It has been more than three weeks since Jacqueline Lawson last heard from her husband, Donald Lawson, aboard the ORMA 60 trimaran Defiant, which he was solo sailing from Acapulco to the Panama Canal. While the Mexican Navy located the capsized boat, a search has yielded no sign of the sailor. However, Lawson’s family and supporters continue to hold out hope that he is still alive in the boat’s liferaft, which also wasn’t onboard when divers searched Defiant.
“I have not given up hope that he will be found alive,” Jacqueline Lawson said in a statement on Friday, August 4. “Donald is an experienced sailor with the skills, expertise, grit, and determination to survive, even in these difficult circumstances. The life raft that was on board Defiant when Donald left Acapulco on July 5 still has not been located, which gives me hope that he is still out there somewhere, waiting to be rescued. My family and I will continue to provide updates as we receive them from Mexican authorities. Meantime, please keep my husband in your prayers.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, which had sent the 210-foot cutter Active to the capsized trimaran to assist the Mexican Navy in the search, suspended its efforts on Friday, July 28, said Petty Officer Edward Wargo of the USCG 11th District. “We were no longer needed to assist the Mexican Navy’s search efforts,” Wargo said. “If new information came to light like an EPIRB [signal] or a passing vessel sighting someone, search efforts would ramp up again.”
Lawson did have a manually activated EPIRB on the boat, according to the Lawson family’s representative, Ray Feldmann. It was mounted on a bulkhead near the main companionway, and its registration was current. No EPIRB signal has been received, however.
Jacqueline Lawson says that she received an email from the U.S. Consular Agency in Acapulco that assured her that “the Mexican Navy Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) will continue to look for Donald while they are conducting patrols in the area near where our Defiant was located, which was approximately 360 nautical miles off the coast of Acapulco.”
Lawson left Acapulco on July 5, sailing the 60-foot VPLP-designed trimaran Defiant (formerly Groupama 2 and Mighty Merloe) south to transit the Panama Canal en route to Baltimore, his home port and the place from which he has planned to launch his first record attempt. Jacqueline Lawson was in touch with him during the passage, and she said that on July 9, he reported that he was having “engine issues which prevented him from charging his batteries” and he was relying solely on a wind generator for charging. On July 12, that was damaged in a storm.
“We decided that it would be best for him to turn back around and head back to Acapulco to look over these issues instead of continuing to the Panama Canal,” she said. “The 13th was my last communication with him. He was 285 nautical miles away from Acapulco with 25% of battery power and no way of charging.” According to an earlier news release, his last known position was “detected July 13 at 1324 GMT (1:24 p.m.), updated through the Predict Wind App, at 12°13.475’N, 099°19.735’W.”
Lawson started the Dark Seas Project to support his sailing aspirations and to inspire other African Americans to become more involved in sailing and sailboat racing. He serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee chair for US Sailing, which issued a statement last week, saying, “US Sailing is hoping for the safe return of DEI Committee chair and pioneering offshore sailor Donald Lawson, who has been missing at sea since July 12. Lawson is a valued member of the US Sailing’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and along with his Dark Seas Project, has been helping to diversify the sport of sailing. Our hearts are with his family and friends as they navigate this trying time.”
In a story on the US Sailing website, Lawson describes how growing up in Baltimore, he wasn’t from a sailing family, but a chance to go sailing on a 100-foot schooner at 9 years old changed his life.
“The captain told me I could take a boat like that around the world, and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do for my career,” Lawson is quoted in the story. “From that day forward, that was my goal– become a professional sailor.”
Lawson would not be the first African American to sail solo around the world, but he would be the first to attempt a solo trimaran speed circumnavigation nonstop. With Defiant, he has a solid platform. The last ORMA 60 trimaran built (launched in 2004), as Groupama 2 she earned the most titles of that class and won the the 2007 Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil under French sailors Franck Cammas and Stève Ravussin. As Mighty Merloe, the boat set a speed record for the 2017 Transpac, finishing in 4 days, 6 hours, and 33 minutes, smashing a 20-year-old record.
However, these have always been races crewed by more than one sailor, as the boats are complex and powerful. Though very fast, the boats were known to be hard to manage and to suffer damage in violent conditions; in the 2005 Transat Jacques Vabre, two ORMA 60s capsized and one was dismasted.
Lawson, too, has run into difficulty with the boat. According to a story in Scuttlebutt Sailing News published last September, Lawson sent a distress call on Aug. 31, 2022, after the boat went aground on Anacapa Island about 12 nautical miles off the California coast. A TowBoatUS vessel arrived to assist and described the trimaran “wedged into a rocky cove against a cliff.” Evidently, anchoring problems led to the grounding, but Lawson “disputes the characterization by TowBoatUS…stating…while the boat was against the cove, it was floating without problem.” A subsequent story in Latitude 38 in February 2023 published images of the boat on a mooring in Acapulco with tattered headsails and the mainsail crumpled in the cockpit.
Lawson has stated that he hopes to break at least 35 sailing records. The US Sailing story quoted him in an article he wrote to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters: “Becoming the first African American man to set a world record in sailing AND the fastest man to circumnavigate the globe means more to me than personal gain. It means becoming the kind of role model to the young members of my community that I wish I had in my childhood. But the most important goal I want to achieve is to leave a lasting legacy in the world—and inspire others to follow their dreams to do the same.”