by Nancy Taylor Robinson
photographs courtesy Donald Lawson

Chill gray sheets of rain obliterate the nearby Craighill Channel buoys. The western shoreline between the Magothy and Patapsco rivers, not that far away, is also invisible. Between the clatter of gear on the 33-foot centerboard catamaran, Wild Card, the rain and the wind, communication is only possible in semi-comprehensible shouts.

It's not what most of us think of as fun. But 28-year-old Donald Lawson, wet clothes plastered to his burly frame, is smiling as he dances around on the spongy trampoline strung between the catamaran's two pontoons. It's sort of like his own private moon bounce--except of course that it's wet and cold, and there's a distinct possibility that he'll get bounced overboard. He's playing foredeck, or what passes for it, on a race that started at Baltimore Light and will finish off Fells Point in Baltimore Harbor. Having trimmed sheets, he kneels to yank the pivoting mast around to streamline it with the apparent wind, then squints at the alignment to be sure it's correct. Satisfied, he dances back to the windward pontoon and slings himself like a sack of flour back over its forward end to help keep the boat upright.

It's a nasty day, but for Lawson, this is nothing. He's seen worse, and will see much worse if his dream comes true: He intends to be the first African-American to finish the 30,000-mile Velux 5 Oceans round-the-world solo race. No, check that. He intends not just to finish the race, but to win it. That latter bit he adds with a winning mix of bravura and buoyant self-confidence. He had hoped to pull it off in 2010--the eighth running of the Velux (formerly known as the BOC Challenge, and then Around Alone)--but the race started off La Rochelle, France, without him. While Lawson was disappointed, he knew his dream had only been deferred, not scuppered. He plans to make the next Velux start in 2014.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Donald Lawson is a walking, talking advertisment for the city's Living Classrooms Foundation. With its two skipjacks, two buyboats and the schooner Lady Maryland, Living Classrooms' core mission is to give young people the skill and confidence-building on-the-water experience that otherwise might not be available to them. It was the Lady Maryland, a 25-year-old reproduction pungy schooner, built by the foundation, that started it all for Lawson.

"I was six," he remembers. "And I was really scared to go at first. My mom insisted. Then I went to see all the cool stuff they had onboard, and fell in love. On the way back from Key Bridge, I got to steer the boat for a while and loved it."

He was hooked. He went back to Living Classrooms year after year, and began eventually to dream about sailing around the world--an outside-the-box aspiration for even the most privileged youngster, to say nothing of a young black man. At the time, there were very few black sailors on the Bay (the Universal Sailing Club, a Baltimore-based association for African-American sailors, didn't come along until 2001), and there were zero black-skinned bluewater role models for him to look to. But Lawson never saw that as an obstacle. "For a long time in sailing, I was the only black face [out there]," he says, "so I'm used to that."

After rising to commander in his high school's Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, Lawson went on to Baltimore's own Morgan State University, where he earned a degree in industrial engineering. But his heart and mind rarely left the water, and he began to take steps toward achieving his dream. He had joined Baltimore's Downtown Sailing Center (DSC) in 1999 while still in high school. He took sailing classes and raced with boat-owning members of DSC, and he taught sailing at several venues including the sailing center.

"Donald is awesome," says Allie Robinson, director of youth and outreach programs at the Downtown Sailing Center. "He's really great with the kids, and with adults too. He's very versatile and patient. A lot of the kids who come from inner city Baltimore can't [even] swim. He understands where they're coming from, and he's great at making them feel comfortable."

In 2000, already a member of US Sailing, the national governing body for high school and collegiate racing, Lawson tried to start a sailing team at college, but couldn't get enough interest or support. Undeterred, he continued crewing in races whenever possible and expanded his network by joining the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association, the Universal Sailing Club and the Chesapeake Bay Multihull Association.

"I've been racing with some really great sailors and learned a lot from them," Lawson says. Yet virtually all of Lawson's sailing connections were in the Chesapeake. To realize his ocean-racing dream, he needed an entree into the exclusive club of international single-handed bluewater racers. He had been following the sport on line, collecting the details of its history, its boats and its people the way some avid fans collect baseball stats. 

