Pumpkins, Ahoy!

October 18, 2009

I suppose it was inevitable, in a way.

Look. For one thing, coastal Maine was once famous for its tradition of shipbuilding. In fact, it’s only a short drive to one of the nation’s most famous shipyards in Bath.

For another thing, for all the brevity of the growing season, folks in Maine are crazy for gardening. And, as good modern Americans, they are not immune to the outlook that a thing is made better if it gets made bigger.

Given all that, I suppose growing pumpkins the size of compact cars and turning them into boats makes all the sense in the world.

The Damariscotta Pumpkin Regatta has been held on or about Columbus Day for every one of the past five years, though this is only the second year it has been officially blessed by the town’s government.

It all began with Buzz Pinkham, who owns a nursery, Pinkham’s Plantation.

"Admiral" Buzz Pinkham

"Admiral" Buzz Pinkham

Buzz, shown here in his latest creation, was trying to think of something to do with a 700-pound pumpkin he had grown to show at a state fair. As he told a local reporter, he decided to try hollowing the pumpkin out, attaching a small outboard, and, putting his trust in gourd, finding out how it would do on the Damariscotta River, which flows into the harbor at Damariscotta.

He wasn’t trying to draw a crowd, he said, “but it’s kind of hard to sneak through town with a 700-pound pumpkin.”

So, a small crowd stood around on the banks of the river while Pinkham noodled around on the river, having a good time.

The next year, a couple of buddies joined Buzz with their own pumpkins, and drew an even bigger crowd.

By the third year, the businesses in town were starting to realize that the informal event was bringing people and those people usually brought their wallets with them, etc., etc.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about ordinary pumpkins. This lot is a breed apart, hybrid monsters that have been been around, though not so grandly, since the early 1800s. Back then, somebody or some chance intermingled the DNA of a variety of Hubbard squash and a Kabocha pumpkin.

So, for a long time, Cucurbita maxima, to use the monster’s scientific name, were simply an unusually large variety of pumpkin weighing of a couple hundred pounds.

And then came Howard Dill. (A major chord would be appropriate here, if this was a movie.)

Before 1981, the world record for the largest pumpkin stood at an anorexic 460 pounds. Then, Dill, of Nova Scotia, set the world, or the portion of the world that cared, on its collective ear by submitting a pumpkin of almost 500 pounds.

Dill patented his seeds as Dill’s Atlantic Giant, and that breed is credited as the progenitor of the giant pumpkins of today, augmented by an orgy of crossing and re-crossing his variety with other types of pumpkins.

Dill died in May of 2008, at the age of 73.

The result of all this mad cross-breeding has been what must be a peculiarly North American phenomenon, even if they are grown now in other countries. Heck, people in other countries drive Hummers, but it was our idea, for better or worse.

This year’s world record holder is Christy Harp’s 1725-pound Atlantic giant pumpkin, which won the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers annual weigh-off just this month. Photos of Ms. Harp, like this one that I swiped off the Internet, show her standing behind what appears to be an orange asteroid.

The World's Biggest Pumpkin, 2009 edition

The World's Biggest Pumpkin, 2009 edition

Put that in perspective. That’s about the weight of two Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide motorcycles.

It must be pointed out that these exaggerated pumpkins are, how shall I say it? Unattractive? Butt ugly? I’d love to see one that had been raised in zero gravity. Perhaps it would be, oh, pumpkin-shaped. The really big ones bear an unfortunate resemblance a gargantuan loaf of bread that failed to rise correctly.

My vacation was over couple of days before the actual regatta.

I did manage to hang out for an hour or so at Pinkham’s Plantation while some of the guys were building and carving their squash navy. Buzz wasn’t around, but Bill, Tom Lishness, and one other fellow whose name I did not catch were busily measuring, eyeballing, sawing and scooping.

It is a little alarming how much goop lives inside a 700 pound pumpkin. We’re talking at least a wheelbarrow load or more for each one.

Bill said the little pumpkin he was rigging up for the race weighed in at 860 pounds. He stated, matter-of-factly, that he had actually grown one that weighed more than the 1275-pound state record holder, which loomed a mere 30 feet away, but Bill’s gourd split from its own weight. In the photo, Tom, Bill, and Mr. X, ponder mounting onto an 800-pound-plus pumpkin the transom that will hold the motor.

