Baltimore sailor Donald Lawson likely had little warning before his sailing trimaran Defiant capsized hundreds of miles off the coast of Mexico in July. We might never know what happened that day or what became of Lawson, who likely perished. Was he prepared to succeed? Was he destined to fail? In an attempt to better understand his quest, The Baltimore Banner spoke to dozens of sailors familiar with him and his boat and those who met him during the past year. We reviewed scores of his interviews, speaking engagements and social media posts. The sailor who spent the most time aboard Defiant with Lawson was his wife, Jacqueline Lawson. She declined to be interviewed.
Donald and Jacqueline Lawson spent the last day of August 2022, at sea with a steady breeze at their backs. Northerly swells unfurled under clear skies. High school sweethearts, husband and wife, business partners, captain and first mate. They were all those things as they rode the prevailing wind and current southward, following the coast of California toward Los Angeles.
The transit was probably one of the easiest the couple had experienced aboard their massive 60-foot trimaran Defiant since they took possession of it less than five months earlier. The Lawsons caught a break, even if it didn’t last long. That night, somewhere past Point Conception, their engine failed. Their batteries died, and eventually so did their electronic instruments, a portent of doom a year away.
The Lawsons sailed toward Anacapa Island, one of the five rugged islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park west of Santa Barbara. Intentionally or inadvertently, Defiant steered into Cathedral Cove, a small north-facing inlet a half-mile from the Anacapa lighthouse that marks the eastern end of the island. Without instruments, navigating in the dark, it’s possible the Lawsons saw the light and mistook Anacapa for the mainland.
At some point, they dropped an anchor, although it did not keep their boat from hitting the rocky edge of the cove. Left to fend for itself, the pedigreed racing machine likely would have broken up against the anvil-like ledge of volcanic schist that forms most of the shoreline of the Channel Islands.
When Donald Lawson, 41, acquired his prize trimaran on April 8, 2022, he had an unassailable and captivating backstory. He was a Black professional sailor tasked with bringing more diversity to an almost exclusively white sport. He was also determined to set speed records sailing alone around the world. The everyman from Baltimore said he could do it in 70 days. For years, he had evangelized, repeated and refined his ambitions in public appearances and interviews. Charismatic, affable and confident, Lawson was a convincing messenger. If his stories left room for skepticism, virtually none was publicly expressed.
Without a working VHF radio, Lawson called the Coast Guard for help on a cellphone, a small miracle, as service around Anacapa is spotty. The Coast Guard dispatched a patrol boat and also contacted a private tow captain.
Carson Shevitz, who operates Channel Watch Marine Services, a tow and rescue service out of Ventura Harbor less than 20 miles away, got the call about 11 p.m. As he and his partner readied their boat, he spoke to Lawson directly and asked where he was. Lawson replied, “San Francisco,” more than 300 miles to the north, an answer Shevitz attributed to fatigue.
Shevitz arrived in Anacapa by midnight and found Defiant pinned deep in the cove. He could hear the clang of its 100-foot mast glancing against the cliff wall, and the crunch of its hull settling on the rocks.
Defiant, as wide as it was long, was surrounded by kelp beds so thick that Shevitz was unable to reach it in his boat. Neither could the Coast Guard. So Shevitz put on a wet suit and entered the frigid water with a tow line tied to him. He crawled as much as he swam, clutching fronds of kelp as he pulled his way closer. He attached his tow line to Defiant’s bow, cut its anchor line, swam back to his rescue boat, and towed Defiant to Ventura Harbor, arriving at 4 a.m.
This was not the first significant challenge Lawson faced in California as the new owner of Defiant, but it was probably his biggest at that point, a moment of reckoning, an opportunity not taken to figuratively and literally change course and commit to goals more easily attained.
The Lawsons’ troubles off the California coast were eerily foretelling of what would be the final journey Donald took aboard Defiant 10 months later. On July 5, 2023, he departed Acapulco, Mexico, alone, after spending five months adding equipment to and repairing Defiant. He was bound for the Panama Canal, and ultimately his hometown of Baltimore, a journey he estimated would take a month - through the Caribbean in the middle of hurricane season. From Baltimore, he planned to embark this fall on an attempt to sail around the world alone by himself in record time. The math of miles and days, calculated against the scale of his plans, was hard to square.
