Tug-of-war

John Morgan, left, of the Eastport team and Doug Smith, center, of the Annapolis team, and Tom Cagle, right, of the Eastport team, are preparing for the annual "Slaughter Across the Water," a tug of war contest between Annapolis and Eastport. Here, they stretch a rope across pilings on the Eastport side. (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / November 2, 2012)

For 15 years, the Slaughter Across the Water cast shame on Annapolis.

The city regularly lost the annual tug-of-war match over the harbor to its Eastport rivals. The Annapolis team has had to recruit last-minute tuggers from bar stools and bathrooms. Worse, apathy has forced the team to rely on volunteers from the opposing Maritime Republic of Eastport, the same rascals who have stolen the flag from City Hall and "kidnapped" its mayor.

"From what I heard, they had to bribe people with beer to come to the Annapolis side last year," said Marie Dall'Acqua, an organizer with the city's Take-Back-The-Tug campaign. "That is lame. There's no question that's lame."

While this year's tug is on for Saturday, organizers said another poor showing from Annapolis could dampen enthusiasm for continuing the tongue-in-cheek event that has raised more than a quarter-million dollars for area charities. So this year — for the first time in memory — Annapolis has mobilized to defend its honor, fielding its own teams, securing its own sponsors, food and liquor license, and enlisting midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy as its tugging ringers and, hopefully, carousers.

The Slaughter Across the Water was created to reunite the two "warring" neighborhoods after the faux Republic declared its independence in a 1998 publicity stunt. Eastport always remained an Annapolis neighborhood, of course, but residents there loved the Republic's revelry and supported it.

Every year, Eastport residents march into City Hall waving rakes, plungers and an occasional plastic flamingo before declaring war on "Annapolis Proper." Amid rally cries of "Up the Republic," Eastport challenges the city to a tug-of-war match between the two waterfront neighborhoods using a 1,700-foot custom-made rope that stretches across the harbor.

The event, which draws hundreds of spectators, raised about $20,000 last year, nearly all on the Eastport side. Perhaps the city's greatest dereliction has been in the only measure that counted: It threw a dismal party.

The Annapolis festivities have typically been dry and sparsely attended, while the Eastport side, located 350 yards away across Spa Creek, has boasted live music, food, booze and a play area for kids. Without the Maritime Republic of Eastport actively dispatching people to the Annapolis side, "we would have been tugging against a lamppost," said Stephanie Moore, anointed "minister of war" for Eastport.

Annapolis, led by an organization of Main Street businesses, decided that this year they're better than that.

"We're rallying," Alice Estrada, an Annapolis organizer, said. "It would have put the event in danger if it was so one-sided. You have to have a rival to make it a fight."

While Annapolis organizers soberly went over plans at the joint logistics meeting this week, leaders of the Maritime Republic of Eastport, or MRE, sipped coconut rum on ice and praised the new interest from their opponents.

"For years, the MRE would cross over Spa Creek Bridge, and bang on their silly drums and declare war on the city of Annapolis," Annapolis organizer Doug Smith said. "We're not taking it anymore. We are fighting back. We want everybody to know that we didn't start this fight, but we will finish it."

The seeds of the farcical Eastport rebellion were sown more than a dozen years ago in a bar with help from Annapolis' current mayor, Joshua Cohen, back when he lived in Eastport. It began as a marketing ploy to attract customers to the Eastport Peninsula during three weeks the bridge connecting the neighborhood to the city was closed for construction.

The secession — complete with cannons, a flotilla, a national anthem and a declaration of independence that promised "liberty from suits, ties and socks" and the pursuit of crabs, beer and oysters — ushered in so much fun that it is annually re-enacted.

That event is followed months later by the "siege" on City Hall and then what's billed — though this point has never been verified — as the only "international" tug of war held over water. Executed in six or seven heats of up to 33 tuggers per side, the event is scheduled to begin at the "crack 'o noon" on Saturday.

Until this year, the Annapolis side generally ignored the hoopla.

"Part of the problem is that Eastport wins all the time," said Jefferson Holland, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Maritime Republic of Eastport's original minister of propaganda. "It's hard to keep your spirits up when you have such a dismal performance."

But this year the Maritime Republic of Eastport's siege was met with resistance. When they arrived earlier this week,18 midshipmen ushered them out of City Hall.

"As mayor, not on my watch will I let this town be divided," Cohen told his former compatriots.

"Every year, you folks try the same futile effort to secede," Cohen said. "This time around, the city has developed a strategic partnership with the fine midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy, who will be pulling on the side of unity."

"My allegiance is with the evil empire," Cohen said later. "We are going to squash the rebels."

Officials of the Maritime Republic of Eastport could not hide their delight that perhaps, finally, the city has become a worthy nemesis and will throw a party that is worth crossing the bridge to attend.

"It's something we've been trying to get Annapolis to do for 15 years," Republic Premier Brett Cureton said.

Still, not to be outdone, the Republic has enlisted soldiers from Fort Meade to pull on its side.

"But I promise you this: The majority of the midshipmen will be on our side at the end of the day," said longtime Eastporter Tom Cagle, the land logistics official and former police officer who planned to guard the rope with his 9 mm handgun Friday night.

"We started it, and we will always own the party."

ecox@baltsun.com