A trimaran racing sailboat can take a beating and stay afloat. There’s been no signal from an emergency beacon. Donald Lawson has lost power before and sailed safely home by compass.
Those are reasons why the U.S. sailing community is holding out hope that the Baltimore man who broke ground as a Black professional sailor turns up unharmed somewhere off Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
Mexican authorities have been searching since Friday for Lawson and his 60-foot racing trimaran Defiant. The Mexican Navy dispatched an aircraft and search boat to the area of Lawson’s last coordinates, his family said.
No one has heard from the sailor since July 13, when the Defiant was detected 285 miles off Acapulco. There’s been no communication from Lawson in the days since.
“I’ve been at sea with my husband before, so I know him and I trust him. And now myself and his family, friends and supporters are determined to bring him back to Maryland safely,” his wife, Jacqueline, told reporters Monday in Annapolis. “We’re requesting any and all resources — both Mexican and American — to help me find my husband.”
Lawson grew up in Woodlawn and broke into a sport dominated by white men. He and Jacqueline founded the nonprofit Dark Seas Project to support African American sailors, and he serves as chairman of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for U.S. Sailing, the national governing body of the sport.
He was planning this fall to break a world record by becoming the first American to sail around the world in 74 days.
Lawson departed alone from Acapulco on July 5, heading for the Panama Canal en route to Baltimore before his world record attempt. On July 9, he messaged his wife that he was having trouble with the hydraulic rigging and lost engine power. He was relying on a wind generator. Three days later, he messaged his wife that a storm had knocked out the wind generator.
The two decided that it would be best for him to turn around instead of continuing on to the Panama Canal. Jacqueline said he had 25% battery power, and no way of charging.
Victoria Lawson, Donald Lawson’s sister, told reporters there’s no way to know what her brother is going through now.
“He’s strong. He is an experienced sailor. But we just need everyone’s help. Everyone’s support,” she said.
Lawson offered a glimpse into his extensive preparations in a recent post on Facebook, writing about the effort he takes to avoid bad weather and when there’s no wind. The Defiant was equipped with an automated system that identified the racing yacht to surrounding ships. His website features a satellite location tracker — the last detection was on July 13.
He also sailed with satellite phones, GPS and, importantly, an emergency radio beacon known as an EPIRB. Some beacons emit an automatic alert when they come in contact with water.
Authorities haven’t detected any signal of an emergency beacon from the Defiant.
“If the EPIRB was not activated, then maybe he just lost power,” said Bruce Schwab, who has sailed with Lawson and twice himself circumnavigated the world. “Energy problems are very common. It’s certainly a possibility, anyhow, that he just lost power and lost communication.”
Schwab remembers sailing with Lawson more than a decade ago through a winter storm — a first experience for Lawson. The sailboat was equipped with an automatic navigation system, so he could have stayed warm below.
“He was so delighted. ... He was determined to get the most out of the experience,” Schwab said. “He drove out there for hours in the snow. I was, like, this guy is pretty determined.”
In an interview this year with Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Lawson recalled hitting debris in the ocean during a recent trip. He and his wife were 1,000 miles offshore and sailing from San Diego to the Panama Canal. The impact knocked out power to the yacht, but he steered them home by compass.
“He’s an experienced offshore professional sailor so that is in his favor,” said Richard Jepsen, president of the Board of Directors for U.S. Sailing, in an email. “Without comms, it is possible he is proceeding without other issues and we are hanging hopes on that. We have very little information other than he is incommunicado for several days. That happens often when otherwise seaworthy vessels lose electricity/communications.”
An official with the Mexican Coast Guard’s search and rescue teams said they dispatched crews on Friday, but have found no sign of the Defiant. The foreign authorities are conducting the search because Lawson went missing in the territorial waters of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard would send assistance only if asked by Mexico for help, said Hunter Schnabel, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s District 11 on the Pacific Coast.
“At this time, they have not requested it,” Schnabel said.
In Baltimore, the nonprofit Downtown Sailing Center in Locust Point urged its members to keep Lawson in their thoughts and prayers. Lawson learned to sail on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor before joining the Downtown Sailing Center in the 1990s as its first Black summer camp instructor. He went on to work as the head instructor.
“Donald understood well the impact sailing can have on a person, always pushed for diversity in sailing, and sought to inspire others to pursue their dreams,” Executive Director Doug Silber wrote in an email to members.
News of Lawson’s disappearance spread through the U.S. sailing community and local Baltimore news, but it hasn’t attracted wider attention that could benefit the search.
Baltimore NAACP President Kobi Little urged authorities and the news media in the U.S. and Mexico to step up the coverage and the rescue efforts.
”Black people should have every expectation that the media will report and raise awareness about their loved ones with the same urgency and volume as any other person,” Little said. “Unfortunately, too often individual and institutional bias in the media limit coverage when Black lives are at stake.”
Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA and founder of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland, is concerned that the search for Lawson has not captured wider attention. Whitehead said people may be reluctant to share news of a missing Black man after the recent high-profile case in Alabama in which authorities said a Black woman faked the story of her own kidnapping. The national news media, meanwhile, seized on the story last month of the missing Titan sub.
”Those were white billionaires [in the Titan], and they got more attention, focus and concern,” she said. “Entire countries were focused on providing assistance. We were all very invested. It was hard not to be because the media focused on that story. That’s what happens when you build a story around who matters. We were very connected to this story. The world stopped and collectively held its breath. There is not as much concern with [Lawson]. The media is not focusing on it.”
Whitehead wants to make sure that the public and the media make Lawson a priority, too.
”Say his name and tell his story,” she said. “Be as concerned about him as you were with the Titan until answers are given and he is found.”
Reporters John-John Williams IV, Nick Thieme, and David Lance contributed to this article.