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.
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.
"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," said Jeff Holland, director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum.
But the sock-burning ritual — which attracted more than 130 people Monday evening — now draws more than boatyard workers.
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.
On Monday, celebrants sipped red wine, ate oysters and speculated how long until they could go barefoot without their toes reddening from the cold.
Annapolis resident Michael Busch, the speaker of the Maryland House, joked 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," Holland said with a laugh.
The sock 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 for crab cakes and oysters after burning their socks.
Prudent sailors might want to hold on to a few pairs of socks: Snow showers were forecast Tuesday in Annapolis, with highs only in the mid-30s.