COVID-19 Sinks the Boat

Megan Swedberg, Scarlet Staff

Every year as Autumn whispers forth a soft cool breeze, and nourishes the land with plentiful harvest, thousands of people gather at

the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival in California to celebrate the season of pumpkin spice. 

Among carnival rides, arts, crafts, baking and scarecrow contests, giant pumpkin and produce weighing contests, along with the  multitude of other events, is the annual crowd favorite Pumpkin Regatta. During this seemingly unusual, yet very entertaining event, contestants carve out giant pumpkins (which weigh hundreds of pounds) before racing them as boats across a pond. The gist of the competition is simple: participants paddle 100 yards (the length of a football field) in their pumpkin, capture a flag and then return back to the finish line, trying their best not to capsize or sink.

While the massive pumpkin shells are surprisingly buoyant, there is a certain level of strategy present when it comes to creating a pumpkin boat that will effectively carry competitors across the pond. As reported in an article for ABC News, regatta judge Brian Myers said that there is an art to picking out the perfect pumpkin and carving it the right way. According to Myers, a lopsided or heavy pumpkin could very well capsize. To illustrate the difficulty of the competition and emphasize the strategic planning that must occur, Myers further pointed out that “only about 50% of the pumpkins make it to the finish line.” 

The Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival began in 1994, celebrating the fall harvest and hosting a national Giant Pumpkin weighing contest. According to Marni Lutz, who placed second in the Pumpkin Regatta in 2016 and then served as the host for the annual festival, “the festival grew larger each year [since 1994] and so did the pumpkins! In 2006, festival organizers were looking for ways to bring more pumpkin attractions to the event. They searched online and found a pumpkin regatta held in Nova Scotia, Canada and decided to recreate it, since the festival takes place around a small lake.”

The Pumpkin Regatta soon became one of the most popular attractions of the festival, luring 70,000 people in 2019, according to a staff report by the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD). 

Unfortunately, this event’s popularity is it’s downfall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival will be returning to Elk Grove Regional Park on Oct. 2-3, the Pumpkin Regatta will not. As Mike Dopson, recreation and community services director of CSD, reported in an article for the Elk Grove Citizen, “it’s an event that basically leads to a lot of congregating in tight spaces, even though it’s outdoors.” With new strains of the COVID-19 virus flaring up, Dopson and CSD organizers decided that in order to promote the health and safety of the community, it would be best to avoid such gatherings and cancel the Pumpkin Regatta altogether.
While the absence of this iconic event will be felt by many returning attendees, CSD has worked hard in scaling down the festival and taking precautionary measures so that the festival can still take place. Masks will be advised for all attendees despite vaccination status and there will be handwashing stations available at the festival. There will be fewer vendors than in the past and some activities like bounce houses will not take place, but there will still be a plethora of fun fall-themed activities to participate in. 

Even without the great Pumpkin Regatta, the return of the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival is certain to bring back some joy and happiness in the midst of the pandemic, for as pumpkin paddler Peter Geiger said, according to an article for NPR, “there are not so many things in life that are as simple, as fun and as awe-inspiring as giant pumpkins.”