No tour of Historic Charleston is complete without a trip to Fort Sumter, but the most fulfilling way to get there is overlooked by almost everyone who visits. Most people travel by ferry from downtown, but the fun (and free!) way is to paddle there yourself. This requires proper skills and equipment, but those prepared for the challenge of paddling on Charleston Harbor might prefer this more adventurous option.
Fort Sumter is on an island near the mouth of the harbor. You could theoretically approach it from any direction, but the most sensible place to start is from Melton Peter Demetre Park on James Island. This route begins in a free public park, allows you to hug the shore all the way to the fort, and avoids shipping channels. It is therefore the safest route, but it does not compromise the experience. Even though the path is generally close and parallel to shore, it should be considered an open-water ocean paddle because of dynamic wind and waves in the bay. There are sandy beaches most of the way where you can take breaks, but there are no public vehicle access points between Demetre Park and the fort. You should be prepared with all your own supplies and safety equipment for the journey.
As with any ocean paddle, weather and tides are major factors. Wind waves can be large, even in the harbor, and tides can be strong. It is generally easiest to paddle out to Fort Sumter with the falling tide and back to James Island with the rising tide. Once at the Fort, you can pull up on the obvious sandy beach. You are advised to check in with rangers on duty and tell them you came by private boat, just for the sake of safety. You will have free entry into the national monument and can join the ranger-led tours with ferry boat passengers. Peruse as long as you like, or until the tides are right to return, then enjoy the paddle back.