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Giant pumpkin regatta a smashing success

History was made, disaster was averted, and most of the several hundred spectators stayed dry at the first Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Regatta, held on a brilliant October Sunday at the docks of the Memorial Union on the UW-Madison campus.

“This day began nearly 10 months ago as a question and a challenge for our horticulture students: do giant pumpkins float, and if so, can you grow one and carve it into a suitable boat?” said Cucurbita Regatta Co-Commodore Irwin Goldman, who spends his off-water time as a professor of horticulture and associate dean at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The inspiration for this question came from a caller on Larry Meiller”s Garden Talk program on Wisconsin Public Radio, where Goldman and his colleague (and regatta Co-Commodore) Jim Nienhuis had been invited to talk about vegetables. The Ashland-based caller mentioned a pumpkin sailing event held every year in Lake Superior, thereby stimulating the creative juices of the horticulture professors to come up with new and challenging events for their students.

Student competitors piloted three Atlantic Giant pumpkins, two of which weighed an estimated 400 pounds each. A smaller Atlantic, which Nienhuis revealed to be a custom-bred racing pumpkin, proved to be the fastest gourd on the lake; its pilots consistently placed first in the races.

Undergraduate students Kris Schmidt-Stumpf and Calvin Lietzow grew the pumpkins as part of a class project. At dockside, Nienhuis masterfully macheted the enormous gourds into sleek racing vessels and they were lashed to tractor tires for flotation.

The Wisconsin Hoofers Sailing Club set up the race-course buoys and provided pumpkin launching assistance and supervision. Event sponsors took great pains to ensure safety; Hoofers chase boats circled the challenging 150-foot course on Lake Mendota, and each pumpkin pilot wore a life jacket and what Nienhuis termed “an attractively carved pumpkin helmet.”

Other than a collapsed pier after the first race (the pier framework gave way as the crowd cheered for returning racers and more than a dozen race fans rode the overloaded pier sections down into 3-foot deep, 60-degree water; nobody was hurt, though their cell phones and cameras fared poorly), the event went off without a hitch. One dunkee, a shivering but smiling kid about 10 years old, exited the pier dripping wet, wearing a borrowed jacket, and commenting “That was awesome!” Hoofers boats rescued the spectators stranded on the far end of the pier.

The pumpkin pilots came from a class on world vegetable crops that Nienhuis and Goldman teach. Race winners were Horticulture students Katie Forbes, Jeff Heller, and Robyn Donahoe.

Nienhuis and Goldman are considering making the race an annual event, and possibly adding a fund-raising element for local food pantries. Collapsing piers, they note, will not be part of any future regattas.