Pondering the "How-to's"

Pondering the "How-to's"

Lishness, a compact fellow with bright blue eyes and a beard reminiscent of the one on the Travelocity Gnome (one of which was attached to the front of his pumpkin yacht a year or two ago, along with a miniature cannon,) said that in the early days of giant pumpkin contests gourds the size of his and Bill’s would have taken big prizes. Today, if your punkin is smaller than a thousand pounds, nobody remembers your name.

The details of pumpkin nautical architecture would seem simple, on the surface, so to speak. But distinct challenges present themselves.

First, one cannot help but notice that the pumpkin, whatever its dimensions, has not evolved a shape that lends itself to a graceful passage through water. Their roundness makes them prone to a certain vertical indecision, so that any overly enthusiastic motion from the pumpkin operator can result in his immediate demotion to keel.

Tom said the first outboards used on the pumpkins were two- to three-horsepower trolling motors. But, this is America and we all know that means there is no such thing as too much horsepower. From the photo I picked up online, Buzz Pinkham’s pumpkin this year boasted a 25-horsepower Nissan rig.

If I understood Tom correctly, some outfit that sells and repairs snowmobiles and jet-skis is working to develop a pumpkin/jet-ski hybrid. Heady stuff. I hope nobody from Morton-Thiokol, who builds the solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle, ever gets wind of the regatta.

Of course, there’s no easy way to attach an outboard motor to a pumpkin. The guys figured their way past that by attaching a plywood platform to the top of the pumpkin that gives the motor a little platform, or transom, to hang onto. There’s also a little frame to hold a block of polystyrene for floatation, to counter the weight of the motor. Without it, the pumpkin seems, briefly, to be headed for the sky, and then sinks out of sight.

They sometimes sink out of sight anyway. Tom’s pumpkin betrayed him this year, according to some published accounts.

Better luck next year.
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Oct. 7, Wednesday:

As promised, a wet morning.

I sat awhile by an open window, awash in the very cool air, and not a little of the wet, listening to the rain sighing on the open water, ticking against the glass.

Across the harbor, a lobsterman’s boat idled, providing the bass line for the concert, a flock of crows in the trees across the harbor, the chorus.

To hear the crows tell it, the performance is a tragedy, German, even Wagnerian, by the sound of it.

But then, it is a cold rain, and they are in it.

•    I am grateful for the bench.

•    After a year of pavement and office floors, heavily wooded hillsides and mossy paths have been a rude shock.

•    Protests abound. My feet and ankles wave placards and rude signs. My knees brandish pitchforks.

•    I leaned the cane against the bench and take the camera strap from around my neck.

•    The cane is a concession to the knees, etc.

•    The camera is in aid of a fantasy that I might one day take decent photographs.

•    Huckleberry Cove sits, still and dark before me.

•     The tide is almost fully out, exposing the limp strands of greenish bladderwrack on the stony shore. A few gulls and ducks mill about on the far shore.

Huckleberry Cove, low tide

Huckleberry Cove, low tide

•    The gulls mutter like old men, and no and then one will rise into the air for no apparent reason, and come down only a few feet away. One flies to my side of the cove, plops into the water, swims around eyeing me. Then he flies back to the other side. Just nosy.

•    For the most part I ignore the camera. The moment is too perfect to be snapping away like the tourist that I am. Instead, I listen.

•    Back home, I forget what “quiet” means.

•    I remember it here.

•    Quiet is being able to hear a gull mumbling a few hundred feet away, orhearing the breeze sighing through the spruce and fir along the banks. Or the sound the small red squirrels make peeling pine cones to get at the seeds tucked down inside. Winter is coming, and the squirrels are busy with their hoardings.

•    The kitchen gardens uphill from me are full of pumpkins and gourds. The other tourists wear khakis and dark sweaters and talk too much. But down here, away from the graded, mulched paths, few of them come. There are logs to step over, a stream to cross, twice, on flat stones.

•    The trees sway. The gulls arc into the air then dip back into the still, black water. A red squirrel carrying a nut scampers only a few feet away, weaving through the tree trunks and into a jumble of granite boulders and is gone with no more than a faint rustle of leaves. The moment is full of a kind of grace.

•    I retrieve the cane and camera and lunge to my feet. I like to think that at the least I provide a nice contrast to the grace of the setting.

•     My left knee pops, then settles into place and wobble up the slope and the signs that will point me back smoother path, the one with the signs that will keep me from losing my way.