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25 Tips for Boating in Charleston: Guide to Safely Navigating Our Inland and Coastal Waters

25 Boating Tips and Tricks for Novice Boaters in Charleston

Whether you are a first-time boater or you have experience on the water, it is important to prioritize not only your own safety, but everyone else’s safety as well. With this in mind, our guide to boating in Charleston offers 25 tips for both new and experienced boaters.

While we’re lucky enough to be able to boat year-round in Charleston, most people start their boating season once it warms up a bit in the late winter and early spring. This is when many first-time boaters plan to hit the water as well. While boating can be fun and relaxing, it can also be stressful for novices—and it can be dangerous for anyone who isn’t adequately prepared.

With this in mind, we’ve prepared a guide to boating in Charleston with 25 tips for both new and experienced boaters. While this list is geared toward first-timer boaters and those who are new to the Charleston area, it can also serve as a good checklist or refresher for more-experienced local boaters. We’ve broken down our boating tips and tricks into five categories:

Boating on Charleston, SC on the ICW
Boating on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a good option for novices and first-time boaters in Charleston.

Safety Considerations for Boating in Charleston

Safety should be a priority every time you go boating. Whether you are planning to cruise the Wando River, explore the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), or go offshore, you should only go if you are confident in your ability to bring yourself, your passengers, and your boat back home safely. Here are five important safety tips for boating in Charleston:

1. Inspecting Your Boat

Inspect your boat every time you plan to go out. If you keep your boat at home or in dry storage, inspecting it before you get to the boat ramp or float it at the marina will help you avoid the temptation to go out when you shouldn’t. You can use this checklist from boat-ed.com to make sure you cover all of the main safety concerns.

2. Life Jackets and Safety Equipment

Under South Carolina law, all boats must have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable personal floatation device (PFD) for each person onboard. Boats that are at least 16 feet long must also have a Type IV throwable floatation device. Kids’ life jackets should be suited to their size and weight.

Along with PFDs, it is important to have some additional safety equipment onboard. This includes a functioning VHF radio, a charged cell phone, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or comparable device, a whistle, and a safety lanyard for the boat’s engine kill switch.

3. Take Responsibility for Your Own Safety

When captaining a vessel of any size, it is important to take responsibility for your own safety. Among other things, this means:

  • Boat Within Your Limits – Unless you are practicing new skills with an instructor in a controlled environment, you should always boat within your limits. If you aren’t comfortable going offshore or navigating around other boats in the Charleston harbor, there are plenty of other places you can go where the risks are much lower and you will have more space to yourself. If you aren’t comfortable with the wind or weather conditions, reschedule your trip to another day. This is just a part of boating, and no one will blame you for making the safe decision.
  • Don’t Assume Other Boaters Will See You – When you are on the water, you should not assume that other boaters will see you. While they should see you, distracted and impaired boating are unfortunately far too common.
  • Follow the Rules of the Water – While it might seem like there are no rules on the water, this is not the case. All boaters must follow the rules of the water in order to avoid putting themselves in a position where they are at risk for causing a collision. For example, as we just mentioned, boaters should generally be on the right side of the water, and the rules state that boats approaching one another should always pass port-to-port. When overtaking another boat, the overtaking boat is the “give-way” vessel, meaning that it is primarily (though not exclusively) responsible for avoiding a crash.
  • Don’t Assume Other Boaters Will Do the Right Thing – Generally, you should boat on the right side of the water, just like driving a car. But, if another boater approaches you head on (which will happen eventually), you should not assume they will do the right thing. Be cautious, give plenty of space, and signal your intentions clearly by turning starboard. But, if this doesn’t work, be prepared to make an evasive maneuver if necessary.
  • Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks – Boaters who take unnecessary risks are far more likely to make mistake that put themselves (and others) in harm’s way. Again, always stay within your limits when boating in Charleston, and avoid making any decisions that there is a chance you will regret later on.

