Hydros event combines fun on the water with a great cause

— Created August 17, 2022 by Melanie Hammons

By Melanie Hammons

Everyone knows about reward programs.  You give something and get something in return.  In a way, that describes the mission of Oak Harbor’s sixth annual Hydros for Heroes event Saturday and Sunday in historic downtown Oak Harbor. There is no admission to attend the hydroplane races.

“You might say this is a gift to the community, that’s created by the community,” says Jim Woessner, Oak Harbor Rotary Club member and one of the many volunteers hosting the charity power boat race. 

Hydros recognizes the role played by community heroes ranging from first responders to educators.  Founded in 2016 by the Craig McKenzie Team Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and race sponsor, the event has given over $135,000 to date to benefit local charitable outreaches and causes.

Woessner says 38 teams are signed up for the event.  Race day will feature nine different classes of boats, which translates to eighteen races.  He described what’s likely to be a fast-paced race itinerary.   

“Boats will launch every 20 minutes, something that’s unheard of most anywhere else for similar competitions.  On Saturday, teams will compete for trophies and conclude with an awards ceremony.  On Sunday, they will race for national points,” he said.

Some of the scheduled Hydros participants also took part in Seattle’s recent Seafair Festival in early August.  It seems only natural, then, that they would choose to “stick around,” for Oak Harbor’s event too.  That includes one of Seafair’s race announcers, who will also be on hand to preside at Hydros, said Woessner.

“Few places allow for team members to actually camp right downtown during race weekend,” he said.  “That’s a real plus and a great selling point in Oak Harbor’s favor.”

There’s another attraction in store for this year.  For the first time, the “horsepower” won’t be limited to just the hydroplanes.  On Saturday, the Whidbey Cruzers will host a car show featuring nearly 100 antique and classic cars.

“Pioneer Way downtown will be closed to vehicle traffic,” said Mike Harris, past president of Whidbey Cruzers.  “That should allow folks to stroll around and look at the cars up close.  We’ll have the cars parked, probably on the east side of Pioneer, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.”

Vendors are well represented this year as well.  More than 40 different ones are signed up, and visitors can look forward to food choices of all kinds.  Woessner cited Bubba Burgers, Kona Shaved Ice, and “someone who specializes in freeze-dried candy.”  He said vendor prices are kept purposely low to encourage local business participation.

“We wanted to make sure that the vendor fees are reasonable, for the sake of our smaller businesses that have suffered the most during pandemic lockdowns.  In fact, I believe they’re the cheapest fees of any in the country,” said Woessner.  He added there will also be a beer garden.

The fun actually gets an early start on Friday evening at Orlando’s, prior to the weekend.  Race teams will register there, and enjoy a delicious complimentary dinner.  That presents a chance for the public to come out and meet the teams and drivers.

 The most significant feature that distinguishes Hydros for Heroes from similar power boat races is that it’s the only nonprofit charity power boat race of its kind in the United States.  That means the race participants, who hail from different parts of the country, are not paid for their time.  It’s a labor of love that’s directed toward thanking the heroes in our lives, something Woessner said he’s seen and experienced firsthand.

“Speaking of our military, medical personnel, first responders, law enforcement, and educators, it’s not a life that’s for everyone” he said. “But what a difference they make in our lives, every day. I’m a Navy ‘brat,’ and during my growing-up years, some of my heroes were teachers,” he explained.  “With my dad away on deployment, I was fortunate to have teachers who let me ‘hang out’ at school.”

Hydros for Heroes is operated and run by the Craig McKenzie Team and many volunteers. Those volunteers include a range of organizations and individuals, from Oak Harbor Marina to local boat owners to financial sponsors. Woessner pointed to the preparation that goes into making what he called “a not-so-safe sport as safe as possible.”

“We apply for Coast Guard permits, arrange for traffic plans. The crane that is used to hoist the power boats into position, that alone brings with it a $6,000 price tag.  And yet, we’re proud of the fact that this remains a free event for spectators,” he said.

Last year, the 2021 Hydros race net proceeds resulted in a sizable check to Oak Harbor Rotary Club that was devoted to the Food4Kids Backpack program.  Although the recipients for this year’s donations have not yet been finalized, Woessner says it will be a thoughtful and well-chosen process that will be heavily oriented towards supporting local heroes and meeting the needs of kids in some way.

And the benefits of the race go even above and beyond that, Woessner said.

“Each race team brings in from four to six people, support crew, family members, friends, etc.  That results in lots of hotel revenue, camping fees, restaurant revenue, and the like for the City of Oak Harbor,” he said.  “It’s just one more way of giving back to the local community here.”

Hydros for Heroes is a free event.  For more information, see the website hydrosforheroes.com.