Edwin Pierpont is surprised to see that the 8-inch blade on his Sawzall is long enough to cut through the deck of his latest build. He thought it would be thicker, but he’s not concerned. The deck is plenty thick.
Edwin builds destroyers for the U.S. Navy at Bath Iron Works (BIW) in Bath, Maine, where he is an outside machinist, but on this October day, he’s building a boat of his own in the parking lot at Pinkham’s Plantation, a nursery in Damariscotta. He’s spent the summer and early fall nurturing this hull on his property in Jefferson. She weighs 1,960 pounds and in two days, when his friends will launch the finished vessel, she’s going to be the largest powered craft of her kind to ever launch in the Pine Tree state, and possibly the largest of her type in the world.
Edwin’s taken this Friday off from his regular job to make sure his boat will be ready for Sunday’s big race. After cutting the cockpit in the deck, he literally dives headfirst into the hole to clear out the bilge. Like many bilges, it’s messy. He deposits its sticky, gooey pulp in 5-gallon buckets and sets them aside for sorting.
The sorting falls to Richard Powell, a BIW retiree, who sits in a folding chair under the tent with a colander in his lap. Richard explains how growing pumpkin boats is not about looks or color. “These are good genetics for boatbuilding,” he says as he palms a handful of seeds. “They make for a good hull shape.”
Edwin and Richard are giant pumpkin growers and giant pumpkin boat builders. Next spring, they and the other pumpkin boat builders will hand out about 700 seeds to people in the community in the hopes that they will grow a fruit that can be turned into a pumpkin boat. Edwin’s been growing giant pumpkins since 2007 and is considered one of the state’s great growers and builders. In 2021, he grew Maine’s largest pumpkin ever, setting the record at 2,121.5 pounds. “They’re amazing because you can see them grow every day,” says Buzz Pinkham, the nursery’s owner and the spiritual leader and head instigator of the pumpkin boat race. “The vines can grow a foot a day and the pumpkins can gain 40 to 50 pounds per day.”
Bill Clark, the lead pumpkin boat builder and another BIW employee, works with Russell “The Viking” Orms to turn Richard’s 842-pound pumpkin into Plundering Pumpkin. The Viking is a big man, well over 6-feet tall and probably close to 250 pounds. When someone questions whether the pumpkin is big enough to keep him afloat, The Viking smiles. “That just adds to the excitement,” he says.
After helping The Viking, Bill exhorts Tom “The Gnome” Lishness to bolt his plywood deck onto his pumpkin. The plywood deck is referred to as the toilet ring design, a naval architecture term unique to Maine’s pumpkin boat builders. It’s aptly coined. It looks like a giant toilet seat.
The Gnome shouldn’t have any trouble staying afloat in his boat. He is just a little over 5-feet tall and his pumpkin displaces 970 pounds. Bill, who has been building pumpkin boats for 15 years, laughs when The Gnome asks if he can enlarge his cockpit.
“Why?” Bill asks. “You don’t think you can get your fat ass in there?”
The two men have known each other long enough to joke around. Tom was there in 2005 when Bill and Buzz first put an outboard motor on a pumpkin. The year before, Bill had shown Buzz a photo of a motorized pumpkin boat and Buzz had been so amazed by it that he told Bill, “We gotta do this.” Bill was game, but being far more risk averse than his friend, he told Buzz, “I’ll grow it and put an engine on it, but I won’t get in it.” Buzz told him not to worry. “I’ll take care of that,” he told Bill.
The next summer Bill grew a giant pumpkin and when they flipped it over, they couldn’t believe their eyes. “Hey, it looks like a boat,” Buzz recalls them saying. They put a 3-hp, 2-stroke Yamaha outboard on it and snuck down to the Damariscotta boat ramp to launch the 754 Clark (pumpkin boat nomenclature uses the fruit’s weight and the grower’s name to distinguish one model from another). Buzz went for a ride first but when Tom got inside the gourd and Bill pulled the starter cord, he was startled by the torque of the engine. “I was like, Woa,” Tom recalls. “He went all cupcake on me,” Bill says. But they were hooked.
Soon, they started petitioning the town to have a pumpkin festival. “It’s not easy to convince a community that we should have a festival with giant pumpkins and float them with outboard motors,” Buzz says. “And it’s hard to find someone who will loan you an outboard so you can put it on your pumpkin.”
It took three years to talk the town into a festival. “They wanted to know what we were going to do,” Buzz says. “I said to them, ‘Well, we’re going to put them on the street, we’ll decorate them, we’ll drop them from cranes, we can catapult them, and race them on the river.”
Which is exactly what they did. In 2006 they had just two boats, but since 2007 the official Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta has evolved. Along the way, they’ve hoisted giant pumpkins with a crane and dropped them on cars, used a pumpkin cannon to shoot holes in a Land Rover and hosted derbies where pumpkins on wheels raced down the hill on Elm Street.
Held on Indigenous Peoples Day weekend, after a pumpkin weigh-in, the festival features a parade, a pumpkin queen and well over 100 giant pumpkins that have been decorated by local artists and draw about 15,000 people a day to Damariscotta. But it’s the pumpkin boat race that is considered the grand event.
