Burning the Winter Socks

Published on April 10th, 2017

Chicago has the White Sox and Boston has the Red Sox, and with spring sprung, sailors are burning their winter socks as reported by John Clarke for The Wall Street Journal.

The ritual began one Saturday last month with the introduction of Gov. Larry Hogan or, for this day’s purposes, the “chief sock-burner of the State of Maryland.”

“I’m honored,” he replied, then joined the mob of sailing enthusiasts heading for the beach near the Annapolis Maritime Museum on the Chesapeake Bay.

First, poetry was read:
Goodbye to winter,
Only deck shoes we wear!
For the socks we are burning,
Leave a stink in the air!

Gov. Hogan threw the first offering, a worn-out pair of athletic hosiery that kicked up a shower of sparks as it plopped into the flames of a crackling fire on the beach. Onlookers cheered. Soon other doomed textiles soared in over people’s heads—red socks, argyle socks, black socks, grimy-greyish socks.

“Let’s face it,” Steve Schuh, a local-county executive, told the crowd before the ritual began, “you people just hate socks.”

Indeed, many sailors and boatyard workers consider socks annoying wintertime wear. They prefer to spend warmer months bare-toed inside their deck shoes. So at marinas and yacht clubs around the U.S. in the springtime, increasingly, they get together to immolate them.

And read poetry and drink and try not to burn themselves, then avoid wearing socks until it gets cold again.

In Georgetown, S.C., sailors celebrate “Burn Your Socks for the Equinox” around a fire pit, reciting sock-burning verse. At Lake Texoma, on the Texas-Oklahoma state line, they incinerate stockings and switch to flip-flops.

Williamsburg, Va., kicks off canoe season by burning socks before a paddle trip down Taskinas Creek and York River. “I’m not sure I would describe it as sacred,” said Corrina Ferguson, a representative for the event. “But we love any event that celebrates spring.”

Ms. Ferguson said she believed the tradition dated back 100 years to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The keeper of the Annapolis fire had his own exotic theory. Brian DeGraw, who has tended sock-burnings for years, once figured the practice must date to some ancient ritual—perhaps a Viking sacrifice to the gods on the first spring day, he imagined, in which Norsemen lobbed woolen socks into flames and drank mead.

A Naval Academy historian said the tradition started in Annapolis, but not at the academy.

Mr. DeGraw was “sorely disappointed,” he said, when he finally found out the rite most certainly harked back only several decades, not to ancient peoples.

It got its start, it appears, in 1978. Annapolis Harbor Boat Yard’s then-owner, Bob Turner, had survived a long winter shaving aluminum for boats, which got helical shards in his socks.

“Even talking about it 40 years later, I still wince,” he said. One day that spring, he procured a 12-pack of Budweiser longnecks and invited employees. “I’m burning my socks,” he told them. “It’s time to move on and go sailing.”

He tossed his into a paint tray, soaked them in flammable adhesive remover and lighted them. Passersby stopped and donated socks in exchange for beer.

He did it again the next year, and more gathered with their own sacrifices. One year, after the event moved to a local yacht club, he said, a package arrived from Cambodia with old socks and a note asking to burn them.

Over the years, the ritual spread along the Coast and the Gulf, and to the Great Lakes and West Coast. “It’s a celebration,” said Roger Herrick, vice commodore of the Skidaway Island Boating Club in Savannah, Ga. “We take off our socks and get ready for summer.”

Robin and Lance Van Auken host a burning in Williamsport, Pa., on a cliff overlooking the Susquehanna River. “We’re wannabes who relocated to Pennsylvania 20 years ago from Florida.” said Mrs. Van Auken. This year, a snowstorm killed their sock party when it buried the fire pit.

Mr. Turner moved to Georgetown, S.C., in 2010 and performed the ritual in his backyard, drawing curious neighbors. Then he read of the South Carolina Maritime Museum’s sock burning and requested to be invited the next year.

They asked how he knew of the tradition. “I started it,” he told them, and he was in.

His rite dwindled in Annapolis for some years, he said. It rekindled in several local events, including the Annual Oyster Roast & Sock Burning, which Gov. Hogan attended.

This year, it was a catered affair with live music that drew 1,110, who dined on gourmet oyster dishes and sipped top-shelf rum and craft beer.

Gov. Hogan attended the third year in a row. He wore no socks in his deck shoes.

A woman with socks affixed to her jacket circled the fire. A man carrying a bag reading “sock widows” handed out old lone socks to people who had none.

Mr. DeGraw, who digs the fire pit each year, said his primary job is keeping well-lubricated celebrants from setting themselves on fire. “I use this,” he said, gesturing to an 8-foot teak dowel salvaged from a boatyard he uses to tap people’s feet when they get too close. It doubles as a staff to stir socks into the fire.

Socks aren’t aerodynamic, so best throw them balled up, advises Mr. DeGraw, a captain and sailing instructor who lived on his sailboat in Annapolis for 12 years and now lives on his boat in Baltimore.

One year, he erred by dousing the coals afterward. “That was a mistake—billowing clouds of sock-burning steam.”

Some landlubbers toss in synthetic-fleece socks, which “turn into a stinky plastic ball,” said Molly Winans, editor of SpinSheet, a local sailing magazine. “Wool and cotton are better.”

Illicit sacrifices sometimes sail into the flames, including jeans, underwear, pantyhose and bras at past events.

Mr. Turner disapproves of non-sock offerings. “I’m happy to see it embraced all over as a spring ritual,” he said, “but that’s not really in the spirit of it.”

“You have to embrace the maritime history of it all. It’s really all about getting rid of those socks because it’s time to put your deck shoes on.”

Photo: Ritual sock-burning this spring in Annapolis, Md. © Anthony DePanise/Office of Governor Larry Hoga.

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