Four days after leaving Acapulco, Lawson again lost engine power and use of his hydraulic system. Three days later, his wind generator failed, and with it all ability to keep his batteries charged — he communicated this to Jacqueline, in Baltimore. He was able to text his wife on July 12, as he turned back to Acapulco. The next day, Defiant transmitted a position for the last time as its electronics went silent. This time instead of being less than 20 miles offshore, Lawson was almost 300 miles from land with no sanctuary nearby.
About two weeks later, Mexican authorities located his capsized trimaran but found no sign of Lawson or the life raft he took on his voyage. Jacqueline Lawson, who goes by Tori, has since communicated through written statements delivered by a spokesman, Ray Feldmann, who operates a media relations and crisis management firm out of Annapolis. Through Feldmann, she declined numerous requests to be interviewed.
In her last statement, sent Aug. 16, she confirmed that the Mexican navy was no longer actively searching for her husband. She said she read reports and viewed photos provided by the search crew. She confirmed that Defiant was missing its mast.
“The MRCC remains on alert for any signs of Donald or the life raft,” she said in her statement. “I haven’t given up, and neither have they.”
An anomaly on the water
As a competitive Black sailor from Baltimore — he started sailing at age 9 — Lawson attracted attention that began early in his adult life. In 2007, The Baltimore Sun featured him in an article about being an anomaly in the sport. Then 26, he was an avid local racer and instructor at Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center, where he learned to sail as a kid and taught other children of color to sail, hoping they’d follow his path. Already he aspired to sail around the world faster than any American, he told The Sun, and he would do it in a 60-foot boat.
“It’s going to happen,” he said.
He also talked about feeling discounted or overlooked as a Black sailor. He knew he didn’t look the part. Around this time, he started Donald Lawson Sailing, his early attempt to bring diversity to professional racing and gain traction in the sport. The program no longer exists.
The sports website Bleacher Report ran a 2011 profile under the headline: “From a Middle-Class Baltimorean to a World-Class Sailor.” Lawson, then 29, still taught sailing and sought work delivering boats for owners who needed them moved but didn’t have the time or skill to do it. The term “world class” was probably an overstatement, as was the article’s labeling of Lawson as the “Tiger Woods of his sport.” Even Lawson pushed back.
“I have years and a lot of achievements to go before I am in the same sentence,” he said. “But he is a bar I measure myself against.”
Lawson was not yet chasing world records, but attempted unsuccessfully to put together a team to compete for the 2013 America’s Cup.
In a 2013 interview with Rob Chichester, a local charter captain and instructor, Lawson talked about how his application was declined for financial and administrative reasons. The experience seemed to turn him away from traditional regatta sailing and toward breaking records.
“That is where my goals are now,” he told Chichester.
They also discussed race. As two Black sailors, they understood that “if you’re African-American and you show up in a given venue, you often get strange looks, or you’re not taken seriously as a sailor,” Chichester said. “He [Lawson] took that as a necessary challenge to his goal of being a world-class ocean racer of multihulls.”
Lawson said he did not face intentional barriers to the sport, or overt racism, but noted that “we will have to see how the mainstream treats me once I am fully exposed.”
Perhaps as a consequence of his race, he found himself sailing alone a lot as a kid because sailors his age “had friends from private schools they knew and they sailed and hung out together,” he told Chichester. The habit served him in adulthood. “I began finding peace of mind in solo sailing because I didn’t have to fight as hard to be seen. It was just me and I didn’t need permission to make decisions.”
Lawson found supporters, well-intentioned sailors who recognized he was a rarity in the sport and wanted him to succeed. Bruce Schwab was one of them. Lawson has often referred to him as a “mentor.” Schwab, in 2005, became the first American to complete the Vendée Globe Race, a grueling, nonstop solo race around the world, held every four years. Schwab finished ninth in under 110 days. He took a liking to Lawson and invited him to sail.
“He always had a very positive disposition and a good sense of humor,” said Schwab, 63. “Yes, I could see he had a tendency to sidestep the more technical aspects in favor of the pure simple sailing side. But I could also see that he was highly motivated. I hoped he would fill in the blanks in his experience and knowledge as needed to achieve his sailing goals.”
According to Lawson’s LinkedIn profile, he was an instructor for nine years at Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center. He also taught for one year, 2005, at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he likely was one of the many summer volunteer instructors who taught basic sailing skills to incoming plebes. His credentials also include certificates earned at the Annapolis School of Seamanship in celestial navigation, marine electronics, and a captain’s license.
