Radio Field Trip: Goffstown's Giant Pumpkin Boat Race

Oct 17, 2018

For this week’s Radio Field Trip, we’re going to see a boat race featuring fall’s favorite squash – the pumpkin.

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(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Goffstown. The sky is bright and blue. Yellow, orange and red leaves cover the ground, and the fall air is just crisp enough.

Downtown is completely packed. Huge crowds visit the many vendors and local businesses lined all along Main Street.

There’s been a donut eating contest and something called apple slinging, but everyone’s waiting around for the main event – a regatta race with boats made out of giant pumpkins.

Jim Beauchemin, a long-time Goffstown resident and giant pumpkin grower, confirms a lot of people don’t realize that pumpkins actually float.

“They’re 95 percent air,” Jim says. “So you can’t sink these things. They’re like a big fishing bobber and they float on the water, and they’re pretty cool.”

Giant pumpkin grower Jim Beauchemin came up for the idea for the annual Goffstown Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off and Regatta 18 years ago.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Jim came up with the idea for the annual Goffstown Pumpkin Weigh Off and Regatta 18 years ago, when he pitched the idea to the town’s Main Street Program.

“They were looking to create an event to make Goffstown a destination,” he says. “And what better thing that these giant pumpkins and putting them in the river and racing them. You don’t see that everywhere. So when I presented that idea to them, they kind of looked at each other and said this guy’s serious.”

But they let Jim try it out, and the first year 500 people showed up. The second year there were about 1,000, and now the town is packed for a full two-day event.

The event organizers partner with farmers from the New Hampshire Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, which Jim also helped found.

The farmers bring in their giant pumpkins for a weigh off during the first day of the event. Then the participants who will captain the boats carve them out and decorate them. This year’s largest pumpkin boat weighs 1,600 lbs.

I’m curious how to even get a good time when racing a pumpkin.

“Well, you know, you take a 1,000-pound pumpkin and you get inside it,” Jim says. “And you’ve got your paddles, and there’s a strategy – leaning and you look for the current, and you pull all your weight into it. And you get up the river.”

Hundreds of people are gathered along the Piscataquog River that cuts through downtown. Several more are lined along a bridge that will mark the finish line for the race. Everyone is jockeying for the right spot with a good view.

There are six giant pumpkin boats, each elaborately decorated to fit in with this year’s theme – magic. They are spray painted all different colors, with flags and pinwheels.

Goffstown selectwoman Kelly Boyer will race in her unicorn-themed boat made out of a giant pumpkin weighing over 1,000 pounds.

Goffstown selectwoman Kelly Boyer will captain the town’s pumpkin in the race. She’s dressed in a wetsuit and a pastel green wig. Her face is painted with bright pinks and blues with sparkles.

Her boat is the second largest in the race and weighs over 1,000 pounds. It has the head of a unicorn attached to the front with a giant rainbow structure arching over the top.

I ask her about her strategy.

“We’re going style over speed at this point,” Kelly says. “But I did get to practice a little this morning and I think I can do a slow by steady.”

A few more unicorns, a wizard and the famous Harry Potter are among some of the other captains representing local organizations and businesses in the race.

Pretty soon they get ready to board their boats. They all line up in the river in as straight of line as they can.

And then, with a shot from a cannon, the race begins. The captains are paddling against the current of the river to get to the bridge.

The race is a tight one with several pumpkins pulling ahead and then falling back. The boats are getting closer to the bridge, and Harry Potter in a gold pumpkin is head to head with a gothic looking unicorn in a black pumpkin.

It looks like it’s going to be a tie, and then Harry Potter pulls ahead to take the win.

Harry Potter, or actually Mike Leonard, is a teacher who was representing Mountain View Middle School in Goffstown.

I’m curious how he pulled off that win at the very end of the race.

“Alright, I’m Harry Potter. So I put a spell on it there at the end,” Mike says. “But I really just keep going until I couldn’t feel my arms anymore, and then I kept going after that somehow. My brain was like keep going."

It was Mike’s first time participating in the regatta. He says students at the middle school helped him decide on his costume and decorate the pumpkin.

I ask him if he’d do it again.

“Absolutely, I’ve got to defend my title next year.”