Donald Lawson Is Poised to Rip Up Sailing’s Record Books

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On a rainy autumn morning in 2005, Donald Lawson received a phone call from his sailing hero, Bruce Schwab, asking if he would be willing to give up everything and go on a trip along the East Coast with him.

Lawson, then 23, honed his sailing skills for more than a decade, first at Baltimore’s Police Athletics League and Downtown Sailing Center, then at Chesapeake Bay in prestigious regattas such as the Governor’s Cup. In these races up to 20 boats are hit against each other on tracks that can reach 100 nautical miles long. Lawson and his teammates broke several speed records – and each time Lawson was one of the only Black sailors.

In those days, there was no bigger figure in American sailing than Schwab, who for the past three years was the only American to participate in and complete two of the sport’s most sacred planet-circling solo sailing races: the Around Alone and the Vendée. World. Lawson has been bombarding Schwab with Myspace messages for months, asking for tips on how to chase better and faster. Schwab was helpful, but this was the first time he had offered an invitation to sail on his 60-foot yacht, Ocean Planetthe boat he used on his voyages.

Lawson’s dreams already extended beyond those Chesapeake regattas – he wanted to ring the globe, too, and he wanted to do it faster than anyone ever had. But he needed practice. Immediately, he jumped on a bus from Baltimore to Portland, Maine, where Schwab was waiting. “It was an opportunity I knew I had one chance to do,” Lawson says. “It’s part of the mentality you have to have, not to come from a rich family and be a black guy in sailing – sometimes you only get one chance.”

The first night Schwab and Lawson were on the water, a blizzard struck as they sent in an icy headwind. Most skippers would not have left the harbor in those conditions, but Schwab wanted to take advantage of the storm’s winds, which could sway them south. Schwab loved speed, and it was clear that his new apprentice was doing the same. “The boat was able to sail perfectly under autopilot,” says Schwab. “But Donald was so excited to be there that he refused to get under, preferring to sit outside and ride the boat for hours, upwind, in the snow.”

Lawson in Oahu, Hawaii (Photo: Courtesy of Donald Lawson)

Now 40, Lawson is a skilled sailor on the abyss to realize his dream of sailing around the world. In the fall, he will embark on a decade-long effort to break dozens of world records, including an attempt to become the fastest person, and the first Black sailor, to complete a solo, uninterrupted ascent of the world. That goal follows in the footsteps of both Teddy Seymour and Bill Pinkney, the only other Black Americans to have sailed around the world alone (they stopped along the way). Lawson, meanwhile, has been elected to chair the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at US Sailing, the sport’s governing body. He also founded the Dark Seas Project, a foundation that aims to bring people of color into the sport.

Lawson grew up in Woodlawn, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore County. His father was a Baptist preacher and an employee of NASA’s Inspector General’s office, and his mother was a computer technician and community counselor. In a family that prided itself on regulated goals – his younger brother and sister both joined the military – Lawson was an outlier with an itch for adventure. In 1990, when he was nine, his mother enrolled him in the Police Athletics League and took him to his first field trip, on the Lady maryland, a replica of a 19th-century schooner offering educational excursions on Chesapeake Bay. As the ship was moving, Baltimore’s skyline of the stern dissolved. In front lies the wide mouth of the Patapsco River, and further the Chesapeake. Lawson got the captain and asked him how far he could take this boat. Around the world if you will, he said.

“It’s part of the mentality you have to have, not to come from a rich family and be a black guy in sailing – sometimes you only get one chance.”

Would it be that easy to escape? “When someone tells you there are people going around the world, and you can be one of them, it opens your mind to possibilities you’ve never thought of before,” Lawson says. But with all the white faces on the boats in the harbor that day, it was easy to think sailing had no place for a Black child from Baltimore. At the time, he knew nothing of Seymour, who bypassed the world in February 1986 in honor of Black History Month, leaving Frederiksted, Saint Croix, where an uprising in 1848 led to the abolition of slavery in the then Danish territory. It would be another 17 years before he learned of Pinkney, who in 1992 became the first Black sailor to complete a voyage around the world through the Southern Cape. Sail, Pinkney wrote, was “about escape – escape from the bonds of conformity, racism and lack of respect due to one’s background.” The sea, he continued, “gave me the chance to prove my potential when placed on an equal playing field.”

In 1999, after graduating from high school, Lawson began working for the Downtown Sailing Center, where he became the first Black instructor. By learning to sail for beginners on different types of boats in the busy waters of the Inner Harbor, Lawson allowed himself to get good quickly. Before long, he was invited to join teams for races up and down the East Coast and in the Caribbean. It was at this point that he discovered the sport’s racist undercurrent. “You start to experience people who are not familiar with you, and they are not completely comfortable with you,” he says.

After traveling with Schwab in 2005, Lawson began thinking about breaking speed records on his own terms, and doing so outside the confines of a racing schedule. To pay the bills, he obtained his captaincy license from the Annapolis School of Seamanship, which enabled him to deliver ships to boat owners at various locations. That job gave him access to a multitude of boats and an opportunity at each delivery to break personal speed records.

A trimaran on the sea
Lawson’s new 60-foot trimaran (Photo: Courtesy of Donald Lawson)

In 2009, Lawson began finding sponsorship that would enable him to acquire his own boat. This year, it finally happened, in the form of a 60-foot trimaran, one of the world’s fastest sailing vessels. Starting in September, weather permitting, he will launch a campaign to break 35 solo world records over ten years, starting with a record attempt by the California-to-Hawaii Trans-Pacific route; in January 2024 he will attempt the solo uninterrupted ascension. For the sailing class in which Lawson’s voyage will fit, the current world record is 74 days. Lawson will try to do that in 70s.

“Sailing learns certain things – good planning and prioritization skills, problem solving, independence, resilience, high-level understanding of physics, mathematics and hydro- and aerodynamics,” says Rich Jepsen, vice president of US Sailing. “With tens of thousands of nautical miles under his belt, Donald has it all in abundance.”

Meanwhile, Lawson is helping to break down barriers on the shore. Following the assassination of George Floyd in 2020, US Sailing formed a task force to educate community sailing groups across the country on the importance of cultivating sailors of all racial and economic backgrounds. Lawson was one of the first people Jepsen thought of for the initiative, along with Debora Abrams-Wright, Quemuel Arroyo, Lou Sandoval and Karen Harris. “I wish I could tell you that US Sailing, out of wisdom or generosity, started the task force on its own,” says Jepsen. But it was volunteer leaders in community sailing organizations who pushed the national governing body to act.

Lawson hopes that any Black child who sets foot on a sailboat will have role models who recognize them to show them the way. “I’m glad to say you’ll probably see more of me out there in the next five or ten years,” he says. “And who knows? Maybe they will be inspired to come together and break my records. ”

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