It appeared slowly, first as an apparition, then as a skeletal frame silently emerging from the hazy horizon. As the vessel crept forward, its hanging sails, three tall masts and widespread yardarms distinguished themselves from the gray sky.
But there was something else on the yardarms of the Gloria, the Colombian navy's sail training ship, something like star-shaped structures or odd figurines in the middle of the sky.
"It looks like a person standing up there," one woman said from the docks of the Charleston Maritime Center, huddled among the umbrellas and raincoats.
"That's not a person," her friend replied.
"I've seen them move," the first said.
"You mean on the top? Oh my God," another said, astonished at the seemingly impossible arrangement.
Soon all the spectators on the docks had discovered the Colombian cadets standing side-by-side on each of the Gloria's 10 yardarms.
Two cadets, dressed in white, stood at the top of two masts, more than 100 feet in the air, with two cadets standing below them, then three, then four and four and four, each row wearing a color of the Colombian flag.
As the 249-foot-long barque sailed closer in, a melody filled the sky. Voices rang from more than 100 feet high, down from the deck below, from along the bowsprit, and all yardarms in between — a chorus of sailors singing their nation's anthem. A massive Colombian flag, a blanket of red, yellow and blue, billowed at the ship stern.
Spectators lined the docks, staring as the ship sailed in, captivated by its grandeur. Mayor Joe Riley, standing with the Bermudan dignitaries who had sailed in minutes before, watched in awe.
"I've never seen anything like it," Riley said.
Gloria sailed past the Spirit of Bermuda, the Schooner Virginia and the Pride of Baltimore II that were docked at port, and two men fed the cannons on deck, firing 21 booming shots into the air and welcoming the Spirit of South Carolina to the international fleet of tall ships.
The crowd whistled and cheered as Gloria sailed by, the masts still echoing in song.
"Hip hip!" the crew yelled, and "Hooray!" the docks called back.
The Spirit's crew stood at attention when the Colombia ship fired the rounds and sailed by, then spurred to action to answer the salute.
Four shots erupted from the Spirit's deck, five seconds separating each thunderous blow. Brendan Fitzgerald, who had fired the Spirit's cannons Tuesday, said he was careful to bring earplugs Thursday.
The 21-gun salute can be traced centuries back when ships would fire their ammunition upon entering foreign ports.
By publicly depleting their means of attack and defense, they demonstrated their friendly intentions.
For years the British established that the weaker nation should salute first, but eventually a gun-for-gun salute became the international tradition.
The Spirit of South Carolina responded with four cannons to honor Gloria's 40th anniversary, said Brad Van Liew, director of the S.C. Maritime Foundation.
Gloria is used as a sail training ship for the Colombian navy and is the largest of the eight tall ships visiting the city for the Charleston Maritime Festival.
The "manning of the yards" ceremony takes a month of training and is a cadet honor, said Francisco Davila, a former Colombian cadet and a Colombian liaison.
For those on the docks, it was a sight they would retell throughout the day.
"That's what I call an entrance," said Mel Smith, an onlooker from Mount Pleasant. "That's like something from out of 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' I kept waiting for Johnny Depp to appear."
Reach Jamie McGee at 745-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.