Cape Gazette

Punkin Chunkin almost shoots a pie

Last-minute insurance deal saves popular event
By Ron MacArthur | Oct 12, 2012
Photo by: Ron MacArthur It wouldn't be the same without flying pumpkins during the fall in Sussex County. This year's Punkin Chunkin takes place Nov. 2-4 at the Wheatley farm near Bridgeville.

Punkin Chunkin, one of the most popular events in the Cape Region, came within hours of being canceled.

Organizers of World Championship Punkin Chunkin had to pull off a last-minute deal to upgrade the event's liability insurance as requested by owners of the 1,000-acre farm where the event takes place.

“It was touch and go,” said Frank Shade, past president and director of media and promotions. “We were within a couple hours of not having the event.”

Work to prepare the field is scheduled to begin Saturday, Oct. 13, when a small army of volunteers starts to transform the massive corn field into festival grounds. The chunk is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 2, through Sunday, Nov. 4.

In an email last week, John Huber, president of the Punkin Chunkin Association, said the farm owners, the Wheatley family, had requested additional insurance and would not sign off on a liability release to allow organizers to get the field ready. The association had trouble lining up an insurance company that could comply with the desired coverage of at least $5 million in liability insurance. An agreement was reached just as the deadline needed to prepare for the event approached last weekend.

The new insurance policy will cost from $40,000 to $50,000, three to four times more than the $12,000 spent on insurance in 2011, Huber said.

Shade said every participant in the event will also be required to sign a liability waiver, as has been the practice in the past. “But we really have to stress this to protect everyone involved,” he said. Shade added the insurance covers spectators but not participants. “There is no carrier that we can find that will cover the participants; we looked for insurance,” Shade said.

The association has faced challenges at the start of the event for the past two years. Last year fencing valued at $30,000 was stolen, nearly forcing cancellation of the event. The association has since constructed a secure compound to store materials.

Over the next three weeks, volunteers will set up the infrastructure for Punkin Chunkin, which includes — among other material — more than 12 miles of fencing and 7,000 fence posts, netting, 40 telephone poles and more than 300 portable toilets. The delay in obtaining an insurance carrier delayed the set-up effort by a week. “We will work around the clock if we have to,” Shade said. “We need from 10 to 14 working days on the field.”

Shade said it takes a surveyor three to four days to lay out the grounds. “We start from scratch every year,” he said.

Huber also confirmed that Dan Fair, a volunteer injured in last year's Punkin Chunkin, has obtained legal counsel but has not filed a lawsuit. Fair, a Lewes resident and long-time Punkin Chunkin volunteer, was seriously injured on the third and final day of competition in 2011 when the all-terrain vehicle he was driving as a pumpkin-shot spotter flipped over on top of him. He was taken to Christiana Hospital in Newark where he was admitted in serious condition. Once he was released from the hospital, several benefit events took place to assist him in paying the costs associated with his medical care. Efforts to reach Fair were not successful.

Following the crash, Punkin Chunkin organizers met to investigate the cause of the accident and look at the possibility of new safety measures for the numerous spotters who take part in the event. Although laser technology is used to measure how far pumpkins fly, spotters drive all-terrain vehicles to find the point of impact quickly and start the measurement process.

Pumpkins will fly Nov.2-4

More than 100 teams are ready to compete in the 2012 World Championship Punkin Chunkin. Team registration for the 27th annual chunk is filled, and competitors are already on a waiting list. Last year, more than 100 teams competed in 13 divisions and set six world records. More than 120,000 people attended the three-day event held on the Wheatley Farm near Bridgeville.

The event will be featured once again as a television Thanksgiving special on both the Discovery and Science channels.

“Punkin Chunkin has grown to become an international event with a huge following. The unusual machines with the sole purpose of throwing pumpkins as far as possible provide fun and entertainment for all ages,” Shade said.

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association raises money for organizations and scholarship programs that benefit youth and the community by bringing in crowds and local and national media coverage. Many organizations benefit from the event, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Autism Delaware and Childhelp.

Shade said expenses take money away from the intent of the event – to raise money for charities. “This is a fund-raising festival, and any money we spend on things like insurance is coming out of money we would use for charitable donations,” he said. He said he hopes revenue from this year's event will replace the additional money spent.

What started out with a few friends in Lewes looking for a way to get rid of leftover pumpkins has grown into an international event. Founders Donald Pepper, John Ellsworth, Trey Melson and Bill Thompson never dreamed the event would literally take off like it has.

The winning chunk back in 1986 was 126 feet; the current world record at the local event – held by Milton’s Jake Burton and Young Glory III – is 4,483 feet. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes a chunk of 5,545 feet on Sept. 9, 2010, in the thin air of Moab, Utah, by the Big 10 Inch team — a team that also competes locally.

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