limited edition "surfin' safari" duck is also available, for $20. It's decorated with a hat and surfboard.

Donations have decreased over the years because of the economy, with only 691 ducks being sold as of Friday, Duck-A-Thon co-chairwoman Linda Burdette said. She's doubtful that the group's target of 4,000 ducks will be reached.

"We would love to hit that 4,000 mark, but I don't think we're going to make it this year," she said. "We always want to increase, but the economy has hit us in the last couple of years."

If You Go

What: 21st annual Duck-A-Thon

Where: Huntington Beach Pier, Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway

When: Wine tastings from 6 to 8 p.m. May 17; Vendor Festival (vendor booths, entertainment and more) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 18 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 19. Duck race at 3 p.m. for individuals; 1 p.m. for corporations.

Cost: Free to attend; $10 per duck for individuals and $100 for corporations; surfin' safari ducks for $20 for individuals and $125 for corporations. Wine tasting is $40 in advance, $50 at the door; VIP tickets $50 in advance, $60 at the door.

Information: http://www.duckathon.org or (714) 500-0382.