4. Avoiding Distractions, Impairment, and Other Risks at the Helm

As part of taking responsibility for your own safety, you should also avoid distractions, impairment, and other risks at the helm. If there are other boats (or paddlers) nearby, you should remain vigilant and focused on the task at hand. Never drink while boating, and avoid doing anything else that has the potential to unnecessarily put you in a dangerous position.

5. Have a Plan In Case Something Goes Wrong

Most boaters go their entire lives without ever having a serious incident on the water. But, whether you are a first-time boater or you have decades of experience, it is important to have a plan just in case something goes wrong. For example, some best practices for protecting yourself, your passengers, and any potential rescuers include:

  • Leave a float plan with someone you trust. Your float plan should include identifying information about your boat, where you plan to go, and when you plan to be back.
  • Know how to call for help on your VHF radio. Channel 16 is the U.S. Coast Guard channel reserved for maydays and other emergency information.
  • Know the public boat landings and marinas along your route, in case you need to dock somewhere unexpectedly during your journey.

Boat Ramps and Fuel Docks in Charleston

The Charleston area has several public boat ramps, and there are also multiple fuel docks on both sides of the Charleston peninsula. While most first-time boaters will be able to complete their day trips without stopping for fuel, it is important to know where you can go for fuel should you burn through more than you originally anticipated.

6. Boat Ramps in and Around Charleston

We recently published an article on where to kayak in Charleston, and in that article we included a map of put-ins from Awendaw all the way down to Beaufort. Most of these are public boat ramps where you can launch a boat from a trailer as well. This map includes roughly 25 public boat ramps in the Charleston area:

From these public boat landings, you can get everywhere from the Ace Basin to Charleston’s historic plantation district and places like Capers Island and Morris Island. We cover Charleston's boating destinations in more detail below.

7. Fuel Docks in the Charleston Area

It is always a good idea to show up at the boat landing or leave the marina with a full tank of gas. As we mentioned above, a full tank should be plenty for a day on the water when boating in Charleston. With that said, a good rule of thumb is to plan to use no more than a third of your tank to get to your destination. That way, you’ll have a decent amount of buffer should you encounter heavy winds or need to go against the tide on your way back.

But, it is also a good idea to know where you can fuel up if necessary. Some of the fuel docks in the Charleston area include:

Fueling up at one of the marinas in Charleston, SC is typically more expensive than fueling up at a gas station. This is yet another reason to make sure your boat’s gas tank is full before you hit the water.

8. Launching Your Boat

For first-time boaters, one of the most stressful aspects of boating is simply getting on the water. If you’re not familiar with how to back up your trailer, it will be worth spending some time in an empty parking lot to get comfortable swinging around and reversing. That way, when you get to the boat ramp, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to back down the ramp without getting in other boaters’ way.

There are several articles and boating tips videos with information on how to launch a boat at a boat ramp. This resource from BoatUS is a good place to start.

9. Getting Everyone (and Everything) On Board

Once you get your boat on the water, it’s time to get everyone (and everything) on board. You don’t want to prevent other boaters from getting on the water; so, once you’ve launched at the ramp, you’ll want to move your boat back or to the side so that others can launch their boats as well.

But, while it is important to practice good boating etiquette, it is also important not to rush. Many accidents happen when people are either: (i) trying to board a boat that is floating away from the dock; or, (ii) trying to board with a heavy object (like a cooler) in their hands. So, set your fenders, tie cleat hitches to secure your boat to the dock, have passengers hand heavy items to you onboard, and then provide assistance as needed to boarding passengers before you untie and get on your way.

10. Getting Off of the Water

As important as it is to know how to get on the water, it is equally important to know how to get off the water once your day of boating in Charleston is over. To unload your passengers and gear, follow the steps we just discussed in reverse order, and then make sure your boat is fully secured to your trailer before getting on the road.

Boating Destinations in Charleston

Along with its year-round boating weather, another reason why boating in Charleston is so popular is because of the area’s multitude of boating destinations. While many experienced boaters go to reefs and other deepwater fishing locations offshore, there are plenty of places to explore that do not require you to take your boat out into the ocean.

