The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Active continued its search for survivors and debris off the Mexican coast Friday at the site of a capsized vessel. The vessel was confirmed by Jacqueline Lawson to be the trimaran Defiant sailed by her husband, Donald Lawson.
The professional sailor from Baltimore was last heard from more than two weeks ago when he lost contact with his wife almost 300 miles off the coast of Acapulco in the Pacific Ocean. Mexican authorities had more than one vessel involved in the search, which had not yielded any conclusive discoveries.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Hunter Schnabel said the Active was keeping a safe distance from the disabled trimaran. Crew members took photographs of the capsized vessel, which the Coast Guard has not yet confirmed is Defiant.
“We’re evaluating from a distance,” Schnabel said. “It’s a safety precaution, an overturned vessel can be a danger, potentially.”
Mexico’s navy said Friday it located the Defiant but did not find Lawson.
Lawson’s capsized trimaran was found Thursday night by a patrol boat involved in the search 356 nautical miles (about 410 miles) from Acapulco, according to the navy’s press office.
The navy said that it would continue its search for Lawson, 41, an experienced sailor.
Port authorities in Acapulco said that Lawson had arrived on Jan. 26 for repairs to a motor and hull of the boat. After the repairs were completed, Lawson left Acapulco on July 5, headed for the Panama Canal, where he planned to cross to the Caribbean Sea and continue north to Baltimore.
Jacqueline Lawson told local media outlets that on July 9, Donald Lawson had sent her a message saying he was having mechanical problems and the motor was losing power. Three days later, he told her a storm had knocked out his wind generator and he would try to return to Acapulco. The last satellite positioning message received for the Defiant was July 13.
The Active was sent to join the search Wednesday, and arrived on the scene Thursday. It had been within a few hundred miles of the search area when the Mexican crews began their search one week ago. Schnabel said the Coast Guard offered to dispatch its nearby cutter, but the Mexican Navy initially declined.
By Tuesday, Mexican rescuers spotted what it believed was the wreckage of a boat. On Wednesday, Jacqueline Lawson confirmed it was the Defiant. The Coast Guard once again offered to join the search, this time with more insistence, and the Mexican team consented.
Lawson had emergency equipment with him, such as a dry suit, life raft and an emergency beacon that needed to be activated manually. No signal was ever received.
Sailors are taught to remain with a disabled vessel either by remaining in the hull or tying the life raft to the vessel. Chances of survival, the logic goes, are improved by remaining with the boat as long as it floats. Going adrift in a life raft is a step taken only if the boat is certain to sink.
Wearing a dry suit vastly improves survival time in the water, but only if it’s fully donned while its wearer is still dry. Getting into one quickly can be challenging, especially in an emergency.
Close inspection of the wreck is safely done only in very calm conditions. Weather data from the area shows moderate winds, but of more concern is the condition of the sea. Wave heights in the area were about six feet, with a period (the frequency of waves) of about 10 seconds. Those are typical conditions for the open ocean, but enough to make a close approach risky, and ruled out rescuers boarding the disabled vessel.
The Coast Guard has not attempted to get close to the vessel, Schnabel said, but indicated his Mexican counterparts were able to make a close approach this week to check for any obvious signs of survivors.
“The Mexican navy has different assets on the water and have gotten close enough to inspect it... potentially in the water to check for any watertight compartments,” Schnabel said.
Lawson, who is Black, grew up in Baltimore, and from his first sailing opportunity at age 9, set his sights on making it his career.
He started out cleaning boats, folding sails and stowing gear in Annapolis. Later, he and his wife founded the Dark Seas Project, an effort to increase diversity in the sport of sailing. He is the chairman of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for U.S. Sailing.
Lawson was working toward challenging records for circumnavigating the globe solo.
Vincente Herrera, who lives in Acapulco, recalled how the Lawsons stayed with him while preparing Defiant for her next voyage. He and Jacqueline Lawson have been in touch since Defiant went missing.
“I consider them part of my family,” said Herrera, who met them at the end of January when the Lawsons sailed into Acapulco looking for a mooring for their boat.
“The last time I saw him he said, ‘Captain Vincente, my brother, I’m going to put your name on my boat and sail around the world with it,’” Herrera said. “On Wednesday [July 5] at 7 a.m., I went with him as far as I could and we said goodbye. He raised the sails, we both cried, and gave each other a hug.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.