The Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Hydrofest is the longest-running community sporting event in the city. Dating back to 1916, the event relies on a large group of local volunteers to ensure the safety of the drivers who reach high speeds and maneuver tight, dangerous turns.

The Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Hydrofest is the longest-running community sporting event in the city. Dating back to 1916, the event relies on a large group of local volunteers to ensure the safety of the drivers who reach high speeds and maneuver tight, dangerous turns.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Local group of volunteers ensure secure environment for Hydrofest

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published August 30, 2018

 Divers Kevin Thomas, left, and Mike Billings watch a hydroplane boat race by during a heat Aug. 24. The duo are two of the 14 volunteer divers on the crew.

Divers Kevin Thomas, left, and Mike Billings watch a hydroplane boat race by during a heat Aug. 24. The duo are two of the 14 volunteer divers on the crew.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

DETROIT — Thousands of local residents lined the riverfront downtown for the 2018 Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Hydrofest Aug. 24-26.

The city’s longest-running community sporting event featured three classes of boat racing: the H1 Unlimited hydroplanes, Grand Prix hydroplanes and vintage boats.

A hometown product, Andrew Tate, of Walled Lake, won the weekend’s premier event, the American Power Boat Association Gold Cup, via a first-place finish in the final H1 Unlimited contest Aug. 26. With the victory, he secured what is the oldest active trophy in all of motorsports and enough points to clinch the overall 2018 APBA championship.

While Tate was the most popular Michigander on the water, many other area residents could be seen out on the Detroit River. Although they don’t traverse the tough Roostertail turn or reach top speeds of 175 mph like Tate, a group of a dozen boats and 140 volunteers overall helped to ensure the event was safe and secure.

A Grosse Pointe Woods resident, Paul Guaresimo volunteered with Detroit Riverfront Inc., which is the group responsible for putting on the event. For the last 22 years, Guaresimo has served as the course chairman and oversees every aspect of the safety teams.

“Our primary purpose is to manage what goes on the course itself,” said Guaresimo. “There’s always something unusual that happens, but we have a very good crew and everybody knows what to do. When somebody gets in an accident or breaks down, that’s when we get involved. I communicate with the chief referee to coordinate with our safety and rescue.”

During the competition, Guaresimo is found high atop the judge’s stand, which is a four-story structure located close to the Manoogian Mansion. Joining him on the platform are H1 Unlimited officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I started as a rescue diver and moved up to this role. I guess I’ve stayed with it so long because I like the people I get to work with,” Guaresimo said. “Everybody has grown up with racing or on the water. It’s the excitement that comes with the racing. But it’s become a big family. There’s certain challenges and things you can’t control, like the wind gusts or weather overall. So, I pray for good weather and for a quiet day.”

 

‘Unbelievable to see’
One of Guaresimo’s longest-tenured volunteers is Mitch Gawrysiak. A Harrison Township resident, Gawrysiak is looking forward to the 2020 race, which will mark 50 years as a volunteer.

Along with his wife, Nancy, Gawrysiak pilots his 41-foot boat to serve as a turn judge, helping the lead officials determine if a boat made an improper move or hit a buoy. Prior to volunteering, Gawrysiak was a huge boat fan, building his first watercraft by 23 and attending every single Gold Cup final since 1959.

“It’s unbelievable to see,” Gawrysiak said. “When they come by us, I can see the freckles in their face. I love being out on the water and getting to be part of this.”

While Guaresimo and his crew had to deal with the entire Saturday slate being wiped out due to high winds, a packed Sunday schedule featured decent weather, large crowds and, most importantly, no major accidents.

The H1 Unlimited boats can reach speeds of up to 200 mph and averaged a speed of around 170 mph throughout the course, which stretches just over 2 miles.

A Rochester resident, Kurt Kehren has been volunteering since 1990. After starting as a crew member, Kehren worked his way up to being in charge of the entire fleet of safety boats for the race. He parks his 30-foot Baja boat near the Belle Isle Bridge with two divers, two medics, two crew members and a radio man at his disposal.

“Safety is top of mind for everyone. We make sure we’re doing all the right things down to the little things,” said Kehren. “We make sure everyone has a life jacket on. Communication is the most important thing. It’s absolutely critical because there’s lots of personalities and backgrounds, and we have to bring them all together to make it a well-oiled machine.”

Jason Ayers is in charge of radio communications on Kehren’s vessel. He sports a specialized headset found in airplanes. Now living in Livonia, Ayers has been on Kehren’s boat for a dozen years.

“I was an engineer at Chrysler, and Kurt was a supplier I used for roof racks. He brought me down for a joyride, and then one thing led to another,” Ayers said. “At the time, I was finishing up my private pilot’s license. The radio communication is nearly identical to what I had learned. I make sure Kurt doesn’t have to worry about the radio and where all the divers are. I communicate back to race control about any wreck and the details.”

In his nearly three decades, Kehren estimates that he has responded to roughly 25 wrecks. With the boats reaching high speeds, violent and life-threatening flips are possible.

“I try to be on the scene as quick as possible. Normally, if a boat is upside down, the driver is unconscious and possibly lost their air mask. That cockpit tends to flood, so time is of the essence,” Kehren said. 

In addition to giving his time, Kehren financed upgrades to his boat that include a speaker, a connection for the specialized headset used by Ayers, and a sensor that can detect if fuel is leaking and burning on the water.

 

‘A good day is a day we don’t have to get wet’
“When a boat lands upside down, you go below the boat to see where the driver is. Many of the boats have hatches on the bottom, as well, if you need to perform the extraction that way,” said Michael Graham, one of the 14 divers on the team. “You get your adrenaline going very fast. I’ve encountered a fuel leak before, as well, and you have to get showered off immediately.”

A West Bloomfield resident, Graham was aiding in his second Hydrofest.

“I hope we just sit there and watch the race. At the end of the day, if we come back to the shore after an uneventful race, that’s a good day,” Graham said.

Dave Mabry agreed. An Oakland Township resident, Mabry is in charge of Graham and the rest of the finned swimmers.

“When there’s an incident, we dispatch the closest boat, and our chief priority is to extract the driver and get him whatever medical attention is required,” said Mabry, now in his 22nd year helping Guaresimo’s team. “A good day is a day we don’t have to get wet. We have those sometimes, but not very often.”

Mabry took pride in H1 Unlimited officials calling the Detroit rescue team the best group of volunteers it utilizes on its entire circuit.

“I’m happy to have a highly trained team of skippers, divers and medics,” Mabry said. “Everyone knows exactly what to do. We hope we don’t have to do much, but if we need to go get someone, we can do it fast and properly.”

Kevin Thomas is a diver on Kehren’s boat. A Grand Rapids resident, Thomas also volunteers in the same role for offshore races in communities like St. Clair Shores.

“A good day for me is only getting in the water to cool down. But I’m also ready to go and know what it takes and what I may see on a wreck,” Thomas said. “Sadly, I’ve seen fatalities. Not here, but in other races I’ve helped with. Most of the time, we see a driver come out of the capsule with an obvious concussion. Sometimes they’re panicking and shaken up. But sometimes you have to be the last one they ever see. That’s what keeps me coming back, is making sure your buddies are safe.”