Poyer graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1971. He wrote as an active duty naval officer and a naval reservecaptain, his service included duty in the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caribbean, and Persian Gulf area, until his retirement from the navy in July 2001.
Poyer began writing in 1976 and up until 2011 has published almost 33 novels, some of which are required reading at Annapolis, and he is called "the most popular living author of American sea fiction". Poyer is said to write in the style of Joseph Conrad and Herman Wouk.
Although best known for his naval fiction, in the 1980s, Poyer also wrote alternative history, and science fiction under the pseudonym David Andreissen. He has also published short fiction and nonfiction in numerous magazines.
Poyer's most popular novels, set in the present day, follow on the career of U.S. Navy officer Dan Lenson, a thoughtful surface line officer whose ethical questioning sometimes conflicts with his duty. Another, more slanted to the adventure genre, features an ex-Coast Guard commercial diver, Lyle "Tiller" Galloway. Both series have been published by St. Martin's Press. A series about the US Navy during the American Civil War is also published by Simon & Schuster. According to Poyer, much of his work draws upon his own experiences in military service and as a cruising sailor and sport diver.
Poyer also published a series of books set in a fictional Hemlock County. They explore the history and folklore of north-western Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania oil industry that was the original basis for American industrial power. The best of these is "Thunder on the Mountain," set in the Great Depression period. These were critically praised but did not prove as popular as his sea fiction.
Poyer currently teaches in the Wilkes University MA/MFA low-residency program in Creative Writing at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He lives with novelist Lenore Hart and their daughter on Virginia's Eastern Shore.