It was one of those gorgeous late spring evenings, when the sky is a deep, rich blue and the sun is still high enough to cast a warm, orange glow over the harbor.
One of those times when there is no place you'd rather be than Charleston.
That evening, the men and women responsible for the Around Alone single-handed sailboat race gathered on High Battery at the Carolina Yacht Club — a place with a view unmatched anywhere in these parts.
The Gypsy Kings' version of "Volare" was blasting through the sound system, and a slide show of photos from the race scrolled across a screen.
The skippers who had just sailed from Charleston all the way around the world were holding court with their shore crews, race officials and a few other guests, reliving their favorite moments of the last eight months.
They had risked their lives, battled waves the size of buildings, seen amazing things. They had circled the globe both alone and with an entire city of folks back in Charleston.
That evening in 1999 it seemed like everybody was trying to avoid saying goodbye, to hold on to something special.
Now the race is coming back, and a lot of folks are pretty excited.
A thrill a minute
Over a span of two races and five years, the Around Alone brought this city together like perhaps no other event. From the suburbs to South Battery, everybody followed those skippers around the world. They cheered their triumphs, worried for their safety, thrilled at their stories of survival on the high seas. It's in the blood here.
School kids wrote e-mails to their favorite skippers, marked their progress on maps as their boats rounded the three Great Capes of the Southern Ocean — Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn.
They learned geography as they made landfall in Cape Town, South Africa; Auckland, New Zealand; and Punta del Este, Uruguay.
We mourned when Harry Mitchell was lost somewhere off Cape Horn.
We were amazed when Viktor Yazykov operated on himself at sea after an injury.
We cheered when Giovanni Soldini plucked Isabelle Autissier from her overturned boat in the Southern Ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest land.
When Soldini sailed back into Charleston in early May, several hundred people — maybe a thousand — met him at the City Marina, even though he didn't dock until nearly 3 a.m. There were so many people on the floating dock that it sank nearly a foot under the water.
And then there were all those parties. Legendary gatherings, some of them at the Variety Store, a few at Pusser's Landing, then the night it all ended at the old Omar Shrine building.
A family of sailors
The great thing about the Around Alone — now called the Velux 5 Oceans — is that it brings together all sorts of folks who compete against each other but also form a bond with each other and their host cities. It makes this race unique in the sailing world.
"It's a very cool fraternity," two-time Around Alone veteran Brad Van Liew says of the small population of single-handed skippers.
Van Liew is the spirit of the race personified. He and his wife, Meaghan, had such a good time here they came back and now run the Charleston Maritime Foundation.
"It's the reason I'm here," Van Liew says. "This thing has a lot of history in the Charleston area."
And now we have new memories, new parties and new adventure to look forward to. It's about time.