The Windjammer: 40 summers and counting

File/Mic Smith/Staff Beach volleyball at The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms is a time-honored tradition.

Ahh, Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of summer and the first of the three triple crown summer weekends.

After spending nearly a quarter century in the Charleston area, I can't think of one place that embodies summer more than The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms.

And the beach bar - known for its live music, volleyball and bikini contests - was here long before my arrival.

This year, The Windjammer celebrates its 40th year.

That's staying power. A short, very incomplete history is on the 'Jammer's websaite.

"Before I got there, The Windjammer had a formula for success," said longtime manager and co-owner Bobby Ross, noting that founder and co-owner Malcolm Burgis was disciplined about reinvesting money in the club.

Ross, who started working at the bar to pay off a $500 bar tab when he was unemployed in 1980, ultimately was instrumental in establishing The Windjammer as a music venue back when it was among three others in town.

The others, Myskin's and Cumberland's, are long gone.

Among the bands that have been on The Windjammer's stage include Better Than Ezra, Cowboy Mouth, Sister Hazel, Edwin McCain and, perhaps the biggest, Hootie & the Blowfish.

The latter played The Windjammer before they were famous, and Ross said, "It was like watching kids grow up and move away."

Volleyball & bikinis While music is a year-round draw for The Windjammer, the scene gets amplified in summer with nonstop beach volleyball and starting Sunday the "bikini bash."

Besides ocean breezes, sand and ice cold beer and Burgis himself, the one constant for The Windjammer has been beach volleyball, Ross said.

"There have been volleyball nets up since I moved here and became a customer in 1974," he said, noting that the poles for the nets were stuck in cement-filled tires.

Just like musicians, The Windjammer has had its share of local volleyball legends, including Arthur Brown, Rusty Bennett, Barry McClellan and Jake Elliott, who now is an assistant coach for the College of Charleston's sand volleyball team.

Elliott was instrumental in bringing one of the most celebrated beach volleyball players, Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh, to The Windjammer last summer.

Ross grumbles, perhaps jokingly, a little about volleyball, specifically volleyball players.

"They don't buy beer. They drink water. And when the water jugs are empty, they complain," he said.

But he acknowledges that beach volleyball does provide free entertainment to those who want to just kick back, bury their toes in sun-warmed sand and enjoy a cold Corona.

A waning tradition? Just as volleyball has evolved, so has the bikini bash, which originated with a wet T-shirt contest.

Ross recalls, however, that in 1980, some strippers from the famed Joker showed up and put on an impromptu show. The Isle of Palms Police Department moved in and shut it down. Permanently.

By the mid-1980s, The Windjammer took a tamer tack with a bikini contest, but made the mistake of letting the finals, which takes the winners of all of summer's contests to compete for a grand prize, be held at the seventh inning stretch (I'm not making this up) at the Charleston Rainbows game.

After two years, The Windjammer kept the finals at home.

All that said, Ross says the bikini contest, which always starts the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, isn't drawing the crowds it used to and he shortened the series of contests by one this year.

Ross ponders if the contest has worn out its lure.

Regardless, Ross said The Windjammer's popularity is largely due to staying true to being a beach bar.

"We've maintained over the years. We've changed, but we haven't changed. The kids today want what the kids wanted 40 years ago," said Ross, now 56.

And The Windjammer still makes this older kid feel like a kid again every time I settle in for a little sunshine, sand, sights and sounds of this classic beach bar.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@post