A lakeside Michigan town salutes the Coast Guard every summer with pomp, circumstance—and now, boats built to sink.
Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival
Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival

As company picnics go, it's hard to top this one's legacy. In 1924, the Coast Guard station in Grand Haven, Michigan, threw a picnic and rowing competition for its staff. Since then, the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival has burgeoned into the nation's largest festival celebrating the Coasties, with 10 days of tours, ceremonies and contests that draw 350,000 civilians and some of the Coast Guard's highest-ranking dignitaries to this town on Lake Michigan.

Like any summertime celebration, the festival (July 28–August 6, 2017) offers carnival rides, street parades and a bang-up fireworks show. But at the heart of all the fun lies a commemoration of the Coast Guard, which protects and preserves the U.S coasts, as well as waterways stretching from the Arctic Circle to the equator.

Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival
Photo courtesy of Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival

3 things to know before you go

1 Ship Moorings and Tours Step onto the USCGC Mackinaw's deck and learn what keeps the big ship's crew hustling on the Great Lakes: watching for national security threats, assisting distressed vessels, and slamming through ice to clear waterways.

2 National Memorial Service Bagpipers play "Semper Paratus (Always Ready)" as military officials place a commemorative wreath at Escanaba Park, named for the Grand Haven-based ship torpedoed in WWII. The ceremony's pomp and precision hush even kids in the crowd. "You've got hundreds of people attending, in an outdoor park," says Kathleen Karpin, wife of a retired Coast Guard officer in charge, "and you could hear a pin drop."

3 Cardboard Boat Race "I wanted to add an activity that would involve the whole family," says Brandon Davis of the Ottawa County Sheriff Department's Marine Unit. A festival board member and longtime volunteer, he launched a cardboard boat race last year. Only eight teams entered, but 3,000 people showed up to see the spectacular sinking that netted one crew the first Iceberg Award. "We knew they would be rescued quickly," Brandon says. "After all, the Coast Guard is right there" (coastguardfest.org).