- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2012

It’s not a good weekend to be a pumpkin.

Starting Friday, the bright orange squashes will be loaded, launched and landing in dozens of pieces during the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition.

Hoping to make a mess of their own are the Boy Scouts of Troop 672 in Severn, Md., who are bringing their aptly named “Pumpkin Splatter” catapult to the launch line. More than 100 teams — including Troop 672 — are trekking to Bridgeville, Del., to test their creativity and engineering skills to see who can throw a pumpkin the farthest with the help of weighted trebuchets, spring-loaded catapults, air cannons and even centrifugal machines that resemble helicopter blades.

This is the fourth year the troop has entered a machine. They will be competing in the youth catapult category, meaning their machine uses a series of wound springs to pull back an arm that will launch the pumpkin.

“The first year, our goal was just to get something to go forward,” said Rob Joyce, an assistant Scoutmaster. “This year, our goal is to get something on the field, and hopefully in a big way.”

The troop decided that using industrial-strength garage door springs tightened with a winch — a mechanical device used for winding cables or wires, like the kind used for towing a car — could give them the power and control for a winning chunk.

With some good luck and good connections, the troop was able to construct “Pumpkin Splatter” over the course of three weeks, roughly 100 man hours, and about $1,500.

The troop bought a cheap boat trailer on Craigslist and a Scout’s father welded a frame to the trailer to hold the throwing arm. Under the supervision of the Scout leaders, the boys learned how to use tools to build a shallow, wide case that has room for eight door springs.

“It’s a really cool opportunity for the kids to build something and find accomplishment in it,” Scoutmaster Tom Zuby said.

Last year, the boys decided to step up a category and enter the youth division with a spring-powered catapult. The first year the troop tried chunkin’, the Scouts built a wooden counterweight trebuchet that launched their 10-pound pumpkin 56 feet.

While the Scouts were happy to launch a pumpkin forward, the record for the youth category catapult was set in 2011 at 1,568 feet by a team from New Jersey.

The Scouts were not so lucky last year. In the first round of competition using the catapult, the throwing arm snapped as the springs were tightened for a throw and could not be repaired in time to compete.

“The most fun is watching it work,” said RJ Joyce, 16, son of the assistant Scoutmaster. “We never got to see one last year get thrown.”

Inspired by a television show that chronicled the cultlike attraction of launching pumpkins as far as human or machine power can allow, Mr. Joyce took his son RJ to a competition several years ago.

RJ, now a junior in high school with an affection for engineering and programming, was impressed by the range of the contraptions used to throw the bright orange squashes.

Last weekend, while most people in the Washington area shopped for extra cases of water and spare batteries, five Scouts and several Scout leaders were debating what household items could be used to stop the throwing arm from crashing down and shattering, or breaking the catapult before the next throw.

During last weekend’s test, the Scouts launched one pumpkin about 175 feet using only half of the catapult’s spring power, with plenty of room to turn on the winch.

They also replaced a web of bungee cords to catch the throwing arm with a pile of hay stacks and couch cushions.

“There has to be thought in this to work,” Mr. Zuby said.

This year’s competition almost didn’t happen when heavy rains from the superstorm left the competition field a muddy mess. But organizers decided the throw must go on, narrowing the usual three days of competition to two.

Competition spokesman Frank Shade said the competition got its start in 1986 with three teams and 87 spectators.

This year, 80,000 to 100,000 people are expected.

“When you come to it,” Mr. Shade said, “you’re either addicted for life and you never miss another chunk, or you figure out how to become a chunker.”