In March 2021, US Sailing, the national governing body of the sport, appointed Lawson the chair of a newly created committee on diversity, equity and inclusion, a position it sought him out for. By then, diversity had become part of his calling card. Lawson was “integral” to US Sailing’s decision to hire three paid staff to implement its diversity efforts, said president Richard Jepsen.
“He was authentic in his desire, and effective in his performance,” Jepsen said.
The title of chairman bestowed more credibility to all of Lawson’s efforts. It also earned him Jepsen’s deep appreciation and loyalty. Like many, Jepsen didn’t question Lawson’s sailing credentials.
“You can count my offshore races on both hands,” Jepsen said. “When it came to his resume, I couldn’t hold his jockstrap as an offshore sailor.”
Lawson was featured in US Sailing’s newsletter before and after his appointment as committee chair, parroting his dreams of sailing around the world and breaking records. Last year, US Sailing put together a video to celebrate its 125th anniversary that included a segment on “legends” of sailing. The video featured Olympians, Hall of Famers, and America’s Cup skippers. The last sailor to be featured was Lawson. As the camera went to black, this text appeared:
“In January 2023, Captain Donald Lawson will set out on his non-stop voyage to become the fastest person who has ever sailed around the world…etching himself into history as the next sailing legend.”
In hindsight, US Sailing’s unquestioning, wide-eyed conflation of Lawson’s aspirations to the concrete achievements of proven champions might not have served him well.
“I regret I didn’t give him that whack on his fanny,” Jepsen said, pausing several times as he struggled with his thoughts. “It did seem quixotic to take a fast and fragile vessel like that and single-hand it halfway around the Americas.”
Jepsen was reluctant to communicate doubt at the time, lest he become yet one more white person in Lawson’s life to show bigotry in the form of “lowered expectations,” he said.
“We had many conversations about it,” Jepsen said. “I never said, ‘Donald, this is mad,’ but I did ask him a lot of questions. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. ... His position was no one is going to dissuade me, this is my destiny, I’m going to do a lot of good.”
“It did seem quixotic to take a fast and fragile vessel like that and single-hand it halfway around the Americas.”— US Sailing president Richard Jepsen
Lawson’s sailing credentials are mostly anecdotal. He has said he “stopped counting” after logging 25,000 nautical miles. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2022 that he had completed 100 passages of 1,000 miles or more and crossed the Atlantic multiple times. He told another interviewer he had completed “hundreds of deliveries all over the world.” His longest solo passage, he said during a 2021 lecture, had been 19 days in a 21-foot racing boat.
By then, he spoke regularly of his desire to sail nonstop around the world and break speed records. It had become part of his brand.
In March of last year, Lawson spoke, by video, to students at a middle school in Brooklyn, New York, about his plans to be the fastest sailor around the world. In a quick aside, he offhandedly told the children the Vendée Globe “is a race I will do in 2024 … but we’re not going to talk about that right now.”
It was a nearly impossible vow. Competitors are required to have started at least two and finished at least one of five qualifying races held from 2022 to 2024, each one a herculean feat in itself. Lawson did not compete in either of the 2022 races.
The boat of his dreams — an ORMA 60
In April 2022, Lawson flew to San Diego and became the owner of an ORMA 60-class trimaran called the Mighty Merloe. It was a proven winner in the Atlantic and the Pacific, admired as one of the fastest race boats in the world, capable of sailing faster than 40 knots. Acquiring it conferred legitimacy to Lawson’s aspirations.
“Donald loved high-performance boats,” Schwab said. “He’s not alone there. However, the ORMA 60 he acquired was a very dangerous vessel, beyond the abilities of all but a very few pro sailors on Earth. I myself would have had to put in considerable training time with crew on board before I would have even dared to single-hand it. But because of its extreme nature, it couldn’t possibly have been more appealing and irresistible to Donald.”
It was designed and built in France, christened in 2004 as Groupama 2, bankrolled by a French insurance group by the same name. Skippered by the famous French sailor Franck Cammas, it won its class championship in 2004, 2006 and 2007, before the class was discontinued. It is widely considered the best ORMA 60 built.
The U.S. America’s Cup team used it for training in 2010 before it was eventually sold in 2014 to Howard Enloe, the founder and chief executive of a successful ambulance service in El Paso, Texas. He renamed it Mighty Merloe. In 2017, at age 81, Enloe set a record with a crew of eight in the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, finishing the journey in four days, six hours, and 33 minutes, covering about 500 miles per day. No boat has yet to finish in less time.
