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Sailing in Charleston, SC: Everything Aspiring and Experienced Sailors Need to Know

Sailing in Charleston, SC

Charleston is one of the premier sailing destinations not just in the United States, but in the entire world. Whether you live in Charleston and are interested in getting into sailing, you are sailing your boat to Charleston, or you are interested in going on a sailing charger on vacation, here’s everything you need to know about sailing in Charleston, SC.

In Charleston, getting on the water is enjoyable any time of year. Even in the heat of summer, onshore winds from the Atlantic Ocean cool the air over the water, providing a gentle breeze that helps keep the no-see-ums at bay.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Sailing in Charleston, SC

While there are a variety of ways to enjoy time on the water in Charleston, one of the best ways is to go sailing. Charleston’s marinas are filled with sailboats—including privately-owned boats, sloops and dinghies owned by sailing schools, and luxury sailboats and catamarans that are available for charter.

So, you’re interested in sailing in Charleston, SC. What do you need to know? Charleston is a unique sailing destination in many ways. From our tides and winds to cargo ships and other commercial traffic in the harbor channel, there are a variety of risks of which all sailors need to be aware. But, sailing in Charleston is unique for all of the right reasons as well; and, with some knowledge and a level head, you can sail safely and enjoyably throughout Charleston’s coastal and inland waters.

Keep reading to learn more:

Where to Sail in Charleston, SC

A sloop sailing in Charleston, SCMost out-of-town sailors chart their course to the Charleston Harbor. With its iconic skyline and first-class marinas, the Charleston Harbor is the perfect sailing destination—whether you are looking for an overnight stop on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) or you are planning to stay for several weeks. The Charleston Harbor is also home to the Holy City’s sailing schools, and the Charleston City Marina and Charleston Harbor Marina are home to many of the area’s sailing schools and charter companies as well.

If you are sailing into Charleston, either of these marinas will likely be your primary destination. Charleston City Marina is located on the peninsula, and it has a great local restaurant nearby (the Marina Variety Store Restaurant). It is also within walking distance to downtown Charleston, including historic King Street.

Charleston Harbor Marina is located at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Patriots Point is home to several seafood restaurants and hotels, and you can take the Water Taxi across the harbor to downtown. Both marinas are easily accessible from the ICW and offshore, though you will typically encounter a bit less traffic heading to Patriots Point.

Aside from simply getting to Charleston by sailboat, there are a variety of places to sail in Charleston as well. Sailing vessels of all sizes can go under the Ravenel Bridge and up the Wando River for an out-of-the-way anchorage. The portions of the ICW immediately on both sides of the Charleston Harbor are sailable as well (and, of course, you can motor if necessary); and, if you head farther north or south, you will find yourself navigating amongst Charleston’s uninhabited barrier islands within a couple of hours.

There are several other marinas around Charleston as well. Some of the main marinas that are available to skippers sailing into Charleston, SC include:

  • Charleston City Marina (on the Charleston peninsula)
  • Charleston Harbor Marina (at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant)
  • IOP Marina (on Isle of Palms north of downtown)
  • Ripley Light Marina (on the Ashley River across from Charleston City Marina)
  • Sunset Cay Marina (on the inland side of Folly Island)
  • Johns Yacht Harbor (on Johns Island south of Charleston on the ICW)
  • Bohicket Marina (on Seabrook Island south of Johns Island)
  • The Marina at Edisto Beach (on the southern tip of Edisto Island less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean)

There are several smaller marinas in Charleston, SC as well. Similar to those listed above, these marinas also generally offer fuel and docking for both transients and full-time owners or renters.

Sailing to Charleston, SC

There are two primary ways to get to (or depart from) Charleston, SC by sailboat. The first is the ICW. The ICW runs through the Charleston Harbor, passing by Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island to the north and heading toward Edisto Island and the ACE Basin to the south. The Isle of Palms Connector Bridge has a vertical clearance of 65 feet, and the Sullivan’s Island bridge (the Ben Sawyer Bridge) rotates open. South of the Charleston Harbor, the bridge on Folly Road opens, and the Limehouse Bridge that connects West Ashley to Johns Island has a 65-foot clearance as well.

The second option for getting to Charleston by sailboat is to come into the Charleston Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean through the jetties. The jetties extend several miles offshore, so sailors need to navigate to the channel before making their turn inland to begin sailing in Charleston, SC.

  • Sailing to Charleston on the ICW – The ICW separates the mainland from Charleston’s barrier islands and runs through the Charleston Harbor. Charleston is a popular stopping point on the loop as well as for sailors who are heading south to the Bahamas.
  • Sailing to Charleston Through the Harbor Jetties – Coastal cruisers can enter the Charleston Harbor through the shipping channel. As the Morris Island Lighthouse (decommissioned) and Sullivan’s Island lighthouse come into view, start looking for the channel markers and then follow the “red, right, return” principle to navigate safely into the harbor.

Charleston Anchorages and Anchoring Rules for Charleston, SC

Charleston’s main anchorage is located in the Ashley River across from Charleston City Marina. This popular location offers easy access to downtown as well as the Ripley Light Marina on the west side of the river. There is an anchorage in the harbor, on its eastern side, as well. When anchoring here, sailors must follow the Charleston Anchorage Regulations, which state in part:

“Vessels using the anchorages opposite the eastern waterfront of Charleston shall place their anchors as near as possible in the center of the anchorage. Vessels not using a designated commercial anchorage shall not place their anchors within the main ship channels, nor shall be so anchored as to swing within 400 feet of any wharf or pier on the eastern waterfront of Charleston. Vessels may be so anchored as to swing into the main ship channels only if they are so placed with reference to the customary winds, tides, and currents of the harbor, as to swing only during slack water, and that during this period there shall remain in the waters adjacent to the channel an area of sufficient depth as to permit the safe passage of loaded vessels.”

