The tale of my journey to becoming an author starts where all good stories should – with a boat. It was the summer of 2009 and I owned a perfectly practical boat that more than suited the needs of someone like myself who was just looking to spend a Saturday afternoon trolling around Charleston Harbor and maybe pulling up to a dockside bar. But I suppose it is part of human nature to complicate life and as every boat owner knows, not too long after buying a boat, you start daydreaming about your next boat. A boat that is bigger, faster, stocked with more whistles and bells. All too soon it seems that every other boat you cross wakes with seems to have you outgunned and outclassed and the boater’s version of “Keeping up with the Jones’s” takes hold.
And such was my dilemma that hot summer of 2009. My boat was only a few years old, but I was already longing for something new. Something bigger. Something better. But I was struggling to rationalize the hit to my wallet that a bigger and better boat would surely mean and no matter how many times I ran the numbers, it just didn’t make sense. So I began to practice a little nautical reverse psychology on myself. “How can I afford not to buy a new boat?”, I bravely and stupidly began to ask myself. It literally made no sense. None. But the crazy notion did give birth to a simple, more reasonable idea – “What if I used a new boat to produce income?” The idea being that whatever the extra costs of a new boat might be, it could easily be offset by the new boat’s income producing potential. Genius! However, here, another obstacle made itself clear, as the only job I could think of using a new boat for was becoming a fishing guide and the truth was that I wasn’t much of a fisherman. I lacked not only the skill but the patience.
Then one night as I lay in bed struggling to fall asleep, with visions of new, expensive boats dancing through my brain, it struck me like a divinely sent lightning bolt and I swear to you that I literally sprang upright in bed and said out loud into the darkness of my bedroom, “Boat tours!” Yes, of course, boat tours…I could give historical boat tours. After all, I had a degree in History and I knew my fair share of Charleston history, so I figured that meant that I was qualified. The plan quickly began to take shape – I would buy a boat with a large cockpit that offered ample seating and charge tourists maybe $25 per person to listen to me talk about the history of Charleston for an hour or so while we cruised around the harbor. The Coast Guard licensing required was admittedly a little more demanding and time consuming than I initially imagined, but I did it. I did it all – I got the captain license, the business license, the insurance and formed my own LLC called “Captain Byrd’s” (my middle name being Byrd and the name I was most frequently called by family and friends, plus it was way cooler than ‘Captain Downey’). And I bought that bigger and better boat.
I needed a place to pick up and drop off passengers, so I visited the only really accessible dock near the historic district of downtown Charleston, the Charleston Maritime Center, and I met with its director. He agreed to allow me to use their dock for a nominal fee and it seemed that Captain Byrd’s Boat Tours was off and running. But just as I was standing to leave, he said, “One thing – you can’t give tours on subjects that would compete with any of the other boat tour operators that use our dock.” “Okay, well what have you got?”, I asked. He quickly began to list a seemingly endless string of tour themes – Civil War, Revolutionary War, Ghosts, Colonial Charleston, Gullah, CSS Hunley, and on and on. “Pirates! Do you have a pirate boat tour?”, I interjected, surprising even myself a little with the question. “No, we don’t have pirates”, he replied.
And just like that - I became the pirate guy. I immersed myself in Charleston pirate history and learned as much as I could. I created an hour and a half loop around Charleston Harbor chock full of as many pirate sites and stories as any tourist could ask for. I shaped my tour around that most-unlikely of pirates, Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate, whose story and connection to Charleston always proved to be a favorite among my passengers. I even installed a monitor on the boat where I could show images to compliment my tour.
Captain Byrd’s Boat Tours was a lot of fun. I met a lot of interesting people from all over the world. But perhaps none was more serendipitous than an editor from a local publishing company who, after a tour, asked, “Have you ever considered writing a book about Stede Bonnet?” “No”, I replied, surprised by the proposal. She gave me her contact information and said to send her a couple thousand words on Stede Bonnet. If she liked it, she said that would send me a contract.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and here I am, three books later and working on my fourth. A wise old man once told me, “Life is funny, someone should sell tickets and make some money out of it.” He was right – it is funny. If you had told me before that summer of 2009 that I would write one book, let alone three books, I would have said you were crazy.
Marriage, becoming a father and just the usual demands of life meant the end of my boat tour business a few years ago – but I still have that boat. Today, I live in Charleston with my family and I just celebrated 25 years working in the maritime industry (my real-life job).
And I still dream of bigger and better boats!