Donald Lawson will awaken early next year, alone on a fast-moving boat. With the headsail line in his hand, he’ll check radar and weather displays before searching the ocean for signs of trouble. Despite having slept no more than 30 minutes, he’ll rise and begin making adjustments as his trimaran glides through the Southern Ocean.
He’ll have miles to go before he can sleep again.
The 40-year-old accomplished sailor from Baltimore aspires to set 33 solo records over the next decade. His first goal: becoming the person to sail fastest solo and nonstop around the world in a boat no longer than 60 feet. The record is 74 days; Lawson is confident he can do it in fewer than 70. That would break the American record of 107 days and he’d be the first African American sailor to do it.
Lawson will battle the extreme monotony of solitary life and the treachery of the unforgiving ocean when he embarks in February from Honolulu. Only about 200 people have sailed the world solo and nonstop, fewer than the roughly 600 people who have been to outer space and the 4,000 who have climbed Mount Everest.
But since he was a kid in West Baltimore, Lawson has wanted to sail around the world, he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun at the Eastport Yacht Club in Annapolis.
For several years, he’s planned his pursuit. He landed the right boat this year — a racer designed using the same technology as Formula 1 cars — one he says is the fastest of its size in the world. He named it Defiant.
Lawson said that as a child, he had no African American sailors to look up to, and he seeks to fill that role now. He is diversity, equity and inclusion committee chair for U.S. Sailing, and his Dark Seas Project nonprofit seeks to educate people about sailing and promote diversity in the sport.
Sailing solo over a long distance can be life-threatening, though. It requires a diverse skill set, the ability to focus for months, and a knack for operating on little sleep. As he sails south of Chile, Africa and Australia, then turns north to return to Hawaii, he won’t be able to sleep for longer than a half-hour at a time.
Still, the circumnavigation calls him.
“It’s become almost a personal obsession or part of my DNA,” he said. “I can’t imagine not doing it.”
During a field trip with a Police Athletic League program as a kid, Lawson sailed in the Inner Harbor. When he asked how far the boat could go, the captain replied: “You can take it around the world.”
Since then, that’s what Lawson’s wanted to do.
“I took a map out of National Geographic magazine,” Lawson said. “I drew a route from Baltimore, around the world, back to Baltimore, and put it on my wall.”
He sailed throughout his childhood and was a standout student at Woodlawn High School. After Woodlawn, where he met his wife, Tori, he attended Morgan State University. But Lawson dropped out ahead of his senior year to crew with Bruce Schwab, one of five Americans who has sailed the globe solo and nonstop.
During their first trip, Schwab and Lawson left Maine in winter, going upwind in falling snow. The boat had an autopilot and other crew members sheltered in a warm area, but Lawson sailed manually, staying outside in freezing temperatures for hours.
“He’s very dedicated,” Schwab said, “and he’s confident.”
Lawson has taught sailing in Baltimore, at the U.S. Naval Academy, and in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. He’s been a delivery captain, bringing boats to new homes, and he’s crossed the Atlantic Ocean multiple times, estimating he’s completed at least 100 passages of more than 1,000 miles.
Many top sailors focus on races, including the Vendée Globe, in which sailors race solo and nonstop around the world. But racing head-to-head doesn’t attract Lawson. He’s drawn to battling the past, the present and the future.
“The only way you’re going to be remembered in your sport is if you set and break records,” he said.
The person typically credited with being the first to sail around the world, Ferdinand Magellan, didn’t survive the 16th century journey, although a few members of his crew made it back.
Joshua Slocum, a Canadian American, became the first person to sail around the world single-handedly, stopping along the way, in 1898. His memoir, “Sailing Alone Around the World,” became a hit in 1900, and he died on a solo voyage in 1909.
Since then, circumnavigation for sport has grown more common in spite of the danger, with Robin Knox-Johnston becoming in 1969 the first person to sail solo nonstop around the world.
Lawson set his sights on record-breaking years ago, but it took him time to acquire a suitable boat in Defiant. The carbon fiber vessel weighs just 6 tons — a fraction of typical 60-foot boats — and glides over the water. He declined to specify how much his nonprofit paid for the boat, which was built in 2004, but said it would cost $5 million to build today.
Though Lawson will aim to keep Defiant sailing at 18 knots (21 mph), it can reach 42 knots (48 mph) and is one of the fastest sailboats of its size.
“It might actually be a little too fast,” Schwab cautioned.
