Annapolis may be the sailing capital of the East Coast, but residents and tourists alike have often found it's an awful place to drive a car.

The situation can be especially irritating in the city's downtown historic area. Many of the 18th century streets are narrow and dead-end at the water, helping create traffic backups and delays. But among the biggest traffic headaches downtown is the frequent closing of the picturesque drawbridge that crosses Spa Creek, connecting the historic district with the Eastport section of Annapolis. City officials are asking state and federal officials to limit weekday openings.

The problem is at its worst in the summer, when the sailboat traffic peaks, but traffic through historic Annapolis can often be brought to a standstill in mid-October when the bridge is used frequently because of the popular boat shows.

The U.S. Sailboat Show closed Monday and the U.S. Powerboat Show opens today. A bridge tender on duty Monday said that as many as 50 boats went through at once.

Last weekend, cars were backed up six to eight blocks, according to Lt. Charles Lane of the Annapolis Police Department, while the bridge opened to allow passage of sailboats that dock at marinas and private piers near the mouth of Spa Creek. The resulting traffic backups snaked down Compromise Street to the crowded city dock.

Although the mechanics of opening and closing the bridge take six minutes, the resulting backup can often take longer to clear out. "The bridge creates a traffic bog," said Cpl. William Powell, a spokesman for the Annapolis Police Department. "It may go up and stay up for 15 to 20 minutes."

When conditions are right for sailing, the bridge opens as often as 20 times in eight hours, according to Richard Stevenson, one of four bridge tenders who rotate shifts to keep the bridge operating 24 hours a day.

Maryland Highway Administration employes operate the Eastport bridge according to a schedule set by the U.S. Coast Guard to support a policy of "keeping the commercial waterways open," said a Coast Guard official. The Coast Guard, which supervises the bridge operations from its Portsmouth, Va., station, prohibits Eastport bridge openings from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and limits the opening on weekends to every half hour from March 1 to Nov. 1.

At all other times, the bridge should open "on demand" for a boater, according to Coast Guard regulations.

"Whenever a boat comes, they give me a blast of the horn, and I open up for them," Stevenson said.

The mayor's office has asked the state Highway Department to recommend limiting the weekday bridge opening to every half hour between April 1 and Nov. 30, according to a spokesman in the Highway Department.

Drivers, many of whom are sailors themselves, say the weekday bridge openings are too frequent and too unpredictable. And several refused to believe that the bridge follows any schedule at all.

"Baloney," said Toni Heyer of Annapolis, who crosses the Eastport bridge twice a day in her car. "They don't follow that {schedule}. They open it whenever a boat shows up."

Stevenson disputed this notion, saying many motorists "don't know the schedule" and often confuse the weekend schedule with the weekday openings. The bridge is usually down and ready for motorists to cross within 10 minutes, he said, but "I know, when I'm sitting out there in traffic, it seems longer."

The unpredictability of the bridge makes driving in downtown Annapolis "a crap shoot," said Edward Lilly of Annapolis, adding that he avoids the Eastport bridge when he is sailing. "I never know, will it {the bridge} be open when I get there, or not?"

Several suggested scheduling weekday bridge openings so people who live and work in Annapolis can plan their trips.

"Instead of opening on demand {for a boater}, the bridge should open on the hour and the half hour all day long," said Denny Ferguson, captain of a 96-foot charter yacht docked at a marina near the Eastport bridge. Ferguson said he has seen the bridge open for one boat, close for 5 minutes, then open for another boat -- all while a line of cars waited.

"That doesn't make sense," he said. "These boaters, particularly the pleasure boaters, are in no hurry," but "the people in cars have appointments, other business."

Bridge tender Stevenson said he tries to accommodate car traffic, but his view from the glass-enclosed cubicle atop the bridge is limited and "I just can't stop the bridge on a dime."

He said he worries about emergency vehicles that are forced to wait for the bridge. "Somebody could be having a heart attack in an ambulance out there, and I feel real bad, I almost panic, because I can't get the bridge down right away," he said.

Most of the boats in Spa Creek are pleasure craft, and the owners interviewed said they could plan outings around scheduled bridge openings on weekdays, as they do on weekends.

Not everyone considers the bridge a problem. Evelyn White, manager of a convenience store a few blocks from the Eastport bridge, blamed pedestrians near the city dock for traffic problems in Annapolis.

"It's the walking traffic that causes the backups, not the cars or the bridge," she said. "Sometimes the bridge goes down, and you'll drive a block and you'll have to stop" for pedestrians crossing the street.

"The real problem is there are too many people in this town," said a woman crossing the bridge on foot. "The best time to be in Annapolis is after a blizzard when everyone stays home."