- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Is that spring in the air, or an old gym sock on fire?

In sailing-crazy Annapolis, boaters celebrate the first day of spring with a ceremonial Burning of the Socks, signifying it will soon be warm enough to wear boat shoes without socks.

“It’s a good idea to stand upwind,” warned John Morgan, 77, who joked that stinking-sock fires signify warmer weather ahead. Celebrants sipped red wine, ate oysters and speculated how long until they could go barefoot without their toes reddening from the cold.

More than 130 people gathered last night at the sock-burning on the banks of Back Creek where it meets the Chesapeake Bay. Others roasted socks at their yacht clubs or in their back yards before retiring for garlic mussels, oysters and live music at a neighborhood bar that celebrates the equinox.

“Spring is right around the corner,” grinned Betsy Beyer, who used a worn white tube sock to insulate her can of Heineken. “You can get out on the water, and it’s a different world. You forget everything.”

The tradition began in the mid-1980s, when an employee at Annapolis Yacht Yard tired of his winter days doing engine maintenance on yachts and power boats.

He stripped off his stinky socks, put them in a paint can with some lighter fluid and drank a longneck beer while looking forward to warmer days ahead.

“It’s our connection to the Chesapeake Bay that makes us special. You couldn’t do this in Indianapolis,” said Jeff Holland, director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

“There’s a whole industry of people who work all winter long on people’s boats so that they’ll be in shape for their owners to go out and play all summer,” he said.

Even wealthy sailboat owners delight in throwing tube socks and panty hose on the flames in this town, whose residents have a special disdain for socks.

Waterfront restaurants that serve big crab feasts draw men wearing leather loafers sans socks, and bare ankles are a mark of pride even at work.

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis resident, jokes that socks constitute formal wear around here.

The most hard-core sock haters refuse to wear them from the spring equinox until the first day of winter.

“The uniform is deck shoes and khaki pants in winter. The uniform is deck shoes and khaki shorts in summer,” Mr. Holland said with a laugh.

The bonfire, he said, is a way of remembering Annapolis’ bygone days of working-class watermen who brought in crabs in the summer and scraped the paint off wooden vessels in the winter.

These days, waterfront lots go for millions, and the bonfire revelers retire to a restaurant about a block away for crab cakes and oysters after burning their socks.

Prudent sailors might want to hold on to a few pairs of socks: Snow showers are forecast today in Annapolis, with highs only in the mid-30s.

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