Steering in the Right Direction

03 Jul 2024

Charleston Community Sailing provides sailing instruction to people of all backgrounds and skill levels

By E.C.Waldron

Joel Bays’ sailing journey began when he nearly broke his neck in high school gymnastics in Annapolis, Maryland. Now at age 39, he is the director of operations for Charleston Community Sailing.    

“The injury was just two millimeters from making me a quadriplegic; they put two rods and pins in my neck,” said Bays.

After he recovered, he joined his high school sailing team in Annapolis and set a course leading to racing competitions in the Caribbean.

“Going 34 knots in between Cuba and Haiti, racing to Jamaica— that was pretty epic,” he said.

Bays recently took the helm of operations for CCS, the sailing nonprofit located at Charleston City Marina on the Ashley River.  He and his wife live on James Island with two rescue dogs, both lab mixes—a breed that loves the water of course.

Summer sailing season

CCS holds dock sessions and sailing classes for children ages five and up and for adult beginners, as well.  The “Women on the Water” sailing classes are also a special focus of the nonprofit.      

Bays said a major part of the organization’s mission is to make sailing accessible to children who may have never been on a boat and to inspire them to achieve success on the water and carry those lessons through to life. The group provides scholarships to those who may not be able to afford classes.

“These kids a lot of times struggle to find something they can hang their hat on,” said Bays. “It can be a completely alien environment for them—when the boat starts to heel or tip, it can be nerve-racking, but over time they begin to love it.”

The nonprofit works with Meeting Street Academy in Charleston to identify students who could participate and benefit from a scholarship in taking sailing lessons.

Because Bays also has a traditional education background—he taught 5th grade in Charleston for three years—he enjoys teaching the STEM aspect of sailing: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The technology is improving with boats. Just the way that they're built, the science and math involved in sailing is great to teach,” said Bays. And once the ten kids in the class set sail, they experience those lessons in action. On the day we spoke, CCS had just received a new shipment of Prams, sailboats perfect for beginners.

“They’re similar to a boat called the OPTI, but Prams are essentially hard plastic and they’re filled with air, so they don't need airbags inside of them.  They're also self-bailing so the water that goes in bails itself out.”

For staffing, CCS uses both US Sailing certified instructors and junior instructors. The juniors are high schoolers who have been through the CCS program and volunteer to get more time on the water to learn leadership skills.

Camp Cool

One of the classes offered by CCS is “Camp Cool” for kids who have high-functioning Autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Bays has had a lot of experience on the water with neurodiverse sailors. When he lived in Annapolis, he had several high schoolers crew a trip with him 1,700 miles from Annapolis to St. Maarten in the Caribbean.

“I’ve seen several go on to become more expert sailors; I've seen them join high school sailing teams,” he said. “There’s a lot of sensory things going on. When you’re out sailing, you have the wind, you have the steering, the main sheet, you find out it’s actually really stimulating for them. It’s been amazing to see these neurodiverse kids that first day out sailing and how much they take in and remember.”   

And for sailors on the spectrum, learning how to communicate on the water is very valuable. Bays says they prepare the teens for what’s going to come, what the needs are and how to communicate what you need other people to do. They also use hand signals and eye contact along with learning all the correct terminology.

One of Bays’ former students in Annapolis is Brennan Conley. He said the one word to describe Bays is “leadership.” Bays was his instructor at the Brendan Sailing Program for Youth with Learning Differences.

“He got the team together by leading by example,” said Conley.

One of the unique features of the CCS Camp Cool program is that the high schoolers get the opportunity to lead a parent on a sail, to show them what they’ve learned.

“I think it’s amazing that it’s the only sport I can think of that puts the kid as the provider, so a lot of times, the kid knows more about sailing than the parents do. The kid will take them out sailing and that’s really cool because they get to teach their parents and show them what they’ve learned and it really makes them the caretaker in that situation. It’s very impactful for both the parents and the sailor,” said Bays.

Bays added CCS tries to provide scholarships for all the Cool Camp kids and takes donations from existing campers that can go towards fees for another sailor in the class.

Guppies: Start ‘em Young

CCS teaches children from five to seven years of age to sail, from the second week of June through mid-August. Reviewing knots is the ice breaker for the five-year-olds, the Guppies—then of course, a bathroom break.  Learning how to rig the boat is important, and only when the group is proficient at that do they get on the water. Each day, they get a little more time sailing.

Awards are given at the end of each day to recognize the campers for the positive things they did during the lessons. Bays says part of his teaching method is to be able to tell young people how awesome they are.

Sailing Wisdom

“We always say, ‘When in doubt, let it out,’ which means that when the boat’s heeling too much or feels a little out of control, just let out the sail. It’s a calming strategy, and it lets them know exactly what to do,” Bays said.

Whether it’s a five-year-old sailor, a high school student with autism, or an adult newbie, “let it out” is valuable advice for life.

“It's not always the right thing to take it and pull it in and grab control of the situation,” said Bays.

And for a man who pivoted from an accident in one sport that nearly paralyzed him to another sport where he got to race wildly across the ocean, to teaching fifth grade and now steering Charleston Community Sailing to inspire young people, you can tell Bays goes with the flow like the tide, and keeps following his passion.

“I think sailing offers a kind of sanctuary away from all the stuff you find on land—traffic, noise. I think also because it’s not something that's easy; you're always learning something new. I also like the community in it.  It also accelerates relationships. You’re on a boat, so you get to know people really well.”

Learn more about Charleston Community Sailing at



Joel Bays

Director of Operations, Charleston Community Sailing   

Hometown: Annapolis, MD

Family: Lives with his wife and two lab rescues on James Island 

Education: B.A. from Salisbury University in Maryland

Hobbies: music, windsurfing 

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