Pumpkins take to the sky in 25th annual Punkin Chunkin

“Fire in the hole!”

Initially, the warning phrase was given just before a loaded cannon was to be ignited during battle. The United States Army and Marines later adopted the cautionary signal to forewarn that a grenade or satchel charge was being tossed into a bunker. It’s commonly used in mining to indicate a charge has been set. But in the month of November, in lower Delaware, “Fire in the hole!” takes on a whole different alert. It’s the warning that rings through the air just before a pumpkin is launched hundreds, if not thousands, of feet across an open field. And this weekend, Punkin Chunkin is back!

Gliding gourds, sailing squash and flying fruit (yes, technically, pumpkins are a fruit!)... The skies will be filled with the autumn orbs this Friday through Sunday, Nov. 5 through 7, as the 25th Annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin heats up right in the middle of Sussex County.

The firing line, complete with all sorts of pumpkin-heaving contraptions – from catapults, trebuchets and centrifugal machines to custom air cannons that look like something fashioned by NASA – will stretch a mile wide this year, as 115 teams have signed up for the highly anticipated event.

“We’re seeing a lot of participation each year,” said John Huber, president of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association (WCPCA). “This year, we filled all 115 firing spots back in June, despite raising our application fee.”

With the growing following surrounding Punkin Chunkin, Huber and the Chunkin board pulled out all the stops for the quarter-century anniversary.

“We want to make it a great show for the public and for teams that have been coming year after year, and for the new ones who are just jumping on board the excitement for the first time,” Huber said. “There’s a lot of excitement that surrounds the show.”

Adult and Youth divisions in a range of classes boast a variety of machines, and six of the past nine years have produced new world records. Just last year, at the 2009 World Championship Punkin Chunkin, the competition saw three new records set. Yankee Siege, a New Hampshire-based trebuchet, rolled in from New England and launched a pumpkin 2,034.21 feet, a world record in its category. The Pumpkin Slayer hurled one 1,984.37 feet, the furthest in the Adult Human Powered category. The Sanford Slinger cleaned up at last year’s chunk with a world record distance of 852.34 feet, the longest in the Youth Trebuchet category.

Even if they aren’t setting the bar in the record books, plenty others have been putting on a show.

In 2008, Young Glory III (Adult Air class) set the ultimate world record, sending a pumpkin 4,483.51 feet – the longest trajectory distance a gourd has ever traveled – but they came up short last year, as Big 10 Inch’s firing of 4,162.65 feet was enough to take the cake in the 2009 Adult Air category.

Old Glory and Iron Tiger gave Big 10 Inch a run for its money, though, finishing second and third in the category, respectively. Prior to upgrading to the adult division, Young Glory III set the world record in the Youth Air category, back in 2003.

Engineering developments and modifications have been coming a long way over the years to make the World Championship Punkin Chunkin the success story it has become.

“The growth of this event is incredible,” said Huber. “We’ve got some of the smartest people in this organization, and we get all walks of life, from dentists, doctors and lawyers to engineers, backyard mechanics and physicists. The machines are always improving, and we’re seeing longer distances and more heated competition.

“Punkin Chunkin is starting to run the line that monster trucking was when it first got big,” he said. “When Bigfoot first came out, it wasn’t any kind of a mechanical marvel. Now you look at it, and you see the creativity that has gone into it and the money it has developed, and you start to see the similarities. Punkin Chunkin is going the same way.”

What many people don’t even realize is that money raised at Punkin Chunkin goes right back to the community.

“The WCPCA is a nonprofit organization,” Huber noted. “What we raise goes back to charitable groups. We’ve given to autism foundations and John Hopkins. There’s a list of a dozen charities and scholarships that we give out after each event, year after year. It does a ton of good with the money that is raised. It isn’t just a cash cow for the people who put the time and effort into the competition.”

And if you thought that hurling pumpkins was the only thing to do at the World Championship Punkin Chunkin, think again. Games, rides and food are available all weekend long. Guests can come out each of the three days for the 8 a.m. practice session for all the machines, prior to the 8:30 a.m. start of competition. Live performances from Double Tap, The Funsters and J.C. Anderson grace the stage on Friday, Nov. 5, as well, complete with a 7 p.m. firework celebration for the event’s 25th anniversary.

On Saturday, musical performances from Cathy Gorman, 501 The Band, Anything Goes, Mari Hill Band and the Cherry Bud Band will be dishing up tunes, while a baked-goods auction and Miss and Mrs. Punkin Chunkin Pageants will be held. Rampage and Barren Creek help round up the entertainment on Sunday, with a chili cook-off and award ceremony close out the celebration.

Tens of thousands of attendants come out for the chunkin’ from across the country, and even the world, and Huber has ambitions that they may even top the 100,000 mark this year.

“We’d love to get that many people here,” he said, “and it’s definitely a possibility. We gauge our prediction based on our Web traffic and the number of camping sites that are sold. We lay it out in terms of percentages, and while weather can play as a factor, it’s looking really good for us. The event and good weather brings people to the gates, and it gives us the chance to raise more money to give back.”

No longer does the World Championship Punkin Chunkin have to rely on word-of-mouth, either. Over the past few years, the Discovery Channel and Science Channel have picked up the wide-spread phenomenon, educating countless more each year.

“Our event has been boasted as an alternative to football,” said Huber. “Coverage is aired around Thanksgiving, and it’s a huge hit. Last year, the feature was the highest rated show that the Science Channel has ever aired, and it has been recognized in the top 10 broadcasts for all cable markets that wasn’t news or sports.”

Huber, who has since the start joined a team in the catapult division, as well, enjoys the friendly competition that Punkin Chunkin brings, as well as seeing familiar faces, and new ones, each and every year.

“This event really makes my year, every time,” he said. “I’m friends with various teams that participate, and in some cases, this is the one time all year long that I get to see them. You get to see the changes they’ve done to their equipment. They are a good bunch of folks, and you make some great friends.”

The 25th Annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin will take place in a Sussex County field along Chalpin’s Chapel Road, nearly halfway between Bridgeville and Georgetown, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 5 through Nov. 7. Gates open to the public at 7:30 a.m. each morning. Admission costs $9, with a $2 fee parking per vehicle. Children younger than 10 are admitted free of charge. Be sure to visit www.punkinchunkin.com for a complete schedule of events, as well as a Punkin Chunkin history and directions to the field.