“When I raced the boat, we had some of the best sailors in the world,” said Enloe, now 87.
His ORMA 60 was extremely light and fast, but also delicate. After the Transpac victory, it was gingerly sailed home to San Diego and put into a boatyard in Mission Bay for several months. Enloe hired construction cranes to lift the 60-foot-wide boat out of the water because it was too big for a conventional boat lift. The hull was inspected by engineers using ultrasound to identify the smallest of fissures. Repairs were performed in an enclosed tent to control temperature and humidity. Merloe, and Groupama 2 before it, led pampered lives, tended by technicians, mechanics, riggers, painters, and sailors, its huge bills paid by wealthy owners.
Merloe raced only a few more times after setting the Transpac record. Enloe felt he was getting too old for the physical demands of sailing. After Merloe’s last race in 2018, Enloe put it up for sale. The budget needed to maintain it, the expertise and crew needed to sail it, made it a boat for few owners. With cash buyers scarce, Enloe opened to the idea of donating his trimaran for a tax write-off. He needed a nonprofit organization, and Lawson had one.
In February 2022, Lawson announced the creation of the Dark Seas Project, aimed to get more people of color into sailing. A few months later, he announced that his foundation had acquired Mighty Merloe. The two men never met, transacting the deal through written correspondence that started in 2021. Lawson had closely followed the winning exploits of Mighty Merloe, “like a kid following Mickey Mantle,” Enloe said.
Tax forms Lawson filed for the Dark Seas Project in March 2023 list the boat as a donation valued at $1.75 million. He and Jacqueline are named as the foundation’s only employees, founder and co-founder. According to the form, each worked a total of 80 hours a week and received no compensation. Dark Seas reported $118,776 in total revenues in 2022, and a nearly equal amount in expenses, leaving net revenue of $11,863.
Jay Davis, a core member of Mighty Merloe’s crew, met Lawson in San Diego when he took possession of the boat. Davis expected to greet a team of sailors. Lawson showed up with a few friends. Lawson’s social media posts show that he was joined in San Diego by Scott Marshall, whom Lawson referred to as my “program partner” and “righthand man.” (On his LinkedIn profile, Marshall indicates he is “self-employed” at the Platinum Talent Agency in Newport Beach, California, an LLC formed in December, 2021.)
Lawson introduced himself as “captain,” Davis said. “He dropped names of other sailors. He could talk the game.”
Davis helped him rig the sails and prepare the trimaran for the first leg of Lawson’s journey, an 80-mile upwind voyage to Newport Beach. When Lawson departed in mid-May, his boat was “race ready,” Davis said.
As they parted ways, Davis ended their conversation with a passive warning: “Well, I’m not going to tell anyone you can’t do something.” Davis and many other sailors who met Lawson had the same takeaway: Liked the guy. Loved his message. Worried about him.
“I just hope he’s sitting on a beach somewhere, watching all this go down,” Davis said.
Lawson reached Newport Beach and stayed in the harbor for at least a few nights. He befriended some local boaters who helped him set his anchor. Defiant was not an easy boat to anchor, he would come to find out.
An audience in San Francisco
On May 23, he reached San Francisco, posting a live video on Facebook as he approached. Sailing north along the Pacific Coast, against the prevailing wind and current, is an accomplishment for any sailor, and Lawson had done it in a very large, complex vessel without the help of expert crew. Most of the effort and skill of sailing Defiant, Lawson learned, was spent trying to slow it down and control its speed.
Members of the Corinthian Yacht Club came out in a powerboat to greet Defiant and escorted it to a mooring ball near their docks in Tiburon, California. The next morning, Lawson gave an interview on a local radio show and talked about sailing for a world record, seeming to grasp the caliber of competition he aimed to challenge.
Defiant made him “the only American who has the ability to actually compete for world records,” Lawson said on the show. “It’s a really, really elite group of people who do this kind of stuff. And sometimes I have to pinch myself to think I’m competing against the elite French sailors, and it’s just me. It’s mind-boggling.
“There are certain boats that only the best sailors can sail. And so, we have it. So literally, I get trained by the former crew all the time. Jay Davis, shout out to him, he spent a week with me going through the boat. Artie Means, the navigator, one of the top navigators who ever lived, he’s one of the guys who helped me get the boat together.”
