While passengers boarded the Carnival Fantasy around lunchtime Tuesday, a strange spectacle unfolded on the pool deck a few floors above them.
Stripped out of their business suits and down to swim trunks and T-shirts, State Ports Authority Chief Executive Jim Newsome and Carnival's chief marketing officer Jim Berra stood next to each other from atop dueling water slides.
The cruise director gave them the old "ready . . . set . . . go!" as members of the local business community looked on, cheering.
Newsome lost the race to the bottom, but the gesture represented something far more valuable to his agency. Carnival launched its home-port designation for Charleston on Tuesday and promises to bring a ship to the passenger terminal at least once a week all year long.
The Fantasy will call as frequently as 70 times per year, which more than doubles the current number of annual cruises and, by some estimates, will inject millions of dollars in direct local economic impact with each visit.
A city-organized task force in 2004 found that a ship stopping in Charleston spends $1.7 million on supplies from local vendors and State Ports Authority fees, while a ship originating in Charleston spends $2.5 million.
The Fantasy welcomed aboard local travel leaders to mark the occasion with mimosas and Bloody Marys inside the Universal Lounge. Against a black curtain with starry pinpricks of light shining through and Las Vegas-style pink neon accents throughout the room, senior cruise director John Heald told the crowd that he had arrived in Charleston after a stop in New York.
"It's nice to be hugged and said 'hello' to," he said.
A jazz band matched his playful tone, and church steeples from Charleston's skyline showed through the porthole windows as Heald called a procession of speakers up to the stage.
Berra, before his water slide stunt, spoke to the combination of fun and value that vacationers seek today.
"The opportunity to spend some quality time in this historic and remarkable city and then hop on board the Fantasy certainly meets those objectives," he said.
His racing opponent, Newsome, said a home-port designation brings with it a certain relationship between a city and a ship. He pointed to the success of Fantasy's first sailing under that status.
"I came from the shipping industry, and the most tangible evidence of success is when a ship is full," Newsome said.
Fantasy left Charleston Tuesday afternoon with 2,242 passengers onboard -- a sellout.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley spoke to the historical significance of the day, and local airports director Sue Stevens presented Heald and the ship's captain, Roberto Costi, with sweetgrass baskets.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection area port director Robert Fencel delivered an oversized coin with a joke about looking forward to meeting all of Carnival's passengers.
"Since 1676, Customs in Charleston has been part of the official welcoming committee," he said.
After the handshakes and gift exhange, the group made its way up to the pool deck where dignitaries took to the slides, including "the battle of the Jims," as Heald called it.
From there, the group traveled to the dining room for lunch before the Fantasy embarked on its inaugural home-port voyage to the Bahamas.