On Christmas Eve 2022, Pat Brogan and her husband, Jim Mason, were riding their bicycles near their home in Coronado, a peninsula town on California’s San Diego Bay. Avid sailors, they noticed a striking sailboat anchored in very shallow water next to the municipal golf course.
This was an unusual boat, a very large trimaran, very similar, they thought, to one called Mighty Merloe that for years had been listed for sale for as much as $1.7 million and docked next to their boat on nearby Harbor Island. With a mast 100 feet high, and a width of 60 feet to match its length, this boat stood out in any harbor. The next day they were out for another ride and saw it again tied up at Coronado’s public dock. Curious, they approached.
Now, Brogan was almost sure this was the Mighty Merloe, a high-performance racing trimaran with an impressive pedigree. In her prime, she was one of the fastest boats in the world and had been skippered by some of the world’s best sailors. Her new captain and his wife were aboard and greeted the strangers warmly. They introduced themselves as Donald and Tori Lawson.
“This looks like the Mighty Merloe,” Brogan said, fishing unsuccessfully for an answer. Donald Lawson was otherwise gregarious and happy to give a tour of the boat, now called Defiant. Once below, Brogan spotted the VHF radio labeled with the boat’s former name. She was indeed the Mighty Merloe.
Brogan didn’t press for details about the boat’s provenance as Lawson regaled his guests with his quest to sail Defiant alone around the world in record-setting time, a Herculean feat. He talked about his nonprofit organization, the Dark Seas Project. Lawson told them they were about to set sail for Panama and transit the canal on Jan. 8, on their way to their hometown of Baltimore, where Donald would begin his attempt to sail around the world in what he hoped would be fewer than 70 days. The voyage, planned for the fall, would be one of many records he wanted to break in the years ahead. By the end of the tour, the foursome had become fast friends.
Lawson, 41, got as far south as Acapulco, his last known port. After spending several months there adding and testing equipment and gear, and making repairs, which he recounted in detail on social media, he departed for Panama once again on July 5 — fully into cyclone season, and this time alone. Tori, whose given name is Jacqueline, flew home to Baltimore.
Four days into his journey, Lawson sent a message to his wife, telling her Defiant’s engine had failed. Three days later, he encountered heavy weather and lost use of his wind generator. Soon he had no electrical power. He was almost 300 miles southeast of the southern coast of Mexico, the nearest land. He decided to turn back toward Acapulco, which satellite tracking confirmed on July 13.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the Mexican Navy had located a capsized trimaran that Tori Lawson identified as Defiant. The Coast Guard dispatched a cutter to assist in the search for Donald Lawson, whose fate is not yet known. He had with him a life raft, survival equipment and ample provisions.
Missing sailors are often never heard from again. Those who are rescued summon help quickly, or find a way to survive for a long time and are eventually found. Apart from miracle rescues, missing sailors generally do not make big news. Mishaps at sea are accepted as the cost of sailing offshore. The recent advances in satellite technology, however, have made rescue more likely. Defiant had satellite communications aboard but apparently lost the ability to keep it powered. The boat also had an emergency beacon, but no signal was transmitted.
The story of Defiant differs from other stories of lost boats, starting with Lawson’s profile in the sailing community. He was an inspiring promoter with a compelling story he was good at telling. He was the subject of many interviews and had a following on social media. One of very few prominent Black sailors, he was the chair of the diversity committee at U.S. Sailing, the governing body of the sport. He evangelized his trailblazing mission to bring more people of color into the sport, still dominated by white men.
His backstory was the basis for the Dark Seas Project and important to its funding, which he had to solicit. Defiant was no ordinary boat. While Lawson’s skills — for that matter, any sailor’s skills — are challenging to measure with precision and unanimity, there is no disagreement that his mile-eating trimaran was a thoroughbred.
Enormous, complex, expensive to operate, and of an age when sailboats typically need a lot of repair, Defiant would be a challenge for any one person to manage, let alone to sail. About 20 years old, she was an ORMA 60, a class of high-performance racing boats built from 1996 to 2007, akin to Formula One cars.