11. Inland Boating Destinations in Charleston

Most novice boaters (and many experienced boaters) spend their days navigating Charleston’s inland waterways. There are several inland boating destinations—including several where you can anchor and spend time on the sand with few (if any) other people around. Our guide to Charleston’s inland boating destinations provides a description of 12 popular destinations along with a map you can use to chart your course.

12. Uninhabited Sea Islands on Charleston’s Coast

The Charleston area has several uninhabited islands that are only accessible by boat. These are also popular destinations for both novice and experienced boaters, and we’ve published a guide to Charleston’s uninhabited sea islands with a map as well.

13. Best Practices for Anchoring at the Beach

While anchoring can be stressful as a first-time boater, there are some tips you can follow to make getting off of your boat at the beach as easy and stress-free as possible. It is generally best to double anchor, as this will prevent your boat from getting pushed sideways onto the shore. There are plenty of videos you can watch online, and we recommend watching several of these—in addition to taking a course or going with a more-experienced boater the first time you plan to anchor. With this in mind, here are some of our top tips for anchoring at the beach:

  • Put your boat into neutral to see which way the tide and wind are pushing you. You’ll want to drop your stern line (if you are anchoring bow toward the beach) on the opposite side of your boat so that it doesn’t go across your motor.
  • Check the depth of the water. You’ll typically want to anchor in at least a few feet of water, unless you have a small boat that you can push off of the sand if necessary. You’ll also want to avoid anchoring in an area where the depth decreases gradually, as this will increase your risk of getting stuck.
  • Double anchor. The best practice for anchoring at the beach is to double anchor. This involves setting one anchor before you reach the beach, then placing your second anchor on the beach once your bow gently touches the sand. Then, you can either reverse slowly or pull yourself back with the anchor line behind you, and tie off both anchors so that your boat is floating perpendicular to the beach.
  • Go slow. Unless the current is pushing you, there is no need to go more than idle speed while anchoring. Once you set your stern anchor, ride your bow just into the edge of the sand, have a passenger set your bow anchor up the beach, then push off and tie your lines so that your boat is floating perpendicular to the edge of the water.
  • Keep an eye on your boat. Even if you are certain that your anchors are fully set (which you should be), it is still worth keeping an eye on your boat. While nothing should go wrong, if something does go wrong you’ll want to be able to tend to the issue as quickly as possible.

14. Planning for the Tide

Whether you are planning to anchor or explore Charleston’s inland waterways, you’ll want to plan for the tide. Riding the tide both ways is the most fuel-efficient option; so, if you can, plan to either head inland until high tide, or head toward the coast as low tide approaches. With that said, at low tide, certain spots around Charleston that can get very low—even in the middle of expansive waterways. This means that you can bottom out if you aren’t careful. So, always plan your entire route in advance based on the tides you’ll experience while you are on the water.

15. Knowing When to Change Your Plans

While it is important to have a specific destination in mind (so that you can leave a float plan behind), it is also important to know when to change your plans. If conditions change, or if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation for any reason, you should err on the side of safety. If you’re boating inshore, you’ll most likely have cell service, so call or text the person who has your float plan and let them know that your plan has changed.

Knowing the ATONs is an important boating tip in Charleston
Knowing what the aids to navigation (ATONs) like this one mean is important for both novice and experienced boaters.

Coastal and Inland Waterway Navigation in Charleston

Some of the most important boating tips you can receive as a novice boater are those that help you avoid running aground. As we mentioned, there are several areas around Charleston can get very shallow very quickly. But, you can also easily avoid these areas with some basic navigational knowledge and advance planning.

16. Aids to Navigation (ATONs)

Since Charleston is not only a popular coastal boating destination but also home to one of the most important seaports on the East Coast, it has aids to navigation (ATONs) in the harbor and on many of its inland waterways. If you don’t already know what these ATONs mean, you should read this guide from the U.S. Coast Guard. Generally, as long as you stay in between the red and green ATONs, you will not be at risk for running aground. Follow the rule of “red, right, return” (red ATONs are on your right when you’re returning from the ocean), and you’ll always know if you are safely within the navigable channel.

