CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. – — The crowd — thousands of men, women and children, dressed for the heat in T-shirts, shorts and bathing suits — had been waiting on the beach for hours.
Finally, the ponies appeared on the opposite shore. A roar went up.
And then the heavens opened. Dark clouds thundered, streaks of lightning ripped the sky, and a cold rain soaked the multitudes.
For the first time in at least half a century — and, possibly, ever — the famed Chincoteague ponies made their annual swim from their refuge off the Eastern Shore to this island in Virginia on Wednesday morning in a slashing thunderstorm.
"We'd already committed ourselves," said Howard Thornton, chief of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which runs the Pony Swim. "We had to move forward, and just hope and pray for the best."
It was the 88th annual edition of the event, which was immortalized in the 1947 children's book "Misty of Chincoteague." The feral horses, which live in the wild on Assateague Island, are brought to Chincoteague each July for an auction to benefit the fire company.
No injuries related to the weather were reported. The skies cleared in time for the fire company's Saltwater Cowboys to parade the ponies to their pen at the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds, and the bone-soaking rain did little to dampen the spirits of the tens of thousands who came for the event.
"We knew coming here it was going to be hot," said Tracey Martin, a schoolteacher from Petersburg, Va., who brought her 12-year-old daughter to see the ponies. "We didn't know it was going to start pouring at slack tide."
Martin was sheltering under the awning of a restaurant near Pony Swim Lane.
"It's not disappointing," she said. "It's been a little crazy, but in a good way. I wouldn't let it deter me from coming back."
One hundred and eighteen horses began the swim shortly after 11:15 a.m. Wednesday. They took a little more than five minutes to cross the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague.
Fifty-three colts are to be auctioned on Thursday. The fire company sold 67 ponies last year for a total of $96,252.
Mary Jo Britner attended her first pony swim in 2007. She did not leave empty-handed.
"I didn't plan to buy a pony," said Britner, a psychiatric nurse in Baltimore. "But when my little guy came out, I just fell in love."
Britner keeps Mini-Me by the Sea and four other horses at her home in Chambersburg, Pa. And she's come back for the pony swim nearly every year since.
The Solanos — parents Mike and Patricia and daughters Michelle, 13, and Havana, 9 — are also repeat visitors. They've all read the book — the girls take turns recounting the plot — and have met some of the islanders depicted in the story.
They watched Monday as the Saltwater Cowboys rounded up the ponies. They plan to return to the beach Friday to see the ones that aren't sold swim back to Assateague.
"There are so many fun activities," Michelle said. "The horses are beautiful."
Thornton, who has been involved in the event for 51 years, said he had never seen such a storm on the day of the swim. When he checked the weather Wednesday morning, the forecast was for sunny skies.
As lightning streaked down, members of the volunteer fire company shouted at spectators to lower their umbrellas.
The Saltwater Cowboys wait until slack tide, the period between the tides when there is no current, before starting the ponies across the channel.
Volunteer firefighter Bo Reeder, a Saltwater Cowboy for eight years, said the weather had no effect on the work.
"It wasn't no different," he said. "You're just going to get wet is all."
After the swim, 3-year-old Olivia Shifler, 5-year-old Zoe Rosta, 5-year-old Parker Spies and 6-year-old Aliza Adams headed to the pony pen at the carnival grounds to wait for the animals to arrive. All from Maryland's Eastern Shore, some of them had watched a DVD of the 1961 film "Misty" at their hotel the night before.
Now they pressed their faces against the chain-link fence. When the first pony arrived, a cafe-au-lait male with a butterscotch mane, the children squealed: "Misty!"
Olivia's grandmother declared the day "quite an experience." The rain, Betsy Jones said, "just made it more memorable."