Lawson sets sights on breaking records

Published on June 8th, 2020

by Jay Baum, US Sailing
From an athletic family, Donald Lawson was looking to excel in a sport of his own, just as his siblings had. When his mother organized a summer camp trip on the topsail schooner Lady Maryland, the 9-year-old’s passion for sailing was kindled; and when the captain told him he could sail around the world, he knew he found his calling.

In middle school and high school he developed his skills through Baltimore’s Living Classroom and by joining the Naval Junior ROTC. At 17, he began teaching at Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center, now a Siebel Sailing Center.

“I knew I was breaking ground as I was the only instructor that looked like me,” said Lawson, an African American. For the next two years he spent the sailing season developing skills as an instructor and sailor, and by applying lessons he had read about on his long commute. Twenty years later, Captain Lawson can still quote those articles and books.

After proving himself as a skilled solo racer, Lawson was invited to join teams for the club regattas and for races with the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association (CBYRA). As he began leading teams to victories on bigger and faster boats, he set bigger goals.

He began to meet the accomplished sailors of the Chesapeake Bay, including African American sailors and veterans who became his role models, and record setters who became mentors in his quest to set his own records.

While picking up some extra money in college making boat deliveries, Lawson discovered that a lot of sailing records were still based on freight routes established as ports developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Later, with the guidance of the World Sailing Speed Record Council, he identified 12 records he plans to break, ranging from shorter point-to-point courses such as New York to Miami to the circumnavigation record. He believes he can shave over 30 days from the U.S. singlehanded round-the-world record, currently 107 days.

Through all of his work, Captain Lawson seeks to level the playing field by making sailing available to people who didn’t know that it’s possible to sail for a living, as a hobby, or for the glory.

The captain’s rise through the racing ranks and his goals for breaking records have helped him develop quite a following, both locally in Baltimore as well as nationally. A documentary about his sailing adventures, and the work of those who came before him, is in development. More information can be accessed at Dark-Seas-Documentary.

Captain Lawson spoke about his pathway through the sport as well as his goals for racing glory on The Starboard Portal:


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