Other ATONs to be aware of when boating in Charleston, SC include:

  • White ATONs with circles. These are regulatory markers that restrict boaters’ operations (i.e., markers for No Wake Zones)
  • White ATONs with diamonds. An empty diamond is a “danger diamond,” indicating that boaters should stay away. Diamonds with crosses through the middle indicate exclusion areas where boats aren’t allowed.
  • Red and Green ATONS. ATONS that are both red and green are junction markers. The predominant color indicates the “preferred” channel (typically the deeper channel for sailboats and commercial vessels), while the other color indicates a secondary channel.
  • Yellow ATONS. There are a couple of yellow ATONs in the Charleston Harbor. These ATONs signify a special feature or area, such as a commercial anchorage (as is the case with the yellow ATON in the middle of the harbor).

When using ATONs for navigation, it is important to keep in mind that buoys can (and do) move. Additionally, storms can take out daymarks affixed to posts buried in the pluff mud. So, while you can generally rely on the ATONS when boating in Charleston, SC, it is always important to pay attention to your depth finder and any signs of danger in your surroundings. Ultimately, your common sense should prevail—or you should ask someone for advice if you are unsure of where you can safely take your boat.

17. Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)

There is one major exception to the “red, right, return” rule—and it is an important one when boating in Charleston. Since the ICW runs parallel to the coastline, this rule doesn’t apply. Instead, green ATONs are always on the ocean side, and red ATONs are always on the inland side of the navigable channel.

The ATONs on the ICW have yellow indicators—either a square (on green ATONs) or a triangle (on red ATONs). A handy boating tip is to remember that the triangles are like mountains—and are on the inland side—while the squares are flat like the ocean.

18. Sandbars and Underwater Hazards

We’ve mentioned it twice, but it is worth mentioning again: You can encounter shallow waters in Charleston when you least expect it. While you will start being able to spot signs of shallow water the more time you spend on your boat, as a novice or first-time boater you’ll want to plan your route carefully and stay within the navigable channel (as marked by ATONs) if possible.

There are a few areas around the Charleston harbor and on the ICW that have underwater pipelines and other hazards as well. These are marked with signs, and you should follow the instructions on these signs as you pass.

19. Navigating Bends in Creeks and Rivers

Another common mistake that can lead to running aground involves taking bends in creeks and rivers too close on the inside. Due to the natural flow of the water, the outside of these bends is almost always the deepest section. While it can be tempting to steer close to the inside of a bend in order to shorten your distance traveled, you should only do this if you are sure that the water on the inside of the bend is deep enough for your boat.

20. Don’t Just Rely on Your Depth Finder

Due to the fact that the depth can change quickly and you can encounter sandbars in the middle of Charleston’s rivers and creeks, boaters should not rely solely on their depth finders. Instead, boaters should review their depth charts before getting on the water, and they should stay in between the ATONs when possible.

Boating tip for Charleston: explore as many new places as you can
One of the best boating tips we can give is to explore as much as you can. There are so many places to go on Charleston's inland waterways.

Boating in Charleston: Trip Planning for a Day on the Water

Any time you plan to go boating in Charleston, it is important to plan your trip in advance. This means not only having a destination in mind, but also checking to make sure the conditions are favorable (or at least favorable enough for your experience and comfort level).

21. Check for Events on the Water

Given that Charleston is a popular boating destination, there are events on the water pretty regularly. If you are planning to head toward the Charleston harbor in particular, it is a good idea to check the news to see if any events are scheduled for the day you are planning to go boating. Not only can being around lots of other boaters be stressful for novice and first-time boaters, but it can also get dangerous if you aren’t comfortable dealing with the wakes that get churned up when there are boats going in all directions.