On Sunday morning, hours before the races, Bill readies the pumpkin boats at the Damariscotta town dock. Since Friday afternoon, the pumpkins have been transformed. The soles have been carpeted to spread the human load; they’ve been sprayed with Lysol to prevent rot; the edges of the plywood have been covered with pipe insulation to prevent splinters; and the transoms have been beefed up with lumber and foam to support the outboards. The Gnome’s boat has been christened the 970 Moby because its white skin resembles that of Herman Melville’s antagonist and has three little gnomes velcroed to its bow. The Viking’s boat now features shields to port and starboard and a dragon figurehead.
But it’s Edwin’s 1,960-pound mammoth that has undergone the most dramatic metamorphosis. The cast of Discovery Channel’s Maine Cabin Masters, which is there to compete in the pumpkin paddle races, has turned it into The Cabin Cruiser, complete with a metal roof, windows, functioning screen door and stovepipe chimney. The pumpkin floats upright at the dock, but despite the fruit’s size someone expresses concern that she may capsize and trap the driver inside the cabin. But Buzz is not worried. “He can get out the screen door,” he says about whoever has the guts to operate Edwin’s monster fruit.
Volunteers in waders steady the pumpkins in the water as Bill mounts outboards of various vintages on the transoms. The local fire department launches its rescue boat, and a volunteer firefighter enters the water in his dry suit. Buzz explains that the frogman is there to save the outboards. “The participants have their life preservers,” he says, “but the motors can’t swim.”
Bill installs a 9.9-hp shorttail Mercury of unknown vintage on 970 Moby, but The Gnome believes the engine is too short for the pumpkin’s draft. The shorttail is pulled, and a Honda 5-hp longtail 4-stroke makes its way onto Moby’s transom.
By noon, the shoreline, nearby decks and balconies, and the boats in the harbor are covered with spectators. Two announcers entertain the crowd with a continuous stream of humorous observations, which include a line about the rescue diver and how easily he can be spotted in the water when the sun glints off his balding pate.
Three local teenage girls provide a lovely version of the national anthem, a bagpiper accompanies the pumpkin pilots as they march onto the dock, the Pumpkin Queen blesses the fleet, and someone dressed as Goldilocks reads an ode to pumpkins.
Buzz was supposed to drive the 840 Pinkham during the powered races, but as the pumpkin paddle races are about to end, he sneaks onto The Cabin Cruiser and takes it for a test ride. As the winner of the paddle races takes a victory lap, it’s announced that the powered pumpkins won’t be racing. The announcers don’t give details, but apparently there is concern about the race-worthiness of at least one pumpkin. Instead, they tell the crowd there will be a powered-pumpkin demonstration. The Gnome, the Viking, Buzz and one of the pumpkin paddlers, Todd Sandstrum, run the four powered pumpkins around the racecourse at shockingly high speeds, but it becomes clear that there is an issue with Plundering Pumpkin. The Viking makes a couple of runs down the course as he raises Thor’s hammer, but every time he speeds up, the pumpkin seems to lose more freeboard. By the second run it’s pretty clear his situation has become too precarious, and he returns to the safety of the dock where a crew bails out his pumpkin.
The other powered pumpkins seem to have no problems. The Gnome flies around the racecourse, racing back and forth in front of the adoring crowd, but at one point, his Honda stalls out. He furiously yanks the starter cord as his pumpkin drifts closer to the harbor’s riprap, just feet from the spectators. When his engine starts, the crowd roars as if their favorite NFL team just scored the winning touchdown. The Gnome demonstrates the pumpkin’s agility by spinning it in place, then races fearlessly down the spectator line as everyone snaps photos with their smartphones. At lower speeds, The Gnome has plenty of freeboard, but at top speed the round bow of his pumpkin is displacing so much water that it threatens to flood Moby. But The Gnome is unfazed. Even when he gets too close to the boat ramp and strikes bottom, he bumps over it, gets back into deeper water and zooms back down the course.
Todd, sporting an orange plastic mohawk on his head aboard the 840 Pinkham, zips around the harbor with no issues.
Meanwhile, Buzz is having a field day in The Cabin Cruiser. He’d jumped aboard the one-tonner because everyone else had declared it too unstable to drive. But Buzz discovers that despite the tall cabin, Edwin’s pumpkin has excellent stability. Dressed like a pumpkin, Buzz can’t be seen inside the cabin, so he frequently let’s go of the tiller and pops out the front screen door to wave to the crowd while the enormous pumpkin steers itself.
As Buzz takes The Cabin Cruiser through the spectator fleet, there is no sign of her builder. Edwin is nowhere to be seen. Two days earlier, while building the boat, Edwin had announced where he would be on race day. “I’ll be in the patch on Sunday,” he’d said, giving a hint of what it takes to grow a record-breaking giant pumpkin. “I gotta turn it over and get it ready for next year.”
This article was originally published in the January 2023 issue.