Out of Their Gourds? Paddling Pumpkins On Lake Pesaquid WINDSOR, Nova Scotia -- Leo Swinimer carefully climbed into his boat and dipped his paddle into the pond last Saturday afternoon. The craft rocked back and veered to one side. Keeping the 600-pound pumpkin on course was going to be a trick. "It's a cranky one this year," the 72-year-old said, fidgeting in the hollowed gourd as he tried to get his balance. Mr. Swinimer then attacked the pumpkin with a drywall saw, enlarging the opening enough to give him more room to paddle, but not enough to flood the boat. "If you don't sit in the right place, you'll sink," he said. On Sunday, he was ready to face about four dozen competitors in the chilly waters of Lake Pesaquid as they paddled their supersize pumpkins over a three-quarter-mile course in the annual Windsor-West Hants Pumpkin Regatta. The giant pumpkin weigh-offs common across the U.S. and Canada are a bit old hat. Towns are coming up with novel ways to get more mileage out of their massive harvest. "There was just something lacking in our town," says Helen Romans, 66, a Windsor resident and former town councilor. She approached local farmer Danny Dill eight years ago to ask how the town could better capitalize on its history as the birthplace of giant pumpkin growing. Mr. Dill's father, Howard, had spawned a new era of competitive growing in the 1970s when he engineered mammoth pumpkins and patented the seed as Dill's Atlantic Giant. But few took Danny Dill, 43, seriously when he proposed the race. "Nobody believed it could be done. They looked at me like I had three eyes," he says. Today, the race attracts 10,000 spectators to Windsor, a town of 3,700. The event has grown from five entries to 54 this year, divided into two classes, a big one for contestants with kayak paddles, and a small one for motorized pumpkin boats. There were just four of those this year. Wayne Hackney, a 58-year-old pumpkin farmer who lives in Winchester, N.H., got there a bit before Windsor did. He was one of the first to use a pumpkin as a boat when he completed a two-mile voyage across Candlewood Lake in western Connecticut in 1996. He rigged a three-horsepower motor to his pumpkin, and outfitted the craft with a bilge pump and a windshield. The trip took an hour and 15 minutes, attracting an armada, including a police boat from a nearby marina. Two years later, he organized a three-man race in Manhattan's Central Park, and later floated the idea of taking a trip to Martha's Vineyard, the island off the southeast coast of Massachusetts. "That would be an awful tough voyage," he says. Since its first regatta in 1999, Windsor has inspired contests in towns from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Elk Grove, Calif. Three years ago, Ron Wilson started a regatta in Tualatin, Ore., after he was denied access to a trout lake next to the decommissioned Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Rainier, near the Oregon border with Washington. The electric utility company, Portland General Electric, "didn't like the innuendo that we had freakishly large pumpkins on a lake" near the former nuclear facility, says the 40-year-old soil scientist. A PGE spokesman says the company isn't able to accommodate every request for the use of its parks, and that officials may have denied the request out of concerns that pumpkins could not safely be used as boats. One year, Mr. Wilson says, he watched a heavy-set competitor climb into a pumpkin that was too small, submerging it a foot below the water level. Undeterred, he paddled the pumpkin across the finish line, with his head above water and his boat beneath the surface. "We called it, 'the Submarine,'" he says. As the races grow in popularity, serious racers are looking to breed better boats. "They're not well shaped for sailing," says James Nienhuis, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin who started an annual race in Madison. He bred a sleeker version of the Atlantic Giant by crossing it with a pink banana squash. In Windsor last Sunday, the siren of a fire engine started the race, and four boats overturned almost immediately, belching a mess of pumpkin pulp, and turning the unlucky boaters into the lake. "It just wanted to sink," says Scott Brison, a contestant who happens to represent Windsor in Parliament. He says that competing in the race -- and suffering "the ignominy of pumpkin naval disaster" -- shows his constituents that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Most racers here buy their pumpkins from the Dill farm, but not Mr. Swinimer, the five-time defending champion who grows his pumpkins to be boats. During the hot summer months, when the pumpkins are pliable, he rolls them up on their stems to force them to grow flat and round "like a pancake," he says. A week before the race, he takes them from the vine and opens them up using his saw and a crowbar. He and his "pit crew" -- his son and a nephew -- use custom-built aluminum scraping tools to thin down the inside walls, reducing the boat's weight as much as possible. The sleeves of his jacket get covered with pumpkin zest and juice as he hauls out hundreds of pounds of pumpkin. The race is serious business for him. He keeps a fiberglass replica of his first regatta-winning boat in the attic of his barn. Framed pictures of past races adorn a living-room wall, and he displays his trophies next to his fireplace. Before the race, he stores his pumpkin boat inside the toolshed of his barn, where, safely out of the damp air, the fruit can dry out, reducing its weight. He fills the inside with foam to stiffen up the thinned out walls and then he dries out the inside of his boat with a hair-dryer and small space heater. But Mr. Swinimer has other weapons beyond his pumpkin: thick, muscular forearms, which earned him the nickname "Popeye" as a Halifax police officer. "Are you ready? I don't want to leave you at the line," he said to Jeff Farwell, a top challenger in his early thirties, who replied: "I've developed some OMS of my own, old man strength." During the race, Mr. Swinimer cut through the water with his rotor-like paddling, leaving many out-of-breath competitors in his wake. He reached the dock first, and received a hero's reception from the crowd. After collecting a trophy -- a carved wooden pumpkin with silver plaques that name past winners -- a ribbon and a $200 check, he reflected on his accomplishment. "It has to be something that everyone that competes in anything feels when they win," he said. "There is a certain satisfaction." Before a crowd of admirers and reporters after the race, Mr. Swinimer announced that he's retiring. His family, looking on, had heard it all before. "Every year he says it's the last one," said his son-in-law, Ian Poole. "But as soon as March or April comes up, he'll be out growing them again."