Something is in the air— or the water— when it comes to sailing in Charleston, South Carolina.
Generations of athletes dominate local waters and bolster crews with the talent that spills over into the College of Charleston, rendering the university as one of the best sailing schools in the country.
This dominance is hardly a novel feat, however. Since the establishment of the College’s sailing team in 1964, the Cougars have consistently produced men’s, women’s, and crew All-Americans and are frequent recipients of the annual Leonard B. Fowle Trophy— recognition as the best overall sailing team in the country.
But this tenacity in the Charleston waters is hardly contained to the College.
The relationship between the College’s strength and that of its neighboring high schools has grown to be mutually dependent. CofC has won national collegiate sailing championships 27 times since 1978 and has created a legacy that sparks the fire for surrounding high schoolers.
Ultimately, however, these young athletes add just as much to the Charleston sailing legacy and have helped establish the Lowcountry as an East Coast aquatic powerhouse.
High school sailors across Charleston County concentrate their efforts into a variety of yacht clubs— many of which regularly join forces and practice alongside or against each other simply to improve Charleston sailing as a whole.
Ryan Hamm, volunteer sailing coach of James Island Charter High School, explains the influence of the yacht clubs when it comes to Charleston sailing: “If you’re not a member of the yacht club, it’s hard to get out on the water. This way makes it easy.”
These spirited groups rely on generational influence and committed passion to further their programs— and Hamm is well-established in these practices.
“The high school thing really only took off 15 years ago. I’ve been involved in it from the start,” Hamm explains.
Twenty-six years ago, Hamm acted as one of the founding members of Sperry Charleston Race Week, an event that is now one of the “biggest ‘big boat’ regattas in the country.” The event features roughly 300 boats with sailors from 23 states and seven countries (Braswell)— all of whom add to the Charleston sailing narrative.
But what is it about Charleston in particular that makes it the home to a race this size, to a prestigious collegiate team, and to promising high schoolers?
“We have the best sailing conditions in the entire world,” Hamm explains. “All year from May to September, we have a sea breeze. The sea breeze is the magic of Charleston.”
And this magic is hardly ever wasted. Every Tuesday, Hamm organizes neighboring yacht clubs into low-stakes races in the Charleston Harbor— simply to merge collegiate talent with hopeful up-and-comers and improve Charleston sailing as a whole.
“There are probably 15 people here that either are going to sail for the College, sail for the College now, or have sailed for the College in the past,” Hamm notes.
These practices bring high schoolers an edge that few other cities can boast. Charleston’s unique weather conditions and generations of talent create sailors that simply aim to better each other.
Kelly-Ann Arrindell is amongst the more renowned of the Tuesday-night racers. Arrindell, a recent graduate of the College’s sailing program, is an instructor at the James Island Yacht Club and cites Charleston’s waters to be a part of the magic.
“While sailing at the College, the first thing I noticed was the extreme amounts of current that we get in the harbor,” Arrindell commented. “This was something that I had never experienced before but after sailing over the years in Charleston and figuring out the current, this has definitely made me a better sailor.”
Arrindell is no stranger to the sport of sailing. Born and raised in Trinidad, she experienced constant exposure to international coaches and ultimately chased the PanAm and Olympic Games in 2016 before settling in Charleston for collegiate sailing.
“What drove me [to] the College is the high competitiveness of the team,” Arrindell explained. “Everyone was pushing each other to do better on the water and it created great practices with everyone improving together.”
The same, Arrindell, adds, is now true at the James Island Yacht Club. “It is mostly parents inspiring their children to get into the sport. Sailing is one of the most unique sports I’ve been a part of... even if the kids aren’t interested in going into racing, sailing has so many different opportunities.”
Charleston high schoolers are raised amongst families of sailors and some of the best collegiate athletes in the country. These constant sources of inspiration make the yacht clubs the future of Charleston sailing, and strengthen Charleston’s status on the East Coast sailing map.
The sea breeze may have been the deciding factor to get early sailors out on Charleston waters, but today the Lowcountry legacy is fueled by the combination of professional, collegiate, and high school sailing forces. Locals have created a name that rivals even the Chesapeake Bay when it comes to sailing— and there’s no slowing down in sight.