They were the cutting edge of sailboat design made of very stiff, lightweight carbon fiber. Defiant weighed the same as boats a fraction of her size. She could sail as fast as 40 knots (46 mph), whereas most conventional sailboats would be pressed to reach 8 knots. Defiant was equipped with a square-top mainsail (a shape that makes for a larger, more powerful sail) and three triangular foresails, or jibs, one larger than the next, each one capable of adding speed. A system of hydraulics aided control of her powerful sails and unique pivoting mast, which could be moved into and away from the wind to enhance stability and performance.
“The boat was the best ORMA 60 ever built,” said Artie Means, who served as crew for years aboard Mighty Merloe, “but not designed for the ‘average’ sailor. It was delicate.”
Means was the navigator in 2017 when Mighty Merloe competed in the storied Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, finishing in a record four days and seven hours with a crew of seven led by renowned French skipper Jacques Vincent. That is a pace of about 500 miles a day.
The French-designed trimaran was launched in 2004 and christened as Groupama 2. She was skippered by another famous French yachtsman, Franck Cammas, who won several races with her. She was later used as a training platform for the America’s Cup team, before being sold to American owner Howard Enloe and being renamed Mighty Merloe.
Stiff and light, aided by foils on each outrigger, Defiant could almost get airborne. At her fastest, Defiant skimmed the surface of the ocean, riding the edge of one of its outriggers. But a sudden gust could cause the boat to go over. Once capsized, trimarans cannot recover.
Although ORMA 60s like Defiant are typically sailed by a large crew, they have crossed oceans steered by one person. The singlehanded, transatlantic Route du Rhum race from France to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean is held every four years at the end of the hurricane season. The 2002 race featured 18 ORMA 60s; only three finished the race, as many either capsized or lost their masts in rough weather. Skippers, drawn to the speed of ORMA 60s, continued to race them even as the design was discontinued, in part because of the fickle nature of the boats.
Scot Tempesta, the editor of a popular sailing blog and YouTube channel, toured Defiant in late 2020 when it was still Mighty Merloe. He found it to be in good condition. In the video, the boat appears to have been well maintained, its surfaces polished and shiny. Sailing lines look new, equipment is neatly stowed, and the mainsail is folded into a pristine sail bag. In one shot, he is surrounded by a spider’s web of ropes, attesting to the complexity of the boat’s rigging system. He points out an escape hatch in the hull, a reminder of the boat’s risk of capsizing.
The last available images of Defiant, some taken by Lawson and posted on sailing blogs and social media, were taken in Acapulco upon its arrival at the end of January and shortly before its departure in July. Defiant had certainly seen some hard ocean miles. One widely circulated image showed extensive damage to the port side outrigger and to its sails. Late in 2022, Defiant apparently drifted into rocks while at anchor off Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the southern coast of California.
Lawson spent most of the winter and spring in Acapulco tending to the boat, although he spent a few weeks of April in Baltimore. He returned to Acapulco May 1 to continue preparing Defiant. His social media posts go into great detail about upgrades, maintenance, repairs and the gear he added. He wrote extensively about weather and the tools he used to make decisions about his route.
In a short video posted May 23 to his YouTube channel from Acapulco, Lawson obliquely referred to some of his recent mishaps, saying he “hit some debris and damaged some stuff in some storms.” No longer polished and shiny, Defiant was in need of a paint job. The sail bag looked worn. He went on to show viewers a new mooring line, halyards (ropes used to hoist sails), a wind generator, a chartplotter and a glimpse of a weatherworn bag containing a life raft.
As Lawson’s following grew, so did the skepticism expressed in online posts. Indeed, he had set a mighty goal and had been very public about it, opening himself up to criticism.
There is no formal standard to grade or qualify a sailor. Credentials can be earned, but no certifications, licenses or titles are required to sail. The world is full of sailors with no formal training who have safely crossed oceans. The skills needed to race a modern trimaran are not necessarily the skills needed to cruise the Caribbean in an old monohull. Put another way, there are so many skills to master — seamanship, weather, rigging, sail trim, steering, docking, line handling, anchoring, plumbing, engine repair — that it’s possible to be simultaneously an expert in some things and a novice in others.
“He might be a professional sailor, but he’s not a professional racer,” Tempesta said, “and there’s a difference.”
