It is, quite literally, an Annapolis rite of passage. Not to mention a ritual frustration for residents of the nation's self-proclaimed sailing capital.
The Eastport Bridge, a two-lane landmark linking the city's prime tourist area with a peninsula of Cape Cod-style cottages and waterfront condominiums, has started its seasonal rise and fall to allow sailors passage from harbor slip to Chesapeake Bay for evening regattas. And in water-carved Annapolis, boats more often than not have the right of way over just about anything else.
"If I see a boat and I think he's really trying to make it, I'll hold it up," operator Dudley G. Dixon Jr., who becomes a controversial figure after Spa Creek thaws, said of the drawbridge. "I mean, what's a couple more minutes?"
Real estate agents gently warn potential buyers of Eastport homes about bridge traffic. Annapolis police and fire crews have emergency response strategies so that they don't have to use the bridge. When they do, a pager on Dixon's control panel is supposed to alert him to arriving ambulances. But it has been broken for weeks.
"If I hear one coming, I'll put it down as fast as I can," he said. "But if a boat's coming through, there's nothing I can do."
Last week, the drawbridge began its summer schedule, making a key route from the city's center to Eastport impassable twice an hour after the morning rush hour. Like clockwork, the bridge will be up for at least five minutes on the hour and half-hour through October.
Delivery trucks, Range Rovers, boat trailers and bicycles back up on both sides of the bridge for blocks, turning 10-minute commutes into 45 minutes of agony. Naval Academy midshipmen interrupt timed jogs to wait out the bridge.
The bridge has a 17-foot clearance, which means it must be open to allow almost anything with a mast to reach the Severn River and the bay beyond.
"In a lighthearted manner, you say the bridge is just there," said Judy Dein, a Prudential real estate agent in Eastport, explaining what she tells clients. "On any of the peninsulas, bridges are a way of life. You don't think about it until you're in a hurry and it's up. Then you think about it."
Meanwhile, the roughly 400 sailors who keep boats on the creek side of the span prepare carefully to "make the bridge."
Don Mausshardt, who owns the 32-foot sloop Orca, gives himself 45 minutes before a bridge opening to load, rig and cast off.
"You just have to organize yourself," said Sandy Snead, casting off lines to make a 4 p.m. bridge rise last week on his sloop, the Murphy. "We miss it every time."
Traffic is particularly heavy on Wednesday race nights, snarling one-way Duke of Gloucester Street from the Annapolis Yacht Club at the foot of the bridge to Church Circle blocks away.
"Most drivers are very polite," said Mary S. Craighead, who has lived along Duke of Gloucester for 33 years. "Every once in a while, they'll get stuck here with that god-forsaken boom-box music playing. But I don't want to emphasize that."
Across the street, before the 1,500 students attending a school at St. Mary's Church are let out each afternoon, parents park to wait for them, facing the bridge and mounting traffic until the bell rings. And the church itself, built 10 years before the first Eastport Bridge, holds two Saturday evening and six Sunday morning Masses that coincide with prime sailing hours.
"Spring is a time you look forward to here with mixed feelings," said Sandy Crabtree, sitting in a minivan waiting for son, Ian, a St. Mary's sixth-grader.
"But it's part of living in Annapolis with all this water. You take the good with the bad."
In Annapolis, landmarks usually involve water or history. The Eastport Bridge involves both.
The Marquis de Lafayette sailed from the Severn River into Spa Creek 215 years ago, commanding 1,200 Continental Army troops for a strike into Virginia. He camped on the Eastport bank of Spa Creek, now the site of part of the Annapolis Yacht Club, before marching to Yorktown and battle with the British.
The first Eastport Bridge was built 87 years later, soon after the Civil War. The Mutual Building Association, one of the state's first development companies, bought 101 acres of what is now Eastport. It built a wooden bridge to link the community, with its residents from the 23-year-old Naval Academy and watermen working crab and oyster beds from backyard docks, with a bustling commercial center now dominated by tourists.
There have been two bridges since then. In 1947, the current bridge, which cost $667,000, opened, serving Annapolis politicians' expansionist ambitions. The city annexed Eastport and surrounding neighborhoods in 1951, adding 9,000 people to Annapolis and making it Maryland's fourth-largest city. About 25,000 people now live on the peninsula.
Summer, which is expected to bring more than a million tourists to Annapolis this year, makes the bridge crossing even more difficult, since Compromise Street, which skirts the waterfront, holds numerous attractions.
The bridge, once the site of rumbles between Eastport toughs and midshipmen. with the losers ending up in Spa Creek, also is congested during the academy's May graduation celebrations.
In an effort to relieve congestion, city planners built a second, western route a few years ago, which locals refer to as Eastport's "back door." It links the peninsula to Annapolis proper via clogged Forest Drive and Chinquapin Round Road. Many Eastport residents prefer it to the scenic bridge, but it has not been enough.
"There's nothing wrong with the bridge, except when it's up," said Capt. Leonard Clark of the Annapolis Fire Department. "With all the marinas, it's the only practical bridge you could have there."
Dixon, who was a drawbridge operator on the Eastern Shore 20 years ago and got back into the business in January, feels the heat from land and sea.
"They cuss at me," he said of the drivers. "But it's really not my fault."
Pub Date: 5/11/96