The Fierce Tug Of Independence

From plans scrawled on a cocktail napkin, a nation is born. With a 1,824-foot rope, it fights for its honor.

October 30, 2005|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

The Maritime Republic of Eastport was birthed, as any ersatz republic worth its salt should be, over drinks at a bar. In a clandestine meeting in the basement of the Rams Head Tavern, the founding fathers wrote a mock declaration of independence from Annapolis on cocktail napkins and thus, seven years ago, a faux nation was born.

The revolt didn't exactly stick - to the founders' dismay, the neighborhood of Eastport is still part of Annapolis - but once a year, residents flex their independence muscles at a huge tug of war that pits the feisty community against what they view as a frightfully stodgy enemy: downtown Annapolis. A 1,824-foot rope is extended over Spa Creek, referees are stationed in the middle of the harbor and teams on either side pull with all their might, trying to move the midpoint of the specially designed rope decisively in one direction or the other.

Eastporters, who say they don't much like getting up before noon on a Saturday, claimed that the 10:30 a.m. start time placed them at a distinct disadvantage yesterday. But hundreds had managed to roll out of bed and get a beer in their hands by the time the first of five rounds began.

Gordon Ferrari, 53, whose training regimen included a workout the night before at Davis' Pub, sipped and cheered on the sidelines. "I have to get my joints lubricated," he said cheerfully. "This is a young man's sport."

"One, two, tug! One, two, tug!" the crowd lining the pull-way shouted to the women's team tuggers, who sported tiaras for the occasion. Teeth were bared; faces pulled themselves into frowns.

Far away, across the steely harbor, the Annapolis team looked like dots of color. The screams in Eastport grew more insistent when the rope began to inch in the right direction. The self-styled premier of Eastport shook her pompoms.

Alas, the cheers were for naught. Round one ended in defeat. So did rounds two, three, four and five.

But spirits were hardly broken on the shores of the mighty, would-be nation.

"I recommend this to anyone who has a problem with depression," said Wayne Brooks, 58, who was wearing black war paint and a red band around his head. "Eastport kicks."

Most denizens can recite the Eastport's glorious history on command. They will proudly tell you that the little place fondly called the M.R.E. was dreamed up in 1998 when the bridge that connects downtown Annapolis to the neighborhood was shut down for three weeks for repairs. Concerned about loss of business, the founding fathers dreamed up the M.R.E as a way to promote patronage, stem the fallout from the bridge closure and celebrate their zany spirit. They "seceded" from the city to the roar of cannons and hoisted their own flag, which depicts dogs with tennis balls in their mouths supporting the Eastport crest and bears the slogan "We like it this way!"

Eastport has a canine corps of 436 dogs and a marine corps with 187 vessels, including everything from kayaks to 70-foot sailboats, explained Sam Shropshire, 57, the George Washington of the M.R.E and an "unbiased" referee for the day. The canine corps, he said without cracking a smile, is working on digging a ditch that by 2025 will turn Eastport into an independent island completely separated from the United States.

In the years since the M.R.E. was created, organizers say they have raised more than $165,000 at events including a dog day, a 0.05-kilometer run over the bridge and, of course, the "slaughter over the water." This year's tug-of-war fest boasted a chili cook-off, four bands, a silent auction, and drinks and food for all. Organizers were hoping to bring in 1,500 people and raise $21,403 - which is also their ZIP code - for local charities.

The Annapolis team had a band and a car show over on their side of the harbor. But alcoholic drinks aren't permitted in the park where they were based, so after sweeping the match 5-0, the Annapolis tuggers packed up shop and swaggered Eastportward.

"We had a lot of beef over there," said Tony Acevedo as he walked triumphantly past the chili cook-off booths. Eastporters may fancy themselves the fun folks, but "what's more fun," he asked, "winning or losing?"

His rivals just sniffed.

"Next year we're doing steroid testing," said Alexa Winters, the co-ed team captain who had started the day by hosting her crew for 7 a.m. cocktails and a breakfast of champions. "Only on the Annapolis side."

Anyway, they could say it now, it was all part of a strategy. "We actually let them win over there," she said. "They've had troubles with camaraderie. We built them up, and next year we will bring them down."

In Eastport, she added, the beer glass is always half-full.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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