Lawson studied engineering at Morgan State and, according to his LinkedIn profile, also attended the Annapolis School of Seamanship, where he earned a 100-ton captain’s license and a celestial navigation certificate. He said he completed a number of long, offshore passages as crew and captain, including a solo voyage across the Atlantic in a 21-foot sailboat. He has taught sailing extensively, raced, and worked as a delivery captain, transporting yachts for other owners. His sailing resume would be the envy of recreational sailors and many professionals (the definition of which is open to interpretation), but what he was setting out to do verges on superhuman.
The shortest route that qualifies as an official circumnavigation is 21,600 nautical miles (or 24,857 land miles), most of it in the Southern Ocean past Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Leeuwin. Because there is little less land in the Southern Hemisphere, waves and wind in the Southern Ocean are especially big and strong. A solo sailor can never sleep a full night, instead napping for 20 to 30 minutes at a time every few hours over a period of months. According to Yachting World, only about 200 sailors have sailed alone, nonstop around the world, most of them in slow-moving monohulls not in pursuit of speed records that are now within the reach of only modern trimarans.
Means, who raced thousands of miles aboard Mighty Merloe, was unconvinced Lawson had sufficient experience aboard Defiant under the kinds of conditions he would likely encounter sailing nonstop at a record-breaking pace.
“In my opinion Mr. Lawson had zero chance of setting any records himself, and very little chance of even completing a passage on such a complicated yacht with so little training,” said Means, who met Lawson briefly.
Those who know Lawson are unanimous about his passion, determination, and confidence, which often showed itself in his ability to settle and soothe those he sailed with. They also all expressed concern over what he set out to accomplish.
Lawson and Lynn Handy learned to sail together as teenagers at Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center, known as one of the most inclusive yacht clubs in the sport. They both went on to become sailing instructors at the center. Handy eventually became its executive director.
“Even when he was young, he had that drive for adventure and risk taking,” Handy said. “That was always in him. He was always looking for the next challenge. He was driven by proving himself. … this was an obvious next step for him.
She paused when asked if she thought he had taken on too much by sailing Defiant.
“This is a hard question to answer,” she said. “I feel like some people are also responsible, not just him, for putting him in the position he’s in now. … What he should have had is a really deep team of really professional people constantly coaching him and working with him.”
To her point, a Formula One driver has a team of mechanics, advisors, and a deep-pocketed owner who can pay for the expenses required to keep a race car in good running order. High-end racing yachts are similar.
Whatever his qualifications, Lawson managed to sail his vessel, a highly complex and temperamental racing machine, from San Diego to San Francisco, then back to San Diego, and on to Acapulco — an impressive accomplishment on its own.
Brogan and Mason brought the Lawsons Christmas dinner the day they met, along with some extra provisions, extra batteries and flashlights. They promised to see each other again. Brogan and Mason invited them to come sailing with them in the Bahamas in the spring. Within a few days, the Lawsons were offshore. They did not reach Acapulco, about 1,800 miles from San Diego, until the end of January. Defiant is capable of covering this distance in less than a week under the right conditions. A conventional sailboat can do it in about two weeks nonstop.
What the Lawsons did in January, where they sailed, what route they took, whether they stopped somewhere, isn’t clear. Donald Lawson’s various social media platforms are empty of any posts during this stretch. Tori Lawson has declined interviews since appearing at a press conference Monday about her husband’s disappearance.
Lawson seemed to be aware of skepticism from his online audience. In a post dated Feb. 5, he wrote:
“Our program is working towards having our vessel, the Defiant, ready for long distance and hard record runs. So I will say openly — expect more damage, more torn sails, more stories about collisions and more sea stories because these things need to happen now so we are prepared for the ultimate challenge.”
Lawson’s friend and colleague Richard Jepsen remained hopeful Lawson would be found alive and safe. He was measured when asked to assess his friend’s abilities and judgement.
“Would you need to have some willful dismissiveness of risk in order to embark on such an incredible project? You’d have to say yes,” said Jepsen, the president of the Board of Directors for U.S. Sailing. “I worried for him, but I loved that there was someone on this planet willing to do something like that.”