Outside of this anchorage, there are several other places to anchor in Charleston’s inland waterways. Sailboats are regularly anchored further up the Ashley River, in the Wando River, in the creeks around Charleston’s barrier islands, and in the rivers and waterways slightly farther south. There are some incredible places to anchor within a couple of hours of downtown—which, while not offering views of the Charleston skyline, offer incredible sunrises and sunsets, pristine nature, and almost guaranteed seclusion.

How to Get Started Sailing in Charleston, SC

If you are a Charleston resident and you are interested in sailing, you are not alone. The author is a Charleston resident and relatively new sailor who was drawn to sailing after several years of powerboating throughout Charleston’s coastal waters.

One of the best ways to get started sailing in Charleston, SC is to take a class. The Charleston Sailing School offers a series of courses that provide the following American Sailing Association (ASA) certifications:

  • Basic Keelboating (101)
  • Basic Coastal Cruising (103)
  • Bareboat Chartering (104)
  • Coastal Navigation (105)
  • Cruising Catamaran (114)

Of course, you don’t have to take a lesson, and for experienced boaters some aspects of sailing will be somewhat intuitive. But, there is no substitute for qualified instruction, and getting first-hand experience with expert guidance and support is well worth the relatively modest investment, in the author’s opinion.

Sailing Charters in Charleston, SC

If you’re interested in being on a sailboat but don’t want to take responsibility for the helm, sheets, and halyards, you can take a sailing charter in Charleston, SC. The Charleston Sailing School is one of several charter operators in the Holy City. Sailboat charters can last anywhere from a few hours to several days (or even several weeks), and you can truly make your experience what you want it to be. For vacationers, sunset charters are a popular option, and there’s nothing quite like being on the deck of a sailboat or catamaran as the sun sets over Charleston.

Bareboat charters are an option as well. If you obtain the requisite ASA certifications, you can charter a sailboat or catamaran for a daily or weekly rate. Depending on how much time you have, you can begin sailing in Charleston, SC and cruise down the coast to Savannah and back, or you can head all the way to the Florida Keys or the Caribbean.

Sailing Safety: Weather, Wind, and Tide Considerations in Charleston

No matter where you are sailing, safety should always be your top priority. While experienced sailors might not think twice about entering the Charleston Harbor, those who have less experience will want to make sure they are prepared—and plan ahead.

Here are some of the basics you need to know when sailing in Charleston, SC:

First, Charleston’s average tide swing is roughly six feet. While you won’t have trouble getting to the Charleston City Marina or Charleston Harbor Marina as long as you stay in the channels, other areas can get shallow quickly.

Second, Charleston has several well-known sandbars—including Crab Bank in the Charleston Harbor. When navigating in and around Charleston, it is critical to pay close attention to your depth finder, and ideally to plan your route in advance.

Third, weather and wind conditions can change quickly, and they can often be on the more-severe side for novice sailors. Small craft advisories are not uncommon (though not an everyday occurrence), and storms can pop up along the coast with relatively little warning. While these usually pass quickly, they can make for an uncomfortable few hours on the water.

Ultimately, if you plan your time on the water in Charleston carefully, these should be of relatively little concern. Most days, sailing in Charleston is relaxed and easy; and, if you unexpectedly encounter rough conditions, there are plenty of places to anchor or moor. Again, just make sure you plan ahead, and have a contingency plan in case the conditions aren’t what you expected.

A catamaran sailing in Charleston, SC

FAQs: Sailing in Charleston, SC

Is Charleston good for sailing?

Charleston isn’t just good for sailing, it’s great for sailing. There is a reason why Charleston’s marinas are filled with sailboats and there are several regattas in the Charleston Harbor each year. With protected inshore waters, easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, and direct access to the ICW, Charleston is the perfect place to sail for novices and experienced skippers alike.

Can you anchor your sailboat in Charleston?

Yes, you can anchor your sailboat in Charleston—just make sure you know the local rules and regulations before you drop the hook. Federal regulations restrict anchoring near the channels around downtown Charleston, and local city ordinances (such as those in Folly Beach) may limit where you can anchor as well. For the most part, the bottom around Charleston is flat and sandy, though there are rocks, oyster beds, sunken vessels, pipelines, and other potential anchoring hazards in some areas.

Can you live on a sailboat in Charleston, SC?

Yes, you can live on a sailboat in Charleston, SC. If you are looking for a marina that allows liveaboards, you will need to select your location carefully. While some marinas allow liveaboards, others do not. If you legally anchor your sailboat, you can stay as long as you want (or as long as permitted by local laws and rules).

Can you sail on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in Charleston?

It is possible to sail on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), at least to an extent. The ICW crosses the Charleston Harbor, and this roughly 5.5-mile stretch is eminently sailable. Beyond the harbor, the ICW can get fairly narrow (and you will encounter a lot of boat traffic on warm days), but there are sailing opportunities behind Charleston’s barrier islands as well.

How much does it cost to rent a boat slip in Charleston?

The cost to rent a boat slip varies widely between the various marinas around Charleston. Generally, for monthly rates, you can expect to pay somewhere around $300 to $500—though, like most marinas around the world, rental rates are typically determined per foot. Day rates are typically in the $30 to $50 range (but, again, vary widely), though they often come with discounts on fuel and marina amenities.

How much does it cost to buy a boat slip in Charleston?

The cost to buy a boat slip in Charleston also varies widely. Currently, prices at Charleston City Marina in downtown Charleston range from about $75,000 to $125,000. Prices are comparable at further out marinas like Sunset Cay Marina on Folly Island; and, while prices tend to be lower the further out you go, the number of slips available also tends to be more limited.


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