A couple weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending the 2007 West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta in Tualatin, Oregon. Started in 2003, the annual regatta pits the regions giant gourd growers against each other in what is a competition of size and speed, and while it sounds both impossible and crazy, it is in fact what the name suggests; it’s a boat race, but the boats are giant pumpkins. The competing farmers/captains grow giant pumpkins, carve and hollow them out, put them in a lake, get in them, and then race them as if they were kayaks. Qualifying size for race eligibility is 600 lbs, but most of the giant pumpkins competing in the regatta weighed in at twice that (the biggest pumpkin was 1408 lbs). They all had to be lifted into the water with the help of a forklift, and many of them were decorated with designs ranging from airplanes to turtles to giant mushrooms.
At first I was very worried that these giant pumpkin racing vessels would quickly capsize and send the racers into the frigid depths of Tualatin Commons Lake, but I realized that these gourds were sea worthy (or at least duck-pond worthy) as soon as I saw the first one dropped into the water. While on land, the gourds look like giant, saggy pockets of orange flesh, barely resembling their perky smaller cousins waiting to be carved into jackolanterns. But in the water the giants became buoyant, bouncing watercraft ready to sail to victory. The growers participating in the race, often referred to as “squash bucklers,” looked both proud and scared; beaming at the opportunity to show off their prized gourd, but also secretly wondering ‘what the hell am I doing floating in the middle of this lake in a giant pumpkin.”
When the race started, it was as if some giant man wrapped from head to toe in orange water-wings was drowning and flopping around in the middle of the lake. Water was splashing in every direction, giant gourds bounced up and down in the newly turbulent water, and an overall sense of panic was in the air. Boaters furiously paddled only to find their gourd spinning in circles or bumping into the nearest competitor. But amongst the madness, two gourds emerged as the the ones to beat. Leading the pack was a gourd operated by a man dressed as Skeletor and close behind was a gourd decorated as the famous X1 rocket plane.
The world record for largest pumpkin is 1689 lbs, set just this year by Rhode Island farmer Joe Jutras. The growing season for pumpkins typically runs from mid April to mid October, meaning Joe’s pumpkin grew approximately 280 lbs a month, or over 9 lbs a day! He was quoted as saying the most important daily task was making sure that the pumpkin didn’t grow in such a way that it would rip it’s own stock off. But soil monitoring, fertilizing and watering, and favorable weather are also clearly important. While giant pumpkins enjoy warm, humid summer nights, it is unclear if any of the gourd growers are going organic.
The giant-pumpkin-growing community spans the globe and isn’t messing around. Seeds from award winning giant pumpkins often sell for hundreds of dollars a pop, and at websites like bigpumpkin.com you can track the daily diaries of giant pumpkin growers and literally watch a seed transform into a champion vegetable.
Growers spend hundreds of hours caring for their giant gourds, and many liken cutting the pumpkin from its vine to cutting an umbilical cord. The growing season is followed by shows, competitions, and weigh-offs as the giant gourds are toured to fairs throughout the region. Pacific Giant Vegetables Growers Association President Ron Wilson told The Tigard Times that “by the time of the regatta, you are so burned out (that) this becomes a chance to blow off steam and really have a moment of fun”
The Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers (PGVG), who were the main sponsors behind the West Coast Regatta, have a very informative and inspirational website . “The PGVG is moving forward as Giant Vegetable growing gains interest. What we offer is a progressive outlook with more organization, membership participation, and an open arms approach to the sport.”
this last pict was taken by my pal Megan Scheminske