Hugh Howey always knew he'd see the world by boat. "There's a group of us that hung out at Rainbow Cafe and then later at Clara's Coffee Shop," he says, referring to his Charleston heyday in the mid-'90s. "There were about five us who sat around and dreamed of sailing around the world, and we either had boats or we sailed on other people's boats at the time. And three of us now are on that journey, which is kind of crazy."
Once a live-aboard during his College of Charleston days, Howey went on to become a New York Times best-selling author of the Wool series. After publishing his first novel, Howey held his first reading at Charleston's own Tin Roof. Five years later, his enormous success has afforded him the ability to write and make a living while traveling in his new catamaran that's currently anchored at the City Marina. At the moment, he's simply taking a break on land before his journey around the world continues this month.
Welcomed back by a few dolphins and one helluva sunrise, Howey returned to the Lowcountry on a recent April morning, three days prior to our interview. He first set sail last October in Cape Town, South Africa, which is where he commissioned the construction of his globe-trotting vessel, the Wayfinder. After hanging out in Cape Town for a month, the sojourn continued across to the island of St. Helena, which lies in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, before sailing west to Brazil and up to the Caribbean — from Barbados all the way up to the Bahamas and eventually to Charleston.
While sailing where the wind takes him, Howey also stops for a spell to discover all he can along the way. "I see these opportunities in these islands to do something adventurous, and I tell myself I don't know when I'll be back here. So I'm doing things that, if I lived near, I would probably never do. I'd put it off and say, 'I'll do it next week,'" he says between sips of wine aboard the Wayfinder. "But when you're living on the move like this, you feel like you have to seize every opportunity. I lived in Charleston for seven years and never went and did some of the cool things around here, like visit the plantations and the aircraft carrier, because you could always do it next week. I lived in Boone for five years and never went snow skiing. You don't have the luxury to do that when you're living on the move; you can't say you'll do it next week — you'll be in a different country next week. The motivating force when traveling like this is that every day is one you have to seize."
His favorite island, so far, has been Anguilla. "It's the one that I always skipped when I was working on boats in the Caribbean," Howey says of his former life as a sailing crew member and captain. "It's just north of St. Maarten, which is one of the busiest islands. Everyone goes to St. Maarten, and Anguilla is 30 miles away and no one goes there. It's just a stunning island full of beautiful people and not busy, so you have the whole place to yourself," he says.
The highlight of Howey's adventures is always the folks he meets, including a couple in Anguilla he went rock climbing with. "Then they just came on the boat and had some free time, so we spent Christmas together. We sailed down to Saba and hiked mountains there," he remembers. "I still hear from them all the time, and we're just dying to get back together in Saskatchewan. So you make like these lifelong friends, you know? You spend one week with them, but because it's every day and you're doing all these adventures, all the memories are so acute."
But, as Howey documented on his blog, it's not fun in the sun all the time. In fact, the biggest struggle for the sailor came when he was mugged in St. Maarten. "I tried to chase these guys down and get my wallet back, and that didn't work so well," he says. "I was chasing them for like a couple of city blocks, talking to them the whole time and questioning his life decisions ... We had this whole conversation. We were both really terrified, and we were evenly matched as runners, so we were running and running and running, and I was like 10 feet behind him the whole time. I could not put it into another gear, and he couldn't either."
However, Howey, for one, is not complaining. He's been preparing for this sort of existence his entire life. And though it's easy to feel a little jealous of his free-spirited ways and all he gets to experience, Howey stresses that this is an opportunity anyone who loves sailing can take advantage of. "Everybody thinks it's a great idea and say, 'Oh, I'd love to come,'" he explains. "And I say, 'Come join me,' but they say, 'I can't get away. I've got this, I've got that' — all these excuses. When you're out there, you meet people who are doing it and you realize the only difference between them and the people who aren't is they don't make excuses. There are people with kids, who are home-schooling their kids on the boat, and it's all ages — newborns to teenagers."
So, ready the checklist: Sell your belongings. Buy a boat that's as cheap as that $10,000 car you're paying off. Live aboard and pay remarkably cheap rent. Save up. Just do it. That's what Howey did while in college here in Charleston. "I thought it was like camping every day, but what a romantic lifestyle, you know?" he says. "Owning very few things appealed to me. So I was like, 'I'm gonna do this,' and I looked around and realized there are live-aboards everywhere here. So Charleston introduced me to a lifestyle I didn't know existed. And I think it changed my life, and I think it's something that more people who live here should know about — it's a really good place to own a boat and sail and learn about the water. I think you get on the peninsula and you kind of get removed from it."
When Howey departs for the next leg of his voyage, he, the Wayfinder, and a couple more travel companions he picked up in Freeport will head to Wilmington, then Long Island. He'll spend the summer in Cape Cod before sailing to Bermuda, Cuba, and through the Panama Canal. By March, he's off to the Galapagos — "I've always wanted to go to the Galapagos," he says — and then the rest of the South Pacific.
As for a strict itinerary, Howey isn't too concerned about having one of those at all. It's a lesson he's learned from not only his own experience but that of his friend, Dirk — one of the guys from the now-defunct Clara's Coffee Shop who daydreamed of sailing the world all those years ago. "Dirk is now in New Zealand. He's already done the South Pacific," Howey says. "He had a timeline in mind, but when he got to New Zealand, that timeline changed. They got an RV, and they're spending an entire season just traveling around the south island and hiking and camping out. And so that may happen to me, too."