Warriors propel pumpkins at World Championship

Look, up in the sky. It’s bird. It’s a plane. It’s a gourd?

A team representing Ambler Farm made the drive to Bridgeville, Del., for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest. The event, a half-hour drive south of the state capital of Dover, draws more than 20,000 people annually.

Led by program director Kevin Meehan, a science teacher at Cider Mill School, the Wilton team competed in the youth 11-17 trebuchet division.

The contest started in 1986 when four men, in the nearby town of Georgetown, Del., began talking about how far a pumpkin could be thrown. It has grown from that into a three-day event with multiple categories and official rules.

The Punkin Chunkin is the main event of the gathering that includes music, fireworks, a chili cook-off, and even a pageant that organizers describe as fun.

“We want the ladies to feel special, no matter where they rank after the competition,” according to the website. “This is why we reward everyone with a tiara and sash.”


Hoping for their own reward in the Chunkin contest was the crew on the Ambler Farm Pumpkin Warrior team. The team, outfitted in blue and white jackets associated, not surprisingly, with Wilton High School, got three “throws” in their attempt to secure some of the pumpkin hardware.

Trevor Johnson, Kate Meehan, Sam Schmidt, Quentin Anderson, and Andy Woods helped lead the team of nine pumpkin warriors, beginning with the small convoy needed to get the trebuchet from Wilton to Delaware.

A trebuchet is a device developed in the Middle Ages that works to propel projectiles. It uses counterweights to generate the energy.

“It really takes two trucks to haul it down,” Mr. Meehan said.

The team established its base at the site where he said they would film the safety inspection, with the intention of using it as a teaching tool.

“We try to use everything as a teaching tool,” Mr. Meehan said.

So what would make kids from Wilton want to go to a field in Delaware? Purely for the reason of getting out of school? Just so they can say they did it? Both? More?

“Kids join for different reasons,” Mr. Meehan said. “Some join because of engineering. Some join for the experience. Some join because they’re in the middle ground. It’s all about working together and a sense of belonging.”

Even with their fifth-place finish out of eight teams, he said, the team wasn’t satisfied at all.

“We found our trebuchet threw better at the farm,” he said. “We felt we could have done better. We learned a lot from the experience. It was like getting a Ph.D. in trebuchet building.”

The trebuchet gave its best throw on the first day, when a pumpkin soared 439 feet across the field. Day two saw the result drop to 351. The last throw measured 409 feet. Pumpkins can’t be less than four pounds.

He said other teams were very helpful in the family atmosphere that felt like a community. When something would happen, such as breaking or bending hinges, another group would step in to assist.

These other teams, with more experience, had “answers for everything.”

“That was absolutely fascinating,” he said.

He said the Wilton trebuchet had four issues that were correctable for the future. The first was the use of hinges that kept getting damaged as the trebuchet thrust forward.

“Ours is a floating arm trebuchet,” he said. “We built hinges and they would get damaged, and need to redo them. So we won’t use hinges in the future.”

“We were so worried about damaging the machine. We kept beating up the hinges.”

He also said the pouch that holds the pumpkin was made of a leather that was too thin.

“We had the worst pouch there,” he said.

The arm of the trebuchet was heavy and slowed everything down. Believing that they overbuilt everything as a result of safety precautions and mechanisms, they will go with a steel arm trebuchet in the future, and that will have less weight, and as an overall result, create less air resistance.

Lastly, he said, the plate and the tossing finger were too heavy.

These are things that are fixable.

“All of the changes are manageable,” he said. “It will require some money.”

Along with these changes, including the new release mechanism, Mr. Meehan also said the Warriors would like to make the trebuchet more mobile, so that it can be taken to other fairs beyond the championship in Delaware.

Despite the concerns, the Ambler Farm team is proud of many things, and a great time was had by all. Experienced teams, Mr. Meehan said, had their trebuchet backfire on them, something that didn’t happen to his team.

“It just didn’t throw far enough,” he said.

Yet he also said the team banner was the best there. An attractive mix of orange and red, with the Ambler Farm logo on it and the team name, it included the catch phrase “Where good things grow,” the motto of the farm.

The Pumpkin Warriors were supposed to go the championship in 2012, but Superstorm Sandy had other plans, forcing the focus to move to this year. Yet that gave the team more time to learn and tweak. It also gave students the opportunity to take control of the device.

In an atmosphere that included not only trebuchets but catapults, air cannons, centrifugal devices, and good old human power, among others, the Wilton trebuchet held its own, even though the team is disappointed in the fifth-place finish. Even that had a silver lining.

“It made us take in the rest of the event and the positive things going on,” Mr. Meehan said. “The kids were immersed.”

“We did everything really well. The kids were great. Every kid will say they had a great trip.”

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest was taped for broadcast by the Science Channel and will air on Thanksgiving night at 8.