In 2001 Lawson met Ellen MacArthur, the English yachtswoman who, at the age of 26, had gotten the world's attention that year by finishing second in the grueling nonstop round-the-world Vendee Globe race. "That for me was like meeting Barack Obama is for some people," says Lawson of his encounter with the famous single-hander (now Dame MacArthur, having set an around-the-world single-handed speed record that stood from 2005 to 2008). "I asked her one question: 'What do I have to do to be where you are?' She told me: 'Race as much as you can with the best sailors you can, and your dream will be rewarded.' [After that] I would e-mail her and ask her advice and she would [reply and] send me autographed copies of her pictures. I got a lot of motivation and direction to help me meet my goal."

Around the same time he met another bluewater single-hander who would soon go on to greater fame. This was American Bruce Schwab, who in 2005 would become famous as the first (and still only) American to finish the Vendee Globe. Schwab had twice won the single-handed Trans-Pacific race, and had hoped to race in the 2000-2001 Vendee, but was unable to garner enough sponsorship to build an organization. At the suggestion of a fellow single-hander, Brad Van Liew, Schwab set his sights on the 2002 Around Alone (now Velux 5 Oceans) race, as training for the 2004-2005 Vendee--and as a shakedown for his now famous boat, Ocean Planet.

"The Velux isn't quite as [grueling as the Vendee]," says Schwab. "I did that for my training. It was a real learning experi- ence. If I hadn't done that race, I never would have finished the Vendee Globe."

When the 2002 Around Alone started, Lawson began to e-mail Schwab regularly. He used the opportunity not only to learn what was happening on Ocean Planet, but also to share his own dreams and ambitions. "Bruce responded and told me what he was doing and gave me advice on what I should be doing," says Lawson, who began to hope he had found a mentor. 

By the time the 2004-2005 Vendee rolled around, Schwab was ready. Lawson went up to Maine to see Ocean Planet's celebratory relaunch prior to the race. But when he got there, he found himself too bashful to actually approach Schwab and introduce himself. Instead, he stood on the dock, watching with everyone else. Yet he continued to e-mail Schwab during the race. He was thrilled when Schwab finished the Vendee, a triumph that put his hero in the annals of sailing history. He was even more thrilled when Schwab came to the Annapolis Boat Show that year. This time Lawson found the courage not only to approach him, but to ask him for apprenticeship work. "I asked him, 'Is there any way I could work with you or help you?' " Lawson remembers. "And he said, 'No, but thanks for asking.' "

Lawson was disappointed, but still determined. He gave Schwab his phone number. Then a minor miracle: "He called the next day," Lawson says, "and said he was taking his boat from Maine to Key West and asked if I'd like to go." It was an opportunity Lawson, though still in college, could not pass up.

"We left in late November. It was snowing and freezing cold. I could have put the boat on autopilot, but Donald wanted to drive," Schwab recalls. "He drove in the snow for half the night. He was so cold he could hardly move. . . .  I was glad to see he was that dedicated. He really pushed himself."

"I think that's when I earned his respect," Lawson adds. "[After that] he let me know he'd teach me and work with me." And of course Schwab was as good as his word; he agreed to act as technical director of the project. And, as technical directors go, it's hard to imagine a better choice than Schwab, who is experienced and tenacious not only as a racer but as a builder of a racing organization--which is far more difficult in the U.S. than it is elsewhere in the world. "It's tough in this country," Schwab says, explaining that the U.S. has neither the long list of potential sponsors nor the depth of ocean-racing culture and expertise that you find in Europe. "No American program is in a position to compete with the French. . . . To be competitive, you have to not only have the funding but a comprehensive program and framework. The Europeans have top-level sponsors and are racing all the time."

And that is ultimately what undid Lawson's dream for 2010; he was unable to find a sponsor. But 2014 is not out of reach, says Schwab--who, after all, knows a thing or two about this particular brand of perseverance "He's got a lot to do, but he knows what is involved," Schwab says. "He's been thinking about it and designing and dreaming for many, many years."

And for now, Lawson goes back to honing both his sailing and his promotional skills. He has signed on with an agent and a marketing company that represents high-profile sports figures, and he's even considering a reality show that would follow his campaign and training for the 2014 Velux. He's also planning to crew in a number of ocean races over the next four years, for the sake of bluewater experience.

"We were sad," Lawson says, recalling the day he and his team realized they had to give up on the 2010 Velux. "Everyone had worked so hard and sacrificed so much. But we're moving forward; there's always 2014."