“...sometimes I have to pinch myself to think I’m competing against the elite French sailors, and it’s just me. It’s mind-boggling.”— Donald Lawson
Davis said he did not sail with Lawson, apart from taking Defiant out into the bay together to rig the mainsail. Means, another one of Merloe’s core crew, said he only met Lawson.
“In my view, he was a great media machine, saying all the right things to drum up support,” Means told The Banner in July when Lawson was reported missing. “But, at the same time, it is obvious to myself and nearly all of the sailing community that he does not have the knowledge, training, or team to handle a boat like Mighty Merloe. Enloe had a professional sailing team, and then hired the appropriate experts to help us with training and maintenance. Mr. Lawson was running his project himself, with a few Facebook volunteers.”
Lawson, as the new owner of a famous race boat, commanded an audience in San Francisco and appeared to relish it. He told the sailing magazine Latitude 38 that he planned to sail onward to Seattle for more lectures and outreach. He told Outside magazine he planned to sail to Hawaii in September, from Los Angeles, and try to break the late Steve Fossett’s singlehanded Transpac record of just under eight days.
He told the host of the “Good Jibes” podcast on June 6 that his boat “was crewed by eight of the best sailors in America [Enloe’s crew],” acknowledging the audacity of his plans. “Now I’m taking the same boat and I’m doing it solo. So when you think about it from that standpoint, I’m replacing eight of the best sailors this country has ever made. These guys are like legends. And now I’m replacing all of them. And I’m going to do the same route they just did. And I’m trying to do it as fast they ever did it.”
“...it is obvious to myself and nearly all of the sailing community that he does not have the knowledge, training, or team to handle a boat like Mighty Merloe.”— Artie Means
During the podcast, Lawson brought up the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race, a multi-leg, crewed race around the world, won that year by a French team led by Franck Cammas, the former Groupama 2 skipper.
“I was in that race,” Lawson casually mentioned, although we found no accounts of Lawson competing. Nor is he listed as crew for any of the six teams that year on the race website. He also claimed Cammas’ team “helped train me.”
Defiant on the loose
The end of June brought new problems. Sometime that month, Defiant hit “something at high speeds in San Francisco … I don’t know if it was marine life or trash in the water,” Lawson posted on Facebook. The collision, which occurred June 21 while sailing with members of the St. Francis Yacht Club, damaged Defiant’s carbon-fiber hull and rudder. To work on the problem, the Lawsons took refuge in Clipper Cove, an area protected from San Francisco’s strong thermal winds.
John von Tesmar, who runs a kite boarding business called KiteTheBay out of the Treasure Isle marina in Clipper Cove, remembered seeing “an impressive looking trimaran” anchored in the cove. He watched its owners row to the cove’s small beach in a cheap inflatable raft — Tesmar found it odd and incongruous. Tesmar and the Lawsons exchanged hellos and eventually names and introductions.
After a few days, Tesmar noticed that their trimaran was out of the water, pushed onto the shore of the cove, its hull exposed as the tide rose and fell. At low tide, the Lawsons made repairs to the bottom of the boat. (Both Davis and Means insisted that the trimaran was not designed to be beached. Doing so risked causing damage. “Nobody with any understanding of composites would ever beach an ORMA 60,” Means said.)
On June 25, Lawson posted a photo of Defiant in Clipper Cove, writing: “The mental and physical strain from taking care of a boat and program like this is intense. … I am hoping for a better July than June and I am hoping that I can finally assemble a team that I can pass the ball to when I am getting double or triple teamed.”
Although he did not mention the incident on his Facebook feed, this happened to be the day Defiant started drifting into the bay. Tesmar had finished his lessons for the day and was putting away his speedboat when he saw Tori running toward him and shouting frantically. The tide had lifted Defiant off the sand, and the wind was blowing it out of the cove.
Tori tried to board Tesmar’s speedboat so quickly that she fell in the water. He helped her in, and tried to calm her down. As they went out to intercept the loose trimaran, Tesmar saw Donald rowing after it. He picked up Donald and together the three of them caught up to Defiant. Tesmar helped the couple anchor near the shore. The anchor, he thought, looked very small and the anchor line very short.
The crew of Mighty Merloe never anchored it, Davis said. It is unlikely it ever saw an anchor before Lawson sailed it. The trimaran was built for racing, not cruising, so it didn’t have typical anchoring gear, or even a deck cleat to tie an anchor line to.
