DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Nine years ago, before the hoopla, television cameras and crowds of people came from all over to the shores of the Damariscotta River every October, there were just two men and one dream: to put an outboard motor on a giant pumpkin and ride in it.
“It’s everybody’s dream, to ride the giant pumpkin,” Buzz Pinkham, one of those men, said Monday — tongue only slightly in cheek.
That’s because the years have shown that if everybody doesn’t want to pilot the giant pumpkin boats, they certainly want to watch the captains crash into each other, sink or even safely make it back to the dock in the event that has turned into the annual Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta. Over the 10 or so days of the festival, now in its seventh year and winding down Monday, Pinkham, its self-described instigator, estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 people swelled the streets of Damariscotta.
They marveled at the massive pumpkins on Main Street painted and sculpted by local artists. They gasped during the pumpkin drop — during which a 1,050-pound pumpkin was winched 200 feet in the air with a crane and then let drop, with satisfactory results, onto a donated junked car far below.
And, he said, they came to watch the regatta, which took place on Monday morning and included a relay race, pumpkin boats powered by paddles and the “super modified” division — with outboard motors, superstructures and a little extra flotation. That’s Pinkham’s speciality.
“We had a lot of action. We had boats rubbing up against each other,” he said. “It’s pretty ruthless.”
Pinkham, 58, who owns Pinkham’s Plantation garden center and nursery, said that it all began nine years ago, when his buddy Bill Clark stopped by the greenhouse and expressed a wish that more people would grow giant pumpkins. Pinkham got to looking at a copy of “How to Grow Giant Pumpkins, Vol. 3,” and saw a photograph of someone in a pumpkin with an outboard motor on it. His imagination fired.
“Bill, we’ve got to do this thing,” Pinkham recalled saying. “Bill said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. I’ll grow you a pumpkin. I’ll even make you a boat — but I’m not getting in it.”
That first year, the duo tried to sneak the 754-pound pumpkin boat to its launching site, but it’s hard to keep something that big under wraps, Pinkham said. Somehow, other people got it in their heads that they wanted to join him in the water.
“When I was entering high school, we had a required reading program, with the ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ on the list. I just didn’t understand at all why we had to read it,” he said. “A couple of years ago, as I was in my pumpkin boat with the outboard motor, it all began to make sense. People saw how much fun we were having, playing with our pumpkins in public. They just had to join in.”
The first year that television cameras came to film the giant pumpkin boat races, the video clips often got categorized under “weird news.” But Pinkham said that doesn’t bother him one whit. This year, a production team from the national CBS Sunday Morning program came to do a segment that is scheduled to air on Oct. 27, he said.
“It’s interesting to see their perception of what we’re doing. Maybe we’re just crazy,” Pinkham said. “But maybe we aren’t. Maybe bringing 20,000 or 30,000 people to our little town of 2,000, and the economic impact of that — maybe it’s no laughing matter. Although the people downtown are laughing all the way to the bank.”
Correction: A photo cutline misspells the name of the co-founder of the annual Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta. It is Tom Lishness.