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Doyle Sails 2020 - Cruising Confidence 728x90 TOP

Following up with Captain Donald Lawson about his Dark Seas Project

by David Schmidt 1 Aug 08:00 PDT August 1, 2022
Lawson plans to use Defiant to rewrite the history books © Sharon Green

It’s no secret that we love fast boats and cool people doing cool things at Sail-World, and while the French have done their best to horde all of the coolest multihulls, a few make it over to our side of the Pond. Then, it’s a matter of getting one into the right set of hands. Such was the case earlier this year when Captain Donald N. Lawson acquired Defiant, his ORMA 60 (nee Mighty Merloe and Groupama 2), a pedigreed trimaran that’s ready to go and rewrite ocean records.

But rather than just taking on the history books, Lawson, who serves as chair of US Sailing’s DE&I committee, has been leveraging Defiant as a platform to share word of DE&I opportunities within the maritime trade, expand awareness and knowledge of clean-energy systems, and—hopefully—attract new sailors to the sport.

I interviewed Lawson last April, soon after he took delivery of Defiant (, and I recently checked in with him to see how his campaign has been progressing.

You’ve had the boat for a few months now. What have been your best sailing experiences with it to date?

We officially received the boat on April 1st and have been so pleased with [her] and how she was maintained by [the previous owners]. Even with the boat sitting at the Pier for three years, she was in pretty good shape.

The training and practice began three weeks later after we put the boat back together. With the understanding that the boat would be sailed shorthanded and solo moving forward, one of the main goals was setting back up the Old Groupama 2 systems so the boat could be sailed in a simpler manner.

Once we had conducted a couple practice sails around San Diego, we took off for Northern California.

We left San Diego and headed to Newport Beach. A quick 24-hour trip that allowed us to learn so much about the boat especially sailing to windward. Once in Newport Beach, we had time to learn more about the systems.

I really enjoyed to sail from Newport Beach to San Francisco as we hit 27 knots and were able to get a lot of heavy upwind conditions. The goal for these two legs was to sail the boat and learn her, and I feel we achieved those goals.

What made those experience so great? The conditions? The boat? Or the people that you’ve had onboard?

The people we sailed with on the two legs had either never sailed offshore or on a multihull before and seeing them grow more comfortable and skilled as went along was great.

The conditions were definitely strong and required intelligent sailing, and I believe we proved that as well.

I have to say again-I love my boat and have loved sharing it with the different clubs and centers we have visited over the last couple months.

What would you describe as your most challenging moment (or moments) with the boat so far?

The biggest challenge so far has been the collision in San Francisco Bay. While out sailing with members of St Francis Yacht Club, we hit something and even though after inspection, the boat appears to be fine minus a few scratches, we didn’t know and had to make tough choices about finding a way to inspect the bottom.

I won’t rewrite the entire story here but I did manage to do what needed to be done and set the stage for future repairs.

Beyond that, [it’s been] the usual funding challenges but we believe we have gotten a team now who can handle that for us.

I understand there was a bad social-media moment. What would you like to say to anyone (let’s call them the haters) who declared your program abandoned or failed?

Yeah, the information reported was clearly just to get clicks and build a narrative.

I was disappointed that if someone had been that concerned, they would have come down to the boat and saw I was walking the boat with a very experienced guy to check the hull. And the other irony was I had planned a big reveal and breakdown of the experience but when I got word of the media attention, that all had to change.

It was a reminder that even in a hidden cove, someone is always watching and people will do anything for media attention.

Given that you’ve now joined the club of sailors who have had UFO experiences at 20+ knots, are you looking into technology like OSCAR that could possibly help save a collision, say at 0330 hours, when you’re sailing solo to Hawaii?

Crazy that within a week or two, multiple Grand Prix boats on the west coast all hit something! And now having done it at close to 21kts, you have appreciation for technology like OSCAR. I had already considered installing the system on the boat months ago but yeah it is becoming more and more important to get any warning you can get.

What’s the biggest thing that you’ve come to learn about running a big-boat trimaran program that you didn’t necessarily understand, prior to the program’s launch?

That living on the boat, with the boat, and being fully connected with her, was the only way to ensure things moved smoothly.

I approached it at first like any sailor who has raced on pro teams before- schedule, worklist, lock up, go have a drink, go to bed-repeat day after day.

Instead, the boat requires attention and work almost hourly [as] the boat reacts to tides, wind shifts and wakes from other boats when docked. You can’t dock this boat at any marina – even [if] they offer you discounts and packages.

Safe harbors really takes [on] an extra meaning [when] you have to go survey the dockage and can’t take even people’s word as fact.

Can you please give us an update on your West Coast tour? Where will you and the boat be for the next four to eight weeks?

The West Coast tour will be coming to end this mid-August. We have been so fortunate to visit a number of amazing clubs and centers over the last few months. A couple quick shoutouts to Corinthian Yacht Club and Richmond Yacht Club for hosting us and supporting our program. Randall and Shelly from CYC and Susan Hubbard from Richmond Yacht Club were really there for us when it came to our events.

Shoutout to Oscar at CYC and Cooper over at RYC for looking out for the boat as we got service done as well.

Treasure Isle Marina and Anthony the dock master [were] a major part of the work we did in the area, and we couldn’t have gotten things done without him and businesses like Kite the Bay for their support.

We are now heading back down south to begin preparations for our first solo world record, the Transpacific Solo Record LA to Hawaii. We are working with LAYC and the Transpacific Yacht Club to ensure we can share this experience with many people as possible.

Can you tell us more about your plans to take on the Transpacific Solo Record? What kind of training will do you, what’s your target window, and what time do you need to beat? Finally, how hard would you say this challenge is, compared to what you plan to do with the boat over the coming years?

The target for departure for the Transpacific Solo Record is early October. The training is currently on going. Much of the work is off-the-wind sailing and balance for the boat.

The prep with the World Sailing Speed Record Council has already begun and we are making sure they approve every step of the way we take as this record also serves as a training course for the upcoming world records as well.

The “reference time” I need to beat is Steve Fossett’s that he set during the Solo Transpac Race from San Francisco of 7days and 22 hours.

The Transpacific course is however from LA to Honolulu so that is the required course for me to sail to take this record. This record is extremely challenging, which why after almost 25 years it’s still standing!

2,250 nautical miles is not a simple weekend cruise and it isn’t one where you have a lot of rescue options if you get in trouble. Preparation is key and planning ahead is paramount to success.

We decided to go big out the gate as if we can’t succeed at this record, we should modify our future plans.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

We really appreciate the love and support we have been receiving! It really means a lot [and] helps us get through the hard days and challenges. Not wanting to let people down really drives me.

We have a number of donors who are quietly supporting this project, and we are trying hard to make sure we deliver for them. I appreciate the understanding and patience people are showing as we build out an American version of the French Solo Record program!

If people want to donate and support our cause and work, just visit our Facebook or Instagram page and click on the donation link to help us achieve our Solo World record dreams!

Editor's Note: For more infofrmation on Lawson's Dark Seas project, navigate your browser to:

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