A Baltimore sailor plots a solo round-the-world sprint
The first recorded circumnavigation of the globe was completed in 1522 by Ferdinand Magellan. The fleet, which sailed under the Spanish flag, originally consisted of five ships and roughly 270 sailors. The journey took three years, in which time four of the five ships sank and 90 percent of the sailors perished. Magellan himself was killed in battle in the Philippines.
In the centuries since, things have changed considerably. The circumnavigation record has slipped to just over 40 days, a feat performed by Frenchman Francis Joyon in 2017. Joyon sailed with a crew of five. That year another Frenchman, Francois Gabart, completed the goal in just over 42 days, and Gabart was solo for his journey.
Today, another sailor is gearing up to attempt his own record. Captain Donald Lawson is a professional sailor out of Baltimore with over 20 years of experience in both racing and passage-making. When the Ocean Racing Multihull Association-class trimaran Groupama 2 became available, Lawson decided to get serious about the endeavor.
“We have a very fast boat,” Lawson says of the trimaran, which he renamed Defiant. “She does not need to be pushed. She is meant to take off right from anchor.” Most recently, Defiant acted as a training platform for the 33rd America’s Cup and set a record for the 2017 Transpac Race between California and Hawaii. She also holds the record for the Transat Jacque Vabre race, which covers the historical coffee trade route between Brazil and France. The boat will need to average 17 knots in order to beat this record.
The big difference between Defiant’s past record-breaking passages and the one Lawson is currently charting is that Lawson will be single-handing the boat. But is he nervous about screaming around the world on a boat that can cruise at 28 knots in high seas? Not particularly. “I look forward to having the chance to just go, do my thing,” he says. “When I’m by myself, I’m very calm. This is an opportunity for me to show what I can do on the water.”
That Lawson is comfortable sailing by himself is an unfortunate consequence of his sailing background. As an African American man, he frequently did not see anyone who looked like him out on the water. “When I first started sailing, I didn’t have any sailing friends,” he says. “If I wanted to go sailing, I went by myself.” Lawson found a community within Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center, which was more inclusive than many of the yacht clubs in the area. He received his captain’s license and started delivering boats as well as racing. “A lot of the sailing I did at an early age was focused on technical topics and passagemaking,” he says. “Those skills translated into making boats go fast, and far.”
Lawson and Defiant are currently in San Diego, Calif., where he is completing final training runs and learning the boat. Lawson’s wife, Tori, helms the boat on training runs so that Lawson can study polar angles and adjust rigging. They take notes and collect video footage from the runs, anticipating scenarios in the Southern Ocean when Lawson will be working alone.
“I’m not doing a fun cruise around the world,” he says about the endeavor. “I can’t stop and play tourist in fun countries. This is a sporting event, and no other sporting event pushes you this hard.”
Lawson’s chosen field is in fact so demanding that only five sailors have attempted a trimaran record. And Lawson will not only be the first African American to attempt it, but also the first American sailor. “There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility,” he says. “People look at you, see the boat you have, the records you’re going for, and the level of scrutiny is so intense.”
Lawson thrives under this pressure because he knows it means he’s doing something right. “My father once compared it to being in the military,” he says. “When you choose to be in the forefront, it means that you’ll be shot at first. When you’re in the lead, trying to do something that hasn’t been done yet, everyone comes at you first.”
A significant aspect of Lawson’s mission is to bring representation to the sport so that other sailors do not experience the same exclusion that he felt. As a chairperson on U.S. Sailing’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity committee, he works with the U.S. Sailing board of directors to implement change within the sport. U.S. Sailing is the national governing body for the sport of sailing. “When I started sailing, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. I don’t have any role models,” he says. “My goal is to ensure that’s not the case when I retire.”
Lawson and Defiant will be returning to the Chesapeake in early spring of 2023 to gear up for the solo attempt in October. Defiant will be sailing along the Eastern Seaboard on a tour aimed at bringing awareness to diversity in sailing. Schools, businesses and organizations are encouraged to connect with Lawson about partnerships and educational opportunities before he sets off for his record attempt.
“This passage is a dream of mine,” he says. We have no doubt it will soon be a reality.
For more information, visit captaindonaldlawson.com.
MacDuff Perkins lives in Annapolis, Maryland, where she is the co-founder of Blue Lotus Yoga Studio. She and her family enjoy sailing their Sabre 42 around the East Coast.