The day started poorly for Annapolis.
You wouldn’t think it. Annapolis was the defending champion, and the sun was shining for a change on The Tug o’ War — the annual “slaughter across the water” between Annapolis, Maryland, and Eastport, a neighborhood in Annapolis.
For the past 15 years, Eastport has been threatening to secede from Annapolis. They bring up the issue once a year in October, when the self-proclaimed Maritime Republic of Eastport marches over to City Hall and challenges the city to a duel. A tug of war!
So on an early-November Saturday, sharply at the “crack o’noon,” teams line-up to pull the other side into the wide creek that separates the two sections of Annapolis.
About a half-hour earlier, a pick-up truck pulled up with much fanfare carrying a huge reel of rope in the back; the size you see on utility trucks. It was commissioned from Yale Cordage in Biddeford, Maine, especially for this event. The organizers proudly proclaim that the line has a replacement value of $23,488.50 (in 1998 dollars). In other words, they didn’t go cheap.
Actually, that’s important. Each side has 33 tuggers. The average weight on some of the teams is 200 pounds per guy. People on other tug-of-war pulls have lost fingers and arms when the rope snapped because organizers underestimated the force of the pulling and failed to buy a strong enough rope.
One end of the Eastport rope is thrown on a small motor boat and strung from 2nd Street (a short spit of road between boat yards and marinas) across Spa Creek to the scenic City Dock in Annapolis.
To understand the importance of this tug, you need to understand Eastport. It’s a working-man’s neighborhood. Watermen and their families lived in little wood houses on the peninsula between Spa Creek and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Then the oyster canning factory workers came. Little neighborhood bars and food markets still remain on a few of the corners.
The money was in Annapolis. That’s where you’ll find the historic Georgian brick mansions. Eastport is now gentrified and those little wooden homes sell for $500,000 to more than $1 million (if it’s been rehabbed and has a water view). But the attitude has remained; residents still see Eastport as home to the ‘everyman’, while Annapolis… is not.
Spa Creek can be fast where it enters the Severn River tributary into the Bay and it takes a lot of adjusting of the rope across the water before the tug can begin. Markers have to line-up just so at various points on land and in the water.
After about a half-hour of adjusting, the first heat steps into place.
Annapolis Bars vs. Eastport Bars
Thirty-three very serious, big, burly men line up on each side, wearing gloves. They pick up the rope with purpose. Burly doesn’t necessarily mean “in shape”; in this case, it means Big. These are serious bar patrons. Who has the best patrons is quite literally ‘on the line.’ This is to be a pull of honor.
Annapolis made an early yank. False start! Five minutes delay while everything is reset. The rope needs to be readjusted so the markers are back in place. Not easy when the rope dips through tidal creek flowing into the Bay and becomes heavy with water.
The popular Eastport Osyter Boys band fills the time by playing the Eastport National Anthem called the “Eastport Shuffle,” their own composition. A ragtime number, “leave your worries behind in Eastport…” Eastport sees itself as the Key West of the Chesapeake Bay.
Another song is needed while something related to the rope is fixed on the Annapolis side. It’s a little unclear what. The ref’s hand-held radio is a little static-y. A boogie-woogie this time. Dancing starts off to the side by the beer truck as watchers amuse themselves during the wait. The coordinator is on the radio with Annapolis checking the status. He signals, “One minute.”
The music stops and tuggers get ready. Everyone snaps to attention. When the count gets to ten, the crowd joins in yelling, “five, four, three, two, one.”
“PULL!” shouts the coordinator.
He’s going to be fair, but not impartial. He screams at the pullers to get them moving and, hopefully, winning. That first yank can make the difference. A little ‘oomph’ in the voice never hurts.
Guys immediately start backing up. They don’t stop. They pause for a barely a moment to adjust hands and stance while the crowd holds it breath, but don’t really stop. They’re backing up again. Feet pressed firmly into the ground with each step. On both sides of the tuggers, fans are lined four people deep along the block and supporters are going wild. Tuggers continue backing up. It’s like everyone is surprised. Seriously? Against Annapolis?
