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Keeping a candle lit for U.S. singlehanded sailor Captain Donald Lawson - newsletter


Keeping a candle lit for U.S. singlehanded sailor Captain Donald Lawson

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Captain Donald Lawson has conducted courses, speaking engagements, and on-water training for 20 years - photo © Dark Seas Project

Dear Recipient Name

While the international sailing world has been focused on this year's rough-and-tumble Rolex Fastnet Race, my mind has been elsewhere. Back in the early spring of 2022, I caught wind of Captain Donald Lawson and his audacious plans to smash a laundry list of offshore passages and race records (35 in total, including plans for the fastest solo circumnavigation) as part of his Dark Seas project.

Lawson had a fast gun in Defiant (nee Mighty Merloe and Groupama 2), his ORMA 60 trimaran, and he had an infectious kind of motivation and energy. In addition to his offshore endeavors, Lawson also served as the chair of US Sailing's diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.

As a journalist, I bit on Lawson's story and worked with him on two interviews for Sail-World (see April 2022 and August 2022). I never had the pleasure of meeting Lawson in person, but he was professional to work with, and he was a gentleman in our correspondence.

Defiant under her former livery - photo © Dark Seas Project
Defiant under her former livery - photo © Dark Seas Project

While ORMA 60s and other offshore machines are truly amazing, they require copious volumes of two important things: skill and funding. Remove either, and things usually go pear-shaped quickly.

Over interviews, Lawson expressed confidence in his funding, but I'll admit to some skepticism when I'd see Lawson's social-media posts of the boat. He was clearly trying hard to get Defiant into fighting shape for his list of offshore endeavors, but the boat wasn't exactly looking Bristol. There were also some mishaps, as one can read about online, but I remained hopeful that these were just growing pains, even if their frequency started to suggest otherwise.

If Defiant was the family's J/105, I might have been concerned that he'd lose a halyard or maybe have an issue with a sail due to UV damage. But there's simply no comparing the power, speed, and inherent safety of a J/105 with a wicked-up ORMA 60.

Lawson, however, was confident that he had the skills and the mentoring, and off he went, alone, on July 5, from Acapulco, Mexico, en route to his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, by way of the Panama Canal. His plan was to begin his solo circumnavigation, leaving from Baltimore, in October.

Tragically, this isn't how things unfurled.

To be clear, I've not been in touch with Lawson since last summer, so I'm simply following the news. But, as I understand the situation, and as it's been reported by The Baltimore Sun (which was a major source for this writing), Lawson's problems started accumulating not long after he left port. This began with the loss of auxiliary power, and compounded when problems arose with his hydraulic rigging (July 9).

Then, a storm on July 12 took out his generator, leaving Lawson without electricity.

Dark Seas Project announced the acquisition of the ORMA 60 Trimaran - photo © Captain Donald Lawson
Dark Seas Project announced the acquisition of the ORMA 60 Trimaran - photo © Captain Donald Lawson

More specifically, this left him without an autopilot.

(Just imagine trying a gybe a boat like Defiant, all alone, in a seaway, probably going fast, with that much rig towering above and no help from the yacht's DC- and hydraulic-powered systems.)

July 12 was also the last day that Lawson texted Jacqueline, and his last known position signal was transmitted on July 13, some 300 nautical miles from Acapulco.

The Mexican Coast Guard reportedly received reports of the missing sailor on Friday, July 21, and they initiated a search. By Sunday, July 23, the United States Coast Guard confirmed that Lawson was missing; sadly, this was the same day that a search plane spotted an upturned trimaran.

Jacqueline confirmed that the photos were of Defiant.

Lawson planned to use Defiant to rewrite the history books - photo © Sharon Green
Lawson planned to use Defiant to rewrite the history books - photo © Sharon Green

Hope initially burned that Lawson would be found in his upturned vessel, but, by Friday, July 28, the Mexican Coast Guard reportedly informed Jacqueline that they had conducted an inspection of the boat. Lawson, tragically, was not onboard.

While the situation looks grim, there's still some hope that Lawson might be alive aboard a liferaft (the vessel was reportedly sailing with two, plus a survival suit and electronic beacons). The water is warm in that part of the world, and history is rife with people who have survived long stretches adrift at sea, so I'm personally keeping a candle lit that this seemingly tragic situation somehow turns right.

Sail-World extends our thoughts and best wishes to Lawson, his wife, and to his family.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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