The Power of Opportunity >> Scuttlebutt Sailing News
February is Black History Month in the United States, and in this report from US Sailing, they recognize one of the notable contributors to African-American sailing history:
From the moment he got behind the wheel of a sailboat, Donald Lawson knew he was destined to make sailing his profession.
Lawson didn’t come from a “seafaring family” — his parents were middle-class Baltimoreans, great athletes in other sports like basketball and lacrosse. But at age nine, he had the chance to attend and make his first Police Athletic League (PAL) sail aboard a 100ft schooner. His mother convinced him it was safe and he went.
For a nine-year-old, the feeling of freedom provided by sailing was exhilarating.
“The captain told me I could take a boat like