Sure enough. They’re still backing up.
There comes a time when one side knows it’s lost. It comes before the winning side realizes it. The winning side discovers it when the tug suddenly gets slightly easier. Realization, then relief, then major pull. The screaming muscles don’t matter. The will to win has come out on top. It’s a dance-shuffle back. The marker goes where it needs to. Raucous joy breaks out. We just beat Annapolis. On the first heat. Whoa!
Six more heats to go.
The Tug o’ War began after the City of Annapolis closed the bridge across Spa Creek in 1997 for repairs, forcing Eastport residents to take the long way around to get to downtown Annapolis.
Eastport took the opinion that the city was “using the excuse of a public works project” as an act of aggression.
So on Superbowl Sunday 1998, the patrons of an Eastport bar declared war against “The City.” It was the Green Bay Packers against the Denver Broncos and not of that much interest to Marylanders, home of the Ravens.
Amazingly, it didn’t fizzle out after the game. They created the Maritime Republic of Eastport. That led to the annual tug in 1998. Ironically, the bridge had already re-opened by that time.
Each year since, a couple weeks before November, a group of Eastport residents and their tipsy friends march to an Annapolis city council meeting in City Hall to declare war. Annapolis accepts and both sides agree to settle it on the battlefield, where they’re separated by a quarter mile of creek.
U.S. Navy vs. Homeland Security Department
The second heat is the U.S. Naval Academy middies versus the Maritime Republic of Eastport’s Homeland Security Department, another group of 33 slightly less burly men against athletic, very much in-shape cadets. Navy goes down and Eastport gets the win.
That shocks the crowd, but it’s really just simple physics. Eastport guys were bigger; meaning a lot heavier. While the Navy’s Middies may be in much better shape, they’re also thin. Physics explains that the team with the most weight, a determined grip and a solid foot-planting nearly always wins. (Here’s the Newton’s Law explanation.)
But who cares about physics at this point? Confidence is high now. The overall winner is the best of out seven tugs. The band continues with upbeat songs. Time for another cup of beer. Children are running around with painted faces sparkling in the sun. The party is underway.
They don’t notice the third heat lining up. Co-ed Teams. These pullers are nervous, hoping they can do as well. They don’t want to let Eastport down after two solid wins. It wouldn’t be so bad they assure each other; losing means more music, more beer and a wait for next year. There’s always next year. Yeah, but let it be on the next guys.
A Parting for the Bride
As the team grabs the rope, the crowd on the beer-truck side of the tug parts, like a stage curtain being pulled back. A Naval Academy wedding party is trying to squeeze through. Somehow they found themselves in the middle of the tug. The wedding party hadn’t counted on this and they have to walk and weave through, future officers in dress whites and ladies in gowns and strappy high-heels.
Shouts erupt, “You’re on the wrong side.”
But it’s the military and these are patriotic people. The shouts die down and cheers begin for the young men in uniform. Then the bride comes through in her white dress and steps daintily across the rope which tuggers have dropped to help the newly weds and their friends through. Loud hoots and hollers for the happy couple. She and her bridesmaids are quickly swallowed by the crowd which has closed back together behind them and returned focus on the contest at hand.
There’s a jump start. Tugging started without the “go” signal. The ref is yelling angrily, “Who started the damn pulling?” It take several yanks before they’re stopped. Apparently they felt a tug on the rope and simply responded. Another reset.
“If Annapolis wasn’t twerking, we’d have a pull,” an organizer yells with frustration. After the reset, tugging starts for real.
The crowd chants, “pull, pull, pull.”
It’s a third win.
Firefighters v. Police
The next group is Eastport firefighters versus Annapolis police. But the firefighters don’t have enough people and they have to recruit from last minute signers. It’s a mixed group athletically and co-ed. The biggest guys are put in front, opposite normal Tug of War strategy. Coaches go up and down the line giving tips: stand sideways, don’t pull backwards.
