In Hamtramck, a Labor Day boat race in a landlocked city

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — How do you stage a boat race in a landlocked city, when no river runs through it? The answer can be found in Hamtramck on Labor Day: have the audience bring the water and throw it at competitors as they approach the finish line.

This is the Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race, and according to Mayor Karen Majewski, it's an event not to be missed. 

"It's raucous and loud and wet and wild and fun," Majewski said Monday morning, hours before the games were to begin.

Adam Mistick, left, Sarah Hipel, right, and a teammate from Whiskey In The Jar celebrate their win in the 2019 Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race.

The Hamtramck Labor Day Festival is in its 40th year. While much has been made of the community's changing face in recent years, including the election of its first majority-Muslim City Council in 2015, the town of 25,000 has been diverse from the beginning, Majewski said.

Though Hamtramck's name bespeaks its Polish origin, and Poles "dominated" city government until the 1990s, the mayor said, "we've always been a diverse city" that drew people looking to work in the lucrative auto industry.

Today, people of Arab, Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Serbian descent, among others, reside in the city. More than 20 languages are spoken by students in its public school system today, Majewski said.

The three-day festival that ended Monday is designed to bring out more than a hometown crowd, and in the past, attendance of 100,000 was not unusual. Beyond the canoe races, there's been three days of live music and a professional wrestling match was expected at 4 p.m., courtesy of International Bigtime Wrestling.

As expected, the boat races Monday were a draw.

Two teams gather at the starting line, one person inside a push-cart, the other person pushing. They run to the end point, which is marked by an orange barrel, and turn back to the start. The two competitors jump out, and two teammates take their place. 

Simple enough, except that the entire way there and back, while switching places, and while swapping out teammates, competitors are bombarded by water balloons and jets of water from hoses and water pistols, making the pavement on Jos. Campau wet. Some people dumped entire coolers full of water on the racers.

"Canoers" are deluged with water balloons as they compete in the 2019 Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race.

Lose once and your afternoon is over, and your team can join the rest of the crowd.

August Gitschlag, city clerk for Hamtramck, was hit by a fusillade of water balloons as he announced the race was soon to begin. To hear him tell it, it was a waste of water.

“We got a record 14 boats running today,” he told the crowd. “Save your balloons. I’m not worth it.”

The crowd was unmoved.

No one in the mass of thousands lined up on either side of Jos. Campau could expect to stay dry — not city clerks, not boat racers, not spectators, as the crowd tossed balloons across the street at their counterparts between heats.

Children of all ages took those opportunities to run out onto the street and gather unpopped balloons so they could be thrown again. Doing so, of course, exposed them to water balloons from both sides of the street.

Sarah Hipel, 37, of Detroit didn't know what to expect when she ran her first canoe race last year. 

"It's pretty intense, with the high-pressure hoses and water balloons," Hipel said before the race began. She would be running for a Hamtramck bar called Whiskey in the Jar. "This year I have a helmet and goggles, and better tennis shoes."

Hipel didn't expect to be running in 2018, but was pulled from the crowd to join. Because the canoe "was in pretty tough shape," she and boyfriend Adam Mistick, 35, of Detroit, built this year's version over the weekend. 

"Everyone rides and runs," Hipel explained. "You just keep running until you lose."

But losing was not in the cards for Whiskey in the Jar, which came out tops among the 14 teams. Last year Hipel ran the race barefoot. This year she swapped out her sandals for gym shoes that offered sure footing. That helped in the third race, when Hipel, running the second leg of the relay, came from behind to edge out another racer and advance to the finals.

Her strategy, Hipel said afterward: "Run fast."

Karl Kaiser and Amy Memminger race down Jos. Campau in this file photo from Sept. 5, 2016.
Participants race through the street past residents tossing water balloons in this Sept. 5, 2016, file photo during the Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Races , part of the Hamtramck Labor Day Fest in downtown Hamtramck.
Participants race through the street past residents tossing water balloons in this Sept. 5, 2016 file photo.

The boat race is a fun community event, Gitschlag said. And it attracted a large crowd of all ages and hues. But what made the clerk proudest of all is what happened after the canoes stopped racing, after the wooden wheel was awarded to the winners: the crowd bent down and picked up the remnants of every balloon that had been tossed. 

"People leave (the street) looking better than when they found it, and I love that," Gitschlag said.