Rick Swenson had only planned on paddling a pumpkin for 10 miles.
Then, a Washington woman bested the existing record at 16 miles.
Swenson, of Minnesota, had minimal rowing experience before he embarked on a pumpkin-paddling expedition on the Red River in North Dakota this October. He was already on the water when a text about the Washington paddler forced him to extend his journey.
“We were really depressed,” he said, “it kind of took the wind out of our sails.”
After nearly 14 hours in a hollowed-out gourd, he had paddled 26 miles—unofficially setting the world record for longest trip in a very unusual boat.
At the rate things have been going, he doesn’t know how long his record will last.
“Boy, somebody could have broken it over the weekend,” he said.
Paddling in a pumpkin has long been a seasonal sport, but the gourd has just caught on for a new wave of record-seeking paddlers.
During their expeditions, paddlers sit inside carved pumpkins, some of which they’ve homegrown for months, and then, stroke by stroke, propel the squash—at up to two miles an hour—to their chosen destinations.
Swenson started growing his pumpkin last spring, and it packed on 50 pounds per day, ultimately weighing 1,100 pounds once he carved his manhole. He works at a seed company and recreationally grows enormous pumpkins, occasionally dropping them on cars for sweet, viral fame.
No one currently holds a title for “longest journey by pumpkin boat,” a Guinness representative said, and it usually takes the organization at least 12 weeks to process evidence. Swenson is submitting his application in November.
“My goal is to let it stand for this year,” he said, “but in another year, somebody should break it.”
Before this wave of endurance tests, pumpkins were floated mainly as vessels for speed racing.
In Nova Scotia, the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta started in 1999 and included races and relays. Similar water festivals go down in New England and the Pacific Northwest every year. And in 2013, a British man named Dmitri Galitzine achieved “fastest 100 meters paddled by pumpkin”—at just over two minutes in Trafalgar Wharf, according to Guinness records.
Among those going for distance, the strain of pumpkin—crookneck, field, or winter squash—doesn’t matter, but there are rules: It’s you, the pumpkin, and a paddle. No motors. No modifications. Devices are permitted to document location coordinates and take photos and video. Swenson brought a crew who paddled alongside him and wrangled strangers as witnesses, another requirement.
Competitors typically test the pumpkins in smaller waters before hitting the course to prepare for the hazards of the craft. Paddlers face rocks, dead trees, and the occasional wayward current. Worst of all, squash can accumulate inches of water in the base.
“My biggest worry was that the pumpkin would soak up water like a sponge and sink to the bottom,” Swenson said.
The trick is to carve out some balance on the water.
“The whole thing is uncharted,” said Charity Rusch Marshall, the previous record seeker from Washington. “You put a pumpkin in a water, and you don't know if it's going to work or not. It's worth the effort.”
Todd Sandstrum of Massachusetts paddled eight miles in the Taunton River this September.
“The first five miles went by relatively quickly,” Sandstrum said. “Then, it starts to change as your body starts to get tired—the slowness becomes unbearable, almost.”
An experienced paddler, Sandstrum first attempted to set a world record with a 3.5-mile journey during September 2015.
Then, this autumn, came another paddler.
Marshall traveled 15.9 miles by pumpkin for six hours earlier this month, before Swenson sought to break her record.
“I was disappointed,” Marshall said. “I’ll have to see how long I can sit in a pumpkin next year.”