On June 28, Lawson posted photos of Defiant on the sand, writing that “we had no idea so many people around the world were following us and making assumptions about the boat being abandoned and failed! The boat is fine!”
He posted more photos the next day, insisted the boat was safe sitting on the soft mud of the cove, and spoke optimistically of the “easy, quick repairs” that he had made. On July 12, Lawson posted his final photo from Clipper Cove. “Finally,” he wrote in the post. “After 2 weeks of work on the Defiant at Treasure Island, we were able to depart for Richmond Yacht Club to begin a fun filled 3 weeks of sailing and presentations!”
Turning back south
By all accounts they indeed enjoyed a fun-filled three weeks of sailing and presentations, taking members out for sails, speaking to rapt audiences, letting the kids in the club’s summer camp tour the boat. The Lawsons befriended club commodore Susan Hubbard, staying in her home for a few weeks.
“We were proud to host them,” Hubbard said. “Some of the members were forever changed by his message. Donald and Tori’s energy and compassion were infectious. Donald’s dreams of equity and inclusion in sailing resonated with our club members.”
On the afternoon of July 23, Lawson took several members of the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club for a brisk sail, reciprocation for a donation a few members had given to the Dark Seas Project a month earlier when Lawson gave a talk at the club.
Joe Rockmore was one of the club members who sailed with Lawson. He watched a confident, capable, and agile Lawson direct the large crew of experienced sailors. The boat reached a speed of 26 knots that day, Rockmore said, a thrill for everyone aboard, most of whom hadn’t sailed on a trimaran before.
“I’ve been racing my whole life,” Rockmore said. “The number of control lines on this boat was beyond anything I’d experienced.”
About one week later, some of the Richmond members helped the Lawsons take the boat from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, about a 40-mile sail to the south. The Lawsons stayed for most of the month, tied to a mooring ball provided by the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club, adjusting sails and enjoying the amenities of the club. Defiant, like all race boats, had no creature comforts below deck. On Aug. 28, they posted a live video on Instagram as they departed Half Moon Bay, bound for Los Angeles, about a 400-mile journey.
According to tracking data, the Lawsons sailed close to shore as they passed Point Conception, about 250 miles south of Half Moon Bay, where offshore winds tend to intensify. But instead of adhering to the coastline, Defiant veered away toward the Channel Islands, a logical course for their planned destination of San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles.
Typically, two sailors can sail without stopping, each taking a turn at the helm while the other sleeps. A nonstop transit to Los Angeles was nothing compared to what Lawson was preparing to do alone in the Southern Ocean. It is unclear why they chose to stop in the Channel Islands, and why they chose Cathedral Cove when wide and sandy Smugglers Cove, 10 miles away on Santa Cruz Island, would have been far more hospitable.
Shevitz thinks they did not intend to. He grew up sailing in Santa Barbara and was very familiar with the Channel Islands, a popular boating destination. He believes the Lawsons, without experience in the area and without electronic navigation aids, lost their way and ended up in Anacapa.
The Lawsons’ basic insurance policy covered only liability and not the cost of the very expensive rescue and tow from Anacapa. Lawson told Shevitz he needed time, but that he would pay what he owed. True to his word, Lawson paid most of his debt by March 2023. Shevitz waived the remaining balance, calling it a discount. When they last spoke, about five months ago, they wished each other well, Shevitz said.
Within days, reports and images of Defiant in Cathedral Cove had trickled into sailing blogs and newsletters. The mishap required a rescue, and was now public.
The Lawsons sailed Defiant from Ventura to the Los Angeles Yacht Club. Fall arrived. Instead of sailing to Hawaii in pursuit of a solo record, Lawson and his wife flew to Baltimore. Donald gave more interviews that relied on his feel-good backstory. He was profiled in The Times of London, The Baltimore Sun, the Robb Report and Chesapeake Bay Magazine. The coverage was unblinkingly positive.
In late October, he was a guest on the Justin, Scott and Spiegel morning show on Baltimore’s “98Rock” radio station. He shared his revised plan: In February, he would sail to Hawaii, and from there, begin his attempt to sail around the world alone in 70 days, taking a route that would first take him down the coast of South America past Cape Horn.
“I’m competing against pretty much 10 of the top sailors in the world,” he said on air.
As if cued, one of the hosts said: “You’re a dude from a movie. I mean you’re someone that they’re probably going to make a film about.”