Schwab sailed around the world on two voyages and did so, like most sailors, in a monohull — a boat with a single hull, making it relatively stable.
But the trimaran Defiant has three lightweight hulls (that’s the “tri” part of the name). Trimarans are tantalizingly fast, but they’re also prone to capsizing. In 2002, just three of 18 completed a race across the Atlantic and many sailors were rescued after capsizing. Only five have sailed solo nonstop around the world, and none as small as Defiant.
During lengthy voyages, solo sailors — on monohulls, as well as trimarans — have died. Mike Plant, who once held the American record for fastest solo trip around the world, died in the Atlantic while heading to the 1992 Vendée Globe.
Lawson said he’s “concerned, but not scared” of the risk.
His boat has two life rafts, a position beacon, multiple radios and a survival suit. But he believes in his ability to handle the craft, noting the advantages of being nimble. Where a monohull might have to endure storms, Lawson can dodge dicey weather or use strong gusts to find calmer waters.
“If I’m sailing along and I see a bad weather system coming along,” he said. “I’m fast enough to avoid it.”
Once a record-seeking circumnavigator sets sail, they cannot stop, receive supplies, or take any coaching. Other parameters set by the World Speed Sailing Record Council specify Lawson must begin north of the 45th parallel south (which runs through the southern tip of Chile), cross the equator twice, travel at least 21,600 miles and finish where he started.
“He has a job, and he’s going to get it done,” said Tori, his wife. “And his goal is to come home.”
Rather than being just a navigator, mainsail trimmer or bowman, a solo sailor has to be adept at everything. Lawson will need to balance diverse tasks while identifying storms and, like a golfer choosing a club, deciding which of seven sails to hoist and how to adjust it.
There is also an essential, practical challenge: sleeping. Rather than resting each night in one chunk, Lawson will squeeze in 30-minute naps whenever possible. That’s when he’ll trust his autopilot, which he calls Scottie Pippen (sidekick to his Michael Jordan) to sail the boat without supervision.
Defiant will never stop moving, so were Lawson to snooze for an hour or two straight, he’d risk hitting another ship, debris, or even a whale. Catnaps will allow him time to adjust course, if needed.
“There’s no sport that goes a month long, two months long, with no timeouts, no substitutes, there’s no breaks, there’s no penalty kicks,” Lawson said. “It’s literally, the moment you depart, you are in the game, and you don’t get out of the game until the game’s over.”
Lawson’s fortitude will be tested, too. He said he’s hallucinated on long solo trips before, speaking to people who aren’t there, which is not uncommon.
Occasionally, sailors can string together enough naps throughout a day to add up to a normal amount of sleep. But the weather dictates how often a sailor can rest.
“You take them when you can get them,” Schwab said of naps. “There definitely are stretches when you are pushed very thin.”
Sailors are restricted to a few dozen feet of real estate for weeks on end, navigating hellish storms in an endless ocean while sleep deprived and hallucinating, with nothing but water in sight. When short on hope, many wonder why they put themselves through such misery, said solo sailor Xavier Doerr of Australia.
“You can’t put your finger on it, you can’t name it,” he said. “But there’s something that keeps drawing you back every time — a sense of adventure and achievement.”
Boat upgrades and technology are expensive, and Lawson’s around-the-world campaign will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To pay for it, the Dark Seas Project raises money in part through Lawson’s speaking engagements and educational events around the country.
Lawson was recently featured in a T-Mobile commercial (in it, he discusses how great it would be to always have cell service on voyages) and he’s seeking other sponsors to buy advertising on his boat.
Defiant is based in California, but Lawson and his wife plan to relocate to Maryland, along with the boat, in a couple of years. He’ll then pursue several shorter records along the East Coast before sailing to the Great Lakes to try his hand at a few there.
Through it all, he aims to inspire. Lawson said he’s seeking to bring new people to sailing, which is heavily populated by white men.
“Part of that is the product of the sport itself. The sport itself, you have to have a boat, and if you don’t have a boat, then you can’t sail,” he said. “So accessibility to the water matters.”
“Sailing should be for everyone and too often, people feel excluded, not because there’s a system holding them back, but there’s no system to include people. There has to be the effort made to reach out and bring people in.”
As Lawson sets sail from Honolulu during Black History Month, he’ll try to be a pioneer who’s remembered in the record books.
“When I’m old and gray and done,” Lawson said, “hopefully, I can look back and feel like my work made a difference.”