22. Check the Weather

Always, always, always check the weather before you go boating. Not only is boating in bad weather unpleasant, but it can also be dangerous. This is especially true if onshore winds are blowing up large waves. You can check the National Weather Service (NWS) for any Small Craft Advisories; and, if the NWS issues one of these advisories, you should reschedule for another day.

23. Check the Tides

Along with checking the weather, you will also want to check the tides. This will help you with choosing a suitable boating destination for the day. There are several tide apps that will give you the weather and swell forecast as well.

24. Check the Swell

In addition to checking the weather and the tides, the third key environmental factor to check is the swell. These are the rolling (and occasionally breaking) waves on the surface of the water. For ideal boating conditions, you want the smallest swell height and the longest swell period (the time between waves) as possible. If the swell height is two feet or more, or if the swell period is about eight feet or less, this means that you will be in for a choppy, and potentially uncomfortable—if not dangerous—day on the water.

25. Keep Checking Throughout the Day

Finally, due to Charleston’s coastal location, weather and water conditions can (and often do) change unexpectedly. With this in mind, it is important to keep an eye on the conditions throughout the day. If the forecast changes while you are out boating, you will need to make an informed decision about what to do—prioritizing your and your passengers’ safety as always.

FAQs: Boating in Charleston, South Carolina

When Boating on Coastal Waters, Is It Important to Be Aware of the Tides?

Yes, when boating in coastal waters, it is very important to be aware of the tides. While you will be able to go against the tide even with a relatively low horsepower engine, going against the tide will use much more fuel than going with it. This means that you need to plan your route carefully so that you can get back to the boat landing or marina with fuel in your tank. If you plan to anchor at a coastal beach, you’ll need to pay attention to the tides in this scenario as well so that you don’t end up with your hull resting on the sand.

Where Can I Go By Water from Charleston?

When boating in Charleston, you can go just about anywhere. While many people fish and scuba dive offshore, there are plenty of coastal and inland destinations as well. These include Bull Island, Capers Island, and Morris Island—just to name a few. Fishing on the Ashley, Cooper, and Stono Rivers is also popular, and many boaters spend summer afternoons taking in the views of the Charleston Harbor or cruising the Intracoastal Waterway. The Folly River and Kiawah River are also popular places to go by water from Charleston.

How Deep is the Water in the Charleston Harbor?

The channel in the Charleston Harbor is at least 52 feet deep. You’ll know you are in the channel if your boat is in between the red and green aids to navigation (ATONs) in the harbor. Outside of the channel, the water depth ranges from 50-plus feet to just a foot or two. Certain locations, like Crab Bank at the mouth of Shem Creek, are below the water at high tide but above the water at low tide. As a result, boating in the Charleston Harbor outside of the channel requires planning, and it is important to pay close attention to your depth at all times—even if you are a good distance from the shore.

What is There to See By Boat in Charleston?

In the Charleston Harbor, you can boat past the Battery and Waterfront Park, and you can boat under the iconic Ravenel Bridge. You can also boat around Fort Sumter in the harbor, and you can take your boat to the beach at Morris Island to hunt for shark teeth or get an up-close view of the Morris Island lighthouse. The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) runs through the Charleston Harbor as well, and you can take the ICW north past Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms to the pristine beaches on the uninhabited islands of Bull Island and Capers Island.

Is Boating in Charleston Harbor Safe?

Boating in Charleston Harbor is safe as long as you check the conditions before you go and you are comfortable at the helm. The water in the harbor can get choppy at times, and you need to be careful to avoid some very shallow areas. It is a good idea to check the local news as well, as there are several events throughout the year that attract large crowds of boats to the harbor. With that said, the Charleston Harbor is a great place to see by water, and it is definitely worth going when the conditions are favorable.

While this Guide to Boating in Charleston is meant to be helpful, there is no substitute for taking a boating safety course and practicing safe boat operation in favorable conditions. Depending on where exactly you are boating in the Charleston area (i.e., offshore or visiting an island that has a protected wildlife habitat), other requirements and restrictions may apply as well. We encourage everyone to know the law, boat safely, and always err on the side of caution.


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