Official sailing records have to be certified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council in England. Any attempt to set a record has to be registered in advance, requiring a signed agreement and a substantial fee of 1,880 British pounds. According to secretary Simon Forbes, Lawson corresponded with the Council in 2007 and 2011, and again in 2022 after he acquired Defiant, but did not register any record attempts.
In December, the Lawsons returned to Los Angeles, where they repaired some of the damage caused in Anacapa. They left before Christmas, not for Hawaii but San Diego, finding another reliable — and free — beach to ground their trimaran, this one next to the Coronado Municipal Golf Course. On occasion they tied to the small public dock near the Coronado boat ramp until they were told to move by harbor patrol.
While in San Diego, Lawson revised his plans again. The new destination was Baltimore, they told their new friends Pat Brogan and Jim Mason, who met the Lawsons while cycling along San Diego Bay. The two couples ate Christmas dinner together outside in a park next to the dock. Wherever they went, the Lawsons made friends easily, and quickly. Brogan and Mason were cruising sailors, not racers. They invited the Lawsons to come sailing with them in the Bahamas, where they kept a catamaran. A few days after that Christmas dinner, the Lawsons and Defiant left San Diego.
Battered and bruised in Acapulco
The Lawsons posted nothing about their activities for the next month (or they have since deleted them). Brogan sent messages to them, but none were returned, she said. Whether, or where, the Lawsons stopped on their way to Acapulco is unclear although one report in Latitude 38 indicated that the Lawsons stopped in Cabo San Lucas with the boat in a state of disarray before plotting a course for the Galapagos Islands. It was likely a challenging journey from San Diego to Acapulco, with or without stops. The trip took a toll on the boat. Photos taken in Acapulco showed Defiant missing its bowsprit, and damage to the hull and sails.
In a Facebook post on Jan. 28, Lawson alluded to a “collision” and a need to make repairs, but did not provide many details about the journey to Acapulco, which he referred to as “a very eventful delivery/training trip south.”
The same day, another American sailor in Acapulco named Rob Macfarlane wrote about meeting them in his blog: “He and his wife arrived looking exhausted, the boat banged up, two of the jibs shredded on their furlers, the mainsail in a big pile on the trampolines, and some of the port ama hull coring exposed where the carbon skin is missing.”
Macfarlane, an experienced long-distance cruising sailor from California, had arrived in Acapulco several days earlier. Vincente Herrera, the man who operated the local mooring field, alerted them that a large trimaran with engine trouble would be coming in “tonight” and tying up to a mooring ball next to them — Herrera asked Macfarlane if he could help. Two days later, the Lawsons finally arrived. The next morning, Macfarlane noticed Defiant’s mainsail, unstowed and cooking in the sun. With the Lawsons nowhere in sight, he called Herrera and offered to help put it away.
Two days passed before the Lawsons, with Herrera, finally returned. After an exhausting effort, the group managed to lift the sail off the deck, hoist it, and fold it into a protective sail bag mounted on the boom. Defiant’s high-performance racing sails, like all racing sails, are very thick and heavy, likely weighing more than 500 pounds.
Thankful for the help, Donald Lawson invited Macfarlane below for a tour of the spartan cabin. Although Defiant’s dimensions are huge, its cabin is small, entered through a narrow hatch. Engine parts were scattered about; they had clearly tried to fix it. The deck was in a similar mess with gear sitting out in the cockpit and on the trampolines. Macfarlane returned the favor and offered a tour of his boat, a 45-foot racing monohull he rebuilt. Lawson took a particular interest in Macfarlane’s wind generator; he decided he needed one for Defiant.
“Donald and Tori were super nice people,” Macfarlane said. “I’d never heard of him until that time. He had so many ideas, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, he lays out the whole thing. He’s got all of his records, he describes what he’s going to do. To me, they seemed very pleasant, very excited. They treated none of this as a huge setback.
“He did an awful lot of name dropping. ... He made a real effort to mention he’s working with all these top name people and big programs.”
Lawson was also very aware of his critics, Macfarlane said.
“My takeaway,” he said, “was the moment you doubted what he could do, you were instantly shifted over into what he called haters, and he was really tired of the haters. If you weren’t for him, you were a bad person. The implication was that he drove himself into a corner by ignoring everyone that didn’t support him 100 percent.”
By now, Lawson had a new plan: Sail through the Panama Canal, into the Caribbean, and up the East Coast to Baltimore. He planned to more thoroughly repair the boat in his home waters and begin his lap around the world from there sometime in the fall, a tough hypothetical that grew tougher the longer Defiant remained in Mexico.
