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An interview with Captain Donald Lawson on his Dark Seas Project

by David Schmidt 14 Apr 2022 08:00 PDT April 14, 2022
Defiant under her former livery © Dark Seas Project

It's not every day that an American acquires a high-performance, offshore-worthy multihull. Rarer still is when the yacht's owner aims the project at expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) within sailing, while also taking aim at a lengthy list of offshore records. But Captain Donald N. Lawson is uniquely equipped to take on both missions aboard his newly acquired ORMA 60 Defiant (nee Mighty Merloe and Groupama 2).

Lawson grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where the classical definition of a talented athlete typically involved traditional American sports. But, thanks to the right encouragement at the right time from his mother, Lawson tried sailing, first on a 100-foot schooner before transitioning to high-performance boats.

The 100-footer might be slow compared to his new ride, but the schooner gave Lawson the chance to experience a sense of freedom that's often lacking ashore, and it didn't take long for the nine-year-old boy to start dreaming. Today, Lawson, now 40, aims to do some serious offshore sailing aboard his newly acquired trimaran.

While this dream is lofty, so, too, is Lawson's ambition to create the kind of role models within the sport that he struggled to find as a youngster. To that end, Lawson serves as chair of US Sailing's DE&I committee, and he plans to leverage Defiant as a platform to share word of DE&I opportunities within the maritime trade, to expand awareness and knowledge of clean-energy systems, and, hopefully, to provide exposure to a sport that still unfortunately falls easily into a particular stereotype.

Then there are the offshore records. Lawson plans to take on 35 different offshore benchmarks in the next ten years aboard Defiant, an ambitious project that we at Sail-World support and look forward to celebrating once accomplished.

I checked in with Lawson, via email, to learn more about his Dark Seas Project.

Can you tell us a bit about your sailing background? Where did you learn to sail, and how long have you been active in the sport?

I started sailing when I was nine years old in Baltimore, Maryland. I was inspired to sail by my first Captain who told me I could sail around the world. At the time, there wasn't anyone of my culture I could look up to in that respect so I begin following the French Legends and their feats at sea.

I eventually learned about Dodge Morgan, Bruce Schwab and Steve Fossett. Their sailing work inspired me to pursue offshore passages.

While teaching sailing as a US Sailing Instructor at the Downtown Sailing Center and the US Naval Academy, I was able to join crews/teams and help delivery their boats all over the world. I have been fortunate sail with some of the best sailors on some of the most amazing boats in some of the most amazing places.

I was able to develop my skills in my early 20s to the point where I was able to hop onto racing boats of all sizes from Nacra Inter 20's up to Maxis.

Large offshore-capable multihulls are historically a mostly French affair. What sparked your interest in these amazing boats?

Let's not forget Rich Wilson, Steve Fossett, Cam Lewis and Howard Enloe who all raced these boats for over 30 years! The ORMA 60's were developed and optimized in France. But many of us in the USA were inspired by what we saw and went to meet these sailors and learn these boats.

I first learned about the ORMA 60 when I met Ellen MacArthur in 2002, and she shared with me her experiences racing on Foncia with Gautier for the TJV. She shared with me [that] was building her own trimaran for record purposes. But it was her advice to sail these types of boats so you can learn more and do more was what got me into multihulls.

I first learned about my boat in 2003 during the early development days of the boat. Franck Cammas was sailing very well with Groupama 1 but the development of the class with boats like Fujifilm, and Geant, made it clear they had to go all in with a new build. That led them to develop the "Magic Carpet" also known as Groupama 2.

This boat was the last ORMA 60[built] and by far the fastest and most capable. I loved sailing with the sailors of that fleet and [I] learned a ton, which I was able to then use here in the States on various boats.

Can you please give readers some more information about your ten-year plans for the boat? Do you envision staying on the West Coast or even in the USA? Or, is Defiant going global?

Full disclosure: I tried to get this boat in 2011/2012 but the deal fell through! But my plans for the boat are pretty simple: a lot of passages. I hope to use the boat to set a ton of records over the next ten years. We will reveal which records as they come up as some dates are subject to change.

But the reason why I wanted this boat was because I wanted the platform that gave me the best opportunity to sail the way I love to sail. I wanted to be able to be one with the boat in a way that meant I didn't have to push her to the edge to be successful. The Mighty Merloe all-star team pushed this boat to its limits and beyond. And the records and wins prove they got the most out the boat.