Firefighters start with a surge, and then find themselves being pulled forward. Faces and muscles strain, but it’s not enough. They don’t give up, but they’re pulled to the water. A ref calls it for Annapolis when the marker hits the water’s edge. Eastport’s first loss. The band snaps into a song to ease the disappointment.
Anatomy of a Tug of War Loss
Bankers v. Scholars
The fourth heat is BB&T Bank versus Annapolis Scholars. They look like banker types, hair trimmed and slightly fluffy physiques, but able to go for a good cycle or jog after work and on the weekends. After the loss of the firefighters, there’s not much confidence in bankers.
They start with a good tug and back up. Then, start coming forward. “Ahhhh,” goes the crowd. The beginning of the end.
Then no movement. They’ve stopped! It’s not over; they simply stop moving. Pullers are straining and pulling. There’s no movement for nearly a minute. Sweat is breaking out on the foreheads. They’re yanked forward by the Scholars in Annapolis. The crowd shouts, “pull, pull, pull.”
That seems to revive the pullers, who are now showing pain. Two minutes now. There’s a slight movement backward. Cheers. Then, forward movement. Dejection. It’s got to be over. But no. The bankers aren’t giving up. Suddenly they go back. Then, a lot back. It’s a win! The other team simply gave out first.
Tugs generally last between 30 seconds to three minutes. A good early pull can end the heat in as early as 12 seconds. That’s how long it took Eastport’s Homeland Security to pull Navy across the center line. The bankers lasted 3.5 minutes. An unheard of length of time! Although records are kind of sketchy over the past dozen years of the tug, so no-one can say for sure.
Down to the End
Now, it’s fitness team versus fitness team. The Eastport side doesn’t have enough and joined forces with a sailing club. A fitness club — it should be a lock — but they don’t look to be in any better shape than the sailing folk. It takes a while to set up. Pullers finally are given the one minute signal.
Suddenly, the ropes starts rocking back and forth, toward the water, away from the water, toward the water… Nobody seems to be pulling but it’s moving nonetheless. It could be the waves from the water. The rope isn’t taunt and it’s drooping in the creek. But it’s weird; not a good sign.
“PULL!” yells the ref.
This time, no movement forward or back. The line isn’t moving. But everyone is straining. Sweat breaks out. Pullers change hand positions, leg positions, some turn backwards despite earlier warnings from coaches. No movement. It’s now a matter of which side tires first.
Two minutes tick slowly by. Pullers are just wishing for it to end. Crowd starts yelling, “pull, pull, pull.” Can’t let them down; that means can’t give up. That revives the pullers, but still no movement. Then, unexpectedly, they start inching forward. They pull harder. But its no use, they wore out first, mentally and physically. After so much pulling (two minutes, 24 seconds), you just want it to be over.
The last (7th) heat… Annapolis forfeits. Not enough tuggers on the Annapolis side.
Eastport wins! The band jumps to and plays harder. It’s a win!
The Party Begins
Tuggers head for the beer truck. They’ve earned a cold one. There’s much congratulating; proud to be wearing the forest green shirt that proclaims down the sleeve of one arm, “Official Puller.” They’ve earned the bragging rights.
With beers in hand, pullers toast to the overall win, even if their team didn’t add to the total.
The beers are sloshing over the sides as they hold up their cups. Muscles are still reacting to the strain of pulling; arms are quivering and hands barely hold onto the red Solo cups. The beer laps over the sides due to the palsy-like shaking.
“Proust,” yells one puller.
They clink sloppily and take a deep drink.
Next year can wait a bit. The chili cook-off is underway and as soon as the muscles stop quivering, it’ll be time to dance the rest of the afternoon away.
2014 Update: Eastport keeps the title, 5-2.
2015 Update: Eastport spanks Annapolis again, 5-2, despite rain