“If you weren’t for him, you were a bad person. The implication was that he drove himself into a corner by ignoring everyone that didn’t support him 100 percent.”— Rob Macfarlane
A ‘tough love’ approach
Ronnie Simpson, another sailor with ties to the Chesapeake, was among the people Lawson communicated with in the days before he left Acapulco. Their friendship of about 10 years began online, through social media and email, accelerating after Lawson acquired Defiant. The two met in person last October and again in April when Lawson was in Baltimore.
“Every time I did anything at all he was always the first one to message me, ‘Hey you got this bro.’ He was so overwhelmingly positive,” said Simpson, who plans to compete in the Global Solo Challenge this fall. “I wanted to see him succeed. I believed in his mission to spread diversity. I’m getting ready to sail around the world myself so I’m into people chasing their dreams.”
To the best of Simpson’s knowledge, Lawson has no experience racing on the open ocean, either solo or as part of a crew. Nor is he aware of any instance Lawson has sailed across an ocean, apart from a delivery from Bermuda to Rhode Island, a journey of about 750 miles. Lawson likely earned most of his miles delivering yachts, not racing them.
“Was he a malicious, fraudulent individual? Or did he really believe what he was saying? I think he really believed it.”
Lawson’s qualifications aside, there is no level of skill, no amount of experience or preparation, no number of crew, and no type or size of vessel that guarantees safety. One of the greatest American sailors, Mike Plant, was lost at sea in 1992 on his way to the Vendée Globe, one of many lives claimed by the sport. Lawson was fluent in the lore of competitive sailing. He knew the sport’s household names and marquee events, and could recite their history. He knew the culture and the boats. Yet Lawson did not seem too interested in being part of the sport’s establishment.
Schwab offered to help Lawson with Defiant. All he had to do was ask.
“Was he a malicious, fraudulent individual? Or did he really believe what he was saying? I think he really believed it.”— Ronnie Simpson
“He didn’t,” Schwab said, “so I assumed that he was working with an experienced team with knowledge of the boat to get him up to the level required to deal with it. In hindsight I was obviously wrong, and I feel bad for not scrutinizing things more closely, and perhaps providing Donald with the warnings that he either wasn’t getting, or wasn’t listening to.”
By all accounts, the five months the Lawsons spent wintering in Acapulco tied to a mooring ball were blissful. They posted cheerful updates about progress on repairs, and new equipment. They befriended Herrera and stayed with his family in their home.
The Lawsons took time to travel to Baltimore in the spring. He did more interviews while there. In late May, he and Tori posted a video that summarized some of their progress. Donald explained the damage in January was caused by “storms” and “debris.” He showed off some new equipment including a new wind generator and a life raft. Defiant at least looked vastly improved.
He was no longer without skeptics, but he doubled down on his plans to go around the world. Delayed yes, but not done. He had sailed at least 3,000 miles aboard Defiant after all, and that meant something.
In his final social media post on June 27, a Friday, Lawson wrote about planning his departure and his route around weather forecasts. Hurricane season had begun. A powerful storm closed the port of Acapulco for the weekend, he noted. He listed some safety measures aboard Defiant, an emergency beacon and an electronic Automatic Identification System (AIS) that identifies vessels on the water. He was now able to transmit Defiant’s location to a live map so anyone could track Defiant’s course, he wrote.
On June 29, less than a week before Lawson departed Acapulco, he and Simpson traded messages. Simpson said he strongly suggested Lawson sail close to shore so that he could duck into a port if need be. Lawson rebuffed the advice. He wanted to sail offshore where there was more wind, a better test for Defiant.
“I had tried tactfully to get him to re-shift his goals,” Simpson said. “I suggested he find a good team of amateurs and pros to sail that boat, maybe break some course records. I guess I tried a tough-love approach. But if you tried to get real with him, he’d shut down and not communicate.”
Late last year, Lawson appeared in a video ad for T-Mobile, intended to promote its partnership with Starlink, the satellite internet service used by many offshore sailors. The ad features Lawson, wearing foul-weather gear, sailing Defiant and talking about fear.
“People always ask me, am I afraid, if I get scared when I’m sailing, and the answer is yes. When things go wrong at sea, they go wrong really fast. There’s nothing more terrifying than not being able to communicate.”
Data editor Ryan Little contributed to this story.