The ultimate status symbol in the Annapolis sailing community is a little red hat.
"I'll wear mine to death," said Richard "Snake" Stimson, a sailboat racer from Annapolis. "You couldn't buy it off me."
The cap -- emblazoned with the logo of Mount Gay rum -- is available only to a small number of racers in the nation's top sailing regattas. Cover your head with it and it will cover you in glory.
"I'm certainly qualified to wear it," said Mr. Stimson, 62, who races year-round and has done so since he was a child. "If I should ever lose mine, people would get me confused with being a rookie."
It started as a promotional stunt in the 1980s by Mount Gay rum, which dubs itself the sailor's drink. The Barbados-based company soon began handing out the caps at the roughly 50 sailing regattas it sponsors each year.
But not just any racer can get one. To preserve the cap's cachet, Mount Gay makes far fewer hats than sailors at its regattas. The caps are so popular, the 40,000 produced this year were not nearly enough to satisfy demand.
"We want to keep the mystique of the hat alive," said Pamm Houchens, a sector manager for Remy Amerique, the New York-based parent company of Mount Gay. "We only produce a finite amount."
Remy Amerique executives won't say where the caps are made -- some place in Kentucky is as far as they will go. It's a security measure, just in case anyone gets tempted to show up outside the factory doors with $20.
The concern seems reasonable. After all, some people show up at regattas not to race, but to find a cap.
"It's unbelievable," said Kathy Farrell, who was hired by Remy Amerique to promote the regattas. "During one race week, people came up to our van and begged for the caps. It didn't matter that the van was moving -- people ran right in front of it."
The most sought-after caps are the ones so worn and faded from sun and sweat that the red is drained to pink. And any cap stitched with the name and date of an exceptionally difficult regatta, such as the Australia to New Zealand race, is more coveted.
At Marmaduke's, a sailing bar in Annapolis, a collection of the caps is on display behind glass by the bar. Sailors can take a cap if they replace it with one of equal value.
The case is locked, and with good reason. Some people will resort to mischief to get their hands on these hats.
Recently, visitors picked the lock on the antique cabinet in the lobby of Mount Gay's distillery in Bridgetown, Barbados, and stole from the 100-cap stash. The company has since installed a new security system and put the hats on ledges by the ceiling.
"There's been plenty of trades, people trading $50, $75 for a hat," said David Meyers, who runs the distillery on the island, which also is home to 1,200 rum shops.
Sometimes you can get a cap if you have great hair. Mr. Meyers said the agent for Patrick Swayze called him and begged for one. The shaggy-haired actor apparently wanted to top off his look during a deep-sea fishing expedition.
"In the spirit of helping out certain dignitaries, I gave him one from my personal collection," said Mr. Meyers. He watched his cap get whisked away in a limousine, and Mr. Meyers was given a $100 check for charity in return.
People have been known to risk their lives for the caps. Well, sort of.
Seamus Kraft, a grade school boy from Marblehead, Mass., wrote to several top-level executives at Remy Amerique after his boat capsized and he lost his father's prized headgear.
"The hat sunk. I even got yelled at for diving for it!" he scrawled on sailboat stationery. "My dad is very sad and disappointed because I took it off and I wasn't supposed to."
The executives took pity. Seamus got the hat.
The caps are not just for sailing. People wear them to bars. People wear them to work. One bride even outfitted her wedding party in them, although the hats were off during the ceremony.
While there probably won't ever be a Mount Gay wedding gown, this year the company began a line of "crew gear" for people who want to dress entirely in the rum emblem. The items, including a $69.95 windproof jacket and $24.95 twill shorts, come in boiled-lobster red and a weather-beaten pink.
One day, executives dream, they will even open a Mount Gay clothing store. But the cap will never be for sale. And that's just fine with sailors.
"It's just not proper to have a cap unless you earned it yourself," said Annapolis sailor Cabell "Pipes" Potts, who has two. "Any other way is just gauche."