My vision is to sail her at around 80-90 [percent] of her Polars. I plan to operate on the West Coast for the next couple of years, but then I plan to take her to the East Coast where I have spent most of my sailing career sailing. There will be a number of international visits, [and,] in addition, I have a number of yacht clubs and schools [that] I am associated with in Europe and Africa.

I know that you're planning on chasing 35 different offshore records. Can you name drop a few? Also, given the boat's history, is Transpac on this list?

Yes the Transpac is on the list of my targets! It is the obvious one I want as Steve Fossett's record has been up there for such a long time, I think it is reasonable to aim for it!

From there, TransPacific, TransAtlantic, Miami to NYC, and others are on the schedule. We have been in contact with the World Sailing Speed Record Council for a number of years about which records we would go for, and they have provided the instructions and guidance needed.

Can you please tell us about how you plan to use Defiant as a platform for creating DE&I opportunities within sailing and the marine industry?

I have for about 20 years conducted courses, speaking engagements and on-water training. The issue became—I was paying out of pocket to do all this traveling and work! I love what I do but I love staying married as well!

So, during the last year as I was traveling the country teaching about the importance of DE&I, individuals and yacht clubs would continuously offer fundraising and donations for my work. I couldn't accept the donations, so we created a non-profit Dark Seas Project to allow us to continue during our talks and be able to legally receive the donations and support.

Ironically, my work as the chairperson for US Sailing's DE&I Committee has coincided with this work and my work has become even more important. I always stress that people of every background should feel welcomed into the sport. That is the only way the sport grows. If you don't extend your hand to the people who are nervous, they will assume you don't want them. So, make an effort, invite people who traditionally don't do what we love and you may end up making a new lifetime friend, spouse, crew member, etc.

ORMA 60s are amazing boats, but they don't enjoy a reputation as being inexpensive rides to maintain and race. Where does funding for the project come from? Also, have you secured funding for all ten years of the program, or will you build on the program's early successes to attract more funding as the years unfurl?

Our budget is large. We operate currently on a six-month structure. And continuously add to the end of the fifth month's budget as more funding comes in. The goal is to get to a complete annual budget to allow us to then project into the following year.

These boats, and in particular, this boat is the Formula 1 of sailing. There hasn't been a faster 60-foot boat ever built, so the cost to keep her at that level is the main focus. Our funding has come from donors and partners who want to see us expand our education program as well as achieve historic first.

If anyone wants to donate to the program, visit this link:

I was impressed to see that your program will incorporate clean-energy systems. What clean energy systems does the boat currently have? Are you planning on building or changing this platform? And, finally, how will you employ these systems to teach/share the benefits of clean systems with people involved with the program?

Yes. Clean Energy is a common-sense thing now a day. I am fortunate to work with people like Bruce Schwab's Ocean Planet Energy and Artie Means & Jay Davis's WayPoint Racing to help make sure I get this right the first time.

We are already exploring Solar Panels, and a Wind Generator along with other power storage systems. I feel fortunate that I will have these systems as the redundancy will help me complete my passages. The proof of concept already exists, so I am not doing it to show what can be done. I am using these systems because it increases my chances of success.

At this stage, using a clean energy system is a choice as most of them are the same price as older systems and they last way longer.

What is your definition of success for this project? And how can the sailing community help you achieve this vision of success?

To be successful I want to achieve the following:

1. Expand my national reach on the developing more diverse sailors.

2. Place the USA back on the map for breaking world records.

3. Build on the successes of my mentor, Bruce and his work competing on even levels as the French.

4. When I end the program, I want to have achieve my personal sailing goals of breaking world records. The sailing community's support will be major as I hope that the way I sail and the work I am doing bring our sport to a wider audience.

I want our sport to be considered one of the major sports of the world vs a niche sport defined by incorrect opinions like we all are wealthy. When most non-sailors find out what I do, they are blown away by the stories I tell them. They are always shocked to hear people do what we do. The only way to be successful is to leave the sport better than I found it.

Is there anything else about your program that you'd like to add, for the record?

I would like everyone to share what we are doing and reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram if you have questions or just want to follow our progress. Donations are always welcomed and appreciated. I hope everyone enjoys the journey!

[I'd also] like to thank Princeton Strategies, Crooked Halo Clothing, Eastport Yacht Club, Scott Marshall, Tori Lawson, Dustin Marion, WhiteCap, Howard Enloe, Ocean Planet Energy and US Sailing for their support!

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