A spirited salute to the 2020 Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival that never was

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore columns by local residents about their lives.

When I first moved to Grand Haven from metro Detroit 20 years ago, I had never heard about the town’s famed Coast Guard Festival. 

Back then, my husband, Jon, and I had front-row seats for all things Coast Guard from our tiny one-bedroom apartment above the old Rosebud bar and grill (now the Copper Post), on the corner of Washington Avenue and First Street. We witnessed Grand Haven’s city streets bloom from their normal laid-back touristy vibe to a full-on bustling party within a matter of days. 

That year, during my first Coast Guard Festival, I recall being mesmerized by the 10-day celebration filled with events and entertainment for all ages — from sunup to sundown each day — in honor of the men and women in the U.S. Coast Guard. 

It warmed my heart to see our small town swell with pride each summer as the cityscape put on in its red, white and blue best and rolled out the welcome mat to Coast Guard dignitaries from all over the country and throngs of tourists who would descend upon Grand Haven for the festivities.

Favorite time of year

Since then, the last week of July and the first days of August have been my absolute favorite time of year. 

Each year, the anchor and letters spelling out “Coast Guard City U.S.A.” are placed on Dewey Hill across the Grand Haven harbor, acting as the treasured backdrop throughout the festival. House exteriors become decked out in nautical decor, residential sidewalks come alive with vibrant chalk art, and hundreds of prominently displayed Coast Guard flags sway in the summer breeze. 

It really is quite a special experience to walk along the streets of Grand Haven during Coast Guard weeks and see the pride beaming for our nation’s Coasties.

A prized holiday

It is also a time when family and friends, local and from afar, gather together in celebratory fashion, greeting each other with a “Happy Coast Guard!” as if it were a national holiday. Yes, over the years, I’ve come to realize that the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival is, indeed, a prized holiday to the locals, just as if it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s. 

But this summer, the Coast Guard holiday has been called off. While the Coast Guard City U.S.A. sign has temporarily returned to its traditional spot on Dewey Hill, the festival activities that would have taken place this week are on hiatus due to COVID-19. 

As with other festivals around the country, organizers announced in late May the cancellation of what would have been the 96th annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, stating the decision was difficult, but “necessary to ensure a healthy community.”

First cancellation

This is the first time the festival has been canceled since its founding in 1924, according to the festival office.

I wish this wasn’t the case, but, unfortunately, this is where we are in this new COVID world. Am I bummed? You bet. My family and I are already having withdrawals because of this non-Coast Guard Festival week. 

No parade of ships. No ship tours. No carnival rides. No waterfront entertainment. No events on downtown city streets. No festival food. No grand parades. No dancing alongside the Scottville Clown Band. No family parties. No fireworks extravaganza.

No citywide celebration. No “Happy Coast Guard” salutations to our family and friends. 

But let’s also note there will not be any traffic snarls, blanket craziness to claim parade and fireworks spots, overflowing crowds jammed into about a five-block radius and no fireworks-sparked fires on Dewey Hill.

All of these are what make the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival so memorable year after year. For that, you either love it and soak up every minute of the annual tradition, as my family does, or you pack up and dodge the chaos for 10 days. 

The right thing to do

Canceling this year’s Coast Guard Festival was the right thing to do to protect the residents, workers, and visitors of our town. We all want nothing more than to see Grand Haven’s biggest celebration of the year return in 2021. To do that, our town must be safe and healthy.

While the festival’s traditional events have been scrapped for 2020, the Coast Guard spirit is still very much alive in my family and throughout town during this social-distancing summer. If you visit Grand Haven this week, you’ll see dressed-up homes and fluttering Coast Guard Semper Paratus flags throughout town as part of a virtual Front Porch Salute honoring the sacrifice and dedication of our nation’s Coasties.

I’ve flown my Semper Paratus flag from our home’s front porch during the Coast Guard Festival every year for nearly a decade. This year is no different. My Coast Guard flag is flying high in celebration during this entire non-Coast Guard Festival week.

A grand salute

Just like our nation’s Coast Guard lives up to its Semper Paratus (Always Ready) motto, Grand Haven cherishes its Coast Guard City U.S.A. namesake, COVID or no COVID. 

I offer a grand salute to all of our Coast Guard servicemen and women, as well as our local public safety officials, who keep our town safe. Thank you for all you do.

Here’s to being safe and staying healthy so we can see the Coast Guard Festival tradition carry on in 2021. 

Happy Coast Guard!

Kyle A. Moroney, a former journalist, is a senior writer at SeyferthPR in Grand Rapids. She lives in Grand Haven with her husband, Jon, and their two children, Peyton and Carson.  
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