The Drinking Town With A Sailing Problem -July 04, 2002
Eileen hoists a pint in Sean Donlon's pub in Annapolis
Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland, lays claim to being the "sailboat capital of the world". While sailors in other far-flung ports may dispute this title, there's no question that Annapolis is the boating centre of Chesapeake Bay. We recently sailed into Annapolis harbour on a sunny Sunday afternoon and had the distinct impression that every sailor on the entire American eastern seaboard had come down to join us for the day. There's definitely a competitive edge to sailing in these waters. As the boats funnelled into the mouth of the Severn River, every channel buoy became a racing mark and "Little Gidding" came perilously close to ending up on a mud bank.
We rounded Horn Point and entered Spa Creek, a tributary of the Severn River flowing through the centre of Annapolis. The skyline behind the city dock was dominated by the dome of the Maryland State House, the oldest American state capitol still in legislative use. In the foreground, a collection of restored market and brick warehouse buildings was proof of the town's long history as a port and mercantile service centre. The historic campus of the United States Naval Academy, also known as "the Yard", commanded the waterfront immediately northeast of the downtown docks. Everywhere else on both sides of Spa Creek and adjacent Back Creek were boats - at docks, on moorings and at anchor.
Annapolis' other claim to fame after sailing is that it quite possibly has the densest concentration of good bars anywhere. This isn't too surprising given sailors' reputed weakness for drink. It also helps that Annapolis is strategically located equidistant between Baltimore and Washington, DC, meaning there are roughly a million and a half people (at least some of whom are thirsty) living within a half hour drive of its bars. And then there's the Naval Academy with it's 4200 midshipmen (locally referred to as "mids") housed in the world's largest dormitory only a few minutes away from the downtown. What more could a bar owner wish for?
Eileen has performed at events related to previous Annapolis boat shows and this was the main reason for our current visit: to line up some gigs for the Fall. Since this involved checking out a lot of bars, David was eager to assist. The logical starting place for our tour of Annapolis' drinking establishments was the city dock, originally established in 1695 and known locally as "Ego Alley". This is where you'll want to tie up your gleaming new yacht if you'd like to be at the centre of attention of several hundred curious imbibers. The surrounding harbour square is thick with bars.
For historical contrast, there's the Middleton Tavern and Pusser's Landing located, respectively, on the north and south corners of the square. Samuel Middleton established his "inn for seafaring men" in 1750. In addition to offering food, drink and lodging, he ran a store on the premises and operated a Chesapeake Bay ferry service. The Annapolis clone of the Pusser's chain of bars, on the other hand, struggles to look traditional and nautical in the decidedly non-historic Marriot Hotel (see our December 31st log entry about the original Pusser's).
We continued our tour of Annapolis drinking and victualling emporiums by walking up Main Street from harbour square. Every few doors there was another bar or restaurant all the way to Church Circle and beyond up West Street. A block past the circle, we found the Ram's Head Tavern, an Annapolis landmark for headline entertainment. The Fordham micro-brewery is attached to the Ram's Head, a very fortunate juxtaposition of activities. Respecting Eileen's Irish roots, we then ducked into Sean Donlon's Irish pub, a couple of doors past the Ram's Head.
Although we encountered many good beers in our initial circuit of Annapolis pubs, something didn't seem right. Among the other bar patrons, hardly anyone wore deck shoes and there wasn't a red Mount Gay regatta cap in sight. Our friend Tony Sanpere, who lived in Annapolis for several years before leaving to cruise full time with his wife Ellen, set us straight. "All the real sailors go to Eastport to drink," he informed us. "Meet me and Ellen at the Boatyard Bar & Grill after the Wednesday night races." Eastport is situated on the opposite side of Spa Creek from the city docks and is administratively part of Annapolis. Its denizens, however, are fiercely independent and refer to themselves as citizens of the Maritime Republic of Eastport. The yacht clubs are all located in Eastport.
We arrived at the Boatyard in Eastport just after the races ended. The joint was packed. Many of the customers had come to watch video highlights of the night's competition played on the bar's monitors. We spotted Tony and Ellen through the crowd and squeezed in next to them at a table. Tony regaled us with stories of his past racing exploits.
"The finish line for these races extends directly across Spa Creek from the deck at the Annapolis Yacht Club, only a hundred feet this side of the bascule bridge," Tony explained. "The biggest challenge is not beating out the other boats BEFORE the finish line, but avoiding a collision with the bridge AFTER the finish line. I remember one race when a dozen of us crossed together, all flying spinnakers with 20 knots of wind behind us. The bridge tender saw the pending disaster and made an unscheduled opening. I owe that guy drinks for the rest of his life!"
After almost a week in Annapolis, we had pretty well completed our survey of local taverns. It had been a tough assignment. Remembering the traffic jam when we had sailed in the Sunday before, we were determined to get an early start. "I bet there's a queue a mile long at the fuel dock on weekends," David predicted. Saturday morning, we weighed anchor and motored down Spa Creek to catch the 8:00 am bridge opening. Two minutes later we were alongside the fuel dock at the City of Annapolis marina. There was no one else in sight.
"Hey, where are all the other boats?" Eileen asked the bleary eyed dockmaster. "You've gotta be kidding," he replied. "Nobody in Annapolis gets up early on a Saturday!"
Maybe they have a sailing problem.
Cheers, David & Eileen