During sock burning, try to stay downwind Pungent rite fans flames of spring fever

March 21, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In the seafaring enclave of Eastport, there's nothing quite like the pungent odor of feet to welcome in spring.

Here, in this tiny community of Annapolis, where building boats is as natural as breathing, the saltiest of sea dogs meet each year on the Vernal Equinox in a low-key, snub-your-nose-at-the-cold ceremony to torch their winter socks.

And so they gathered -- these sailors big and small, male and female -- yesterday evening in the back lot of the Eastport Yacht Club amid dinghys and sailboats and powerboats galore. With dTC each toss of a foot warmer into the open flames, each person vowed to go sockless for the next nine months until the first day of winter.

So what if it was still a tad chilly? It doesn't matter when you've got seawater coursing through your veins.

"The boating season doesn't truly start until the sock burning ceremony takes place," said Mike Kaufman, a naval architect and master of ceremonies. "Everyone should have a child, have one love affair, build a boat and burn their socks on the first day of spring. There are some things in life you must do and this is one of them.

"There's a wonderful pagan aspect to it all."

A shout of "fire in the hole!" kicked off yesterday's flames as the sun disappeared below the horizon. Bare feet flinched at the touch of cold stones as one by one participants stripped off their socks and tossed them onto a rainbow-colored, gasoline-soaked heap.

"This one's for me," hollered Ivon Paulin as he pulled off a brown cotton sock from his left foot, "and this one's for my wife because she couldn't be here," he said, as he pulled off black knee-high hose from his right.

Pantyhose

Judy Dein inched off a pair of pantyhose from underneath a long magenta skirt and David Sells tossed in a mismatched striped pair, one white and one green. All greeted with the boisterous cheering of "Winter Begone!"

"When we first started, we used a metal paint pan set up on a couple of bricks," said Sells, a travel lift operator at a nearby boat yard and member of the original sock burning crew. "Now we've got a grill; it hasn't changed much. I guess we could put something over it and cook some burgers."

It all began with a couple cases of beer and a pair of socks. There's debate as to whether a pair of argyle or cotton or wool fueled the first fire. Most likely, it was just "a smelly, old run-of-the-mill, one-size-fits-all pair," said the man who started it all more than 20 years ago, Bob Turner.

See, the operative word here is smelly, Turner says by way of a simple explanation. If you're a true sailor, you only own one pair and you wear them all winter long.

"That's why the smell isn't pleasant," said John Eger, a yacht broker who used to put sailboats together at the Annapolis Harbor Boat Yard with Turner. "Some folks tend to bring socks they no longer want. That's missing the point. But, you stand around breathing sock fumes too long, you get a little loopy, that's for sure."

Plenty of socks find their way to the ceremony even sans owners. For this year's fire, a Florida couple mailed a pair of well-worn, off-white socks in a plastic bag labeled, "Do not remove near open flame without proper ventilation." Fred Hecklinger of Eastport didn't let surgery stop him from participating. He sent in green argyle socks for the roast.

And then there's the unwritten rule of the ceremony: No one walks away wearing socks. Just ask the unsuspecting journalists who have covered the event in years past, only to walk away with their ankles bared. Or the woman who left with pantyhose cut off at the knee.

With all this pomp, it's no wonder the Eastport ritual has become practically legendary. It's even got its own "Ode To the Equinox of the Eastport Sock Owners," and it's recited each year by Jeff Holland, organizer of the Annapolis Boat Show events by day, poet laureate by night.

The last verse reads something like, "So if you sail into the Harbor on the 20th of March/ And smell a smell like Limburger mixed in with laundry starch/ You'll know you're downwind of the Eastport docks/ Where they're burning their socks for the equinox."

Copy-cat burnings

There's now talk of similar sock burnings being staged by copy-cat sailing communities in Rhode Island, North Carolina and Florida.

Turner, who couldn't make it to the Eastport ceremony, says he's taken the tradition to Ocracoke, N.C. His fire on the Outer Banks yesterday enjoyed his last pair, a mismatched set of Popeye and Garfield socks.

"I've dangled from a mast with the snow blowing about my bare ankles on Dec. 18 right before the start of winter," boasts Turner, who teaches sailing. "But I won't wear socks until then. That's hard core.

"Yeah, it's as weird as it sounds," Turner says. "And I'm taking it and spreading the word and the gospel further south. There aren't many twisted people who can come up with a ceremony like that to say goodbye to winter."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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