From the moment he stepped behind the wheel of a sailboat, Donald Lawson knew he was destined to make sailing his career.
Lawson doesn’t come from a “sailing family” – his parents were middle class Baltimoreans, great athletes in other sports like basketball and lacrosse. But at age nine, he got the chance to attend and go for his first sail through the Police Athletic League (PAL) aboard a 100-foot schooner. His mother convinced him it was safe and so he went for it.
For a nine-year-old, the feeling of freedom sailing provided was exhilarating.
“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,” said Lawson. “From that day forward, that was my goal – become a professional sailor.”
Fast forward 31 years and Lawson, now 40, has his sights set on more than just becoming any old professional sailor – he wants to become the first African American (and fourth-ever American) to finish the Vendee Globe, a circumnavigational ocean race considered the pinnacle of singlehanded offshore sailing.
And if that weren’t enough, Lawson is also invested in the art of record breaking. With his foundation Dark Seas Project, he looks to break an astounding 35 records over the next ten years in a soon-to-be-announced trimaran (“All I can tell you is she’s going to be fast,” he quipped). If successful, Lawson would be one of the only African Americans to hold a world record in sailing.
“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,” he wrote in an article for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “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.”
Captain Lawson now Chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for US Sailing. “I believe US Sailing is working very hard to increase is ranks both on a membership level and on the volunteers level,” he said. “My committees job is help guide US Sailing and the Board as they make these improvements. I am very proud and excited about the work the Staff and Volunteers are doing.“
In the beginning, Lawson was driven towards big boat and offshore sailing because of the opportunities it provided him as an under resourced sailor hungry to break into racing.
“Growing up, I didn’t know about Olympic sailing or dinghy sailing. I knew if I wanted to sail and wanted to race, I had to get aboard one of the bigger boats where there was always a need for crew,” he said. “That was my gateway to high level racing.”
Lawson looks to be a champion of diversity within the sport, bringing opportunities to his community, all while breaking stereotypes about sailing and the sailing community.
“When I tell people I sail boats and race boats, most people picture martini glasses, clear skies and wealthy people,” said Lawson. “When I explain to them that 90% of us are broke half the time because we’re putting all our money into the boats; they’re surprised.”
While sailing has not historically been a welcoming sport, Lawson thinks the times are changing, slowly but steadily.
“The big picture is that the sport has not done a good job from an image standpoint, historically, because it didn’t have to. Exclusivity was part of the appeal. But now, we have Paralympic sailors, women’s sailors, & diverse sailors. Now that there are more avenues for opportunity, it’s important to show people new to the sport, ‘hey, it may not have been good back then, but this isn’t 1940 or 1890.’”
When he first started his journey, the perception of sailing as a “white man’s sport” certainly rang true for Lawson. He didn’t see himself represented in the sailing community, despite growing up in a predominantly black city. But that didn’t stop him from forging his own path forward.
“When I started off, I was the only African American I saw, but my passion, love and drive made me forget about issues or people who didn’t want me there,” said Lawson. “I didn’t care – I was going to do what I love to do.”
His advice for other young, underrepresented sailors?
“For people who are nervous or concerned, I would say go there and find your own niche, find your spot where you fit in. Maybe one person will embrace you; maybe many people will embrace you – but you won’t know until you try.”
Lawson is currently fundraising for the Dark Seas Project’s record-breaking trimaran, with an announcement April 1. You can donate to the foundation here:
2/09 Correction: Captain Lawson would not be the first African American to obtain a world sailing record. James Cyigenza set the Chicago Mackinac elapsed time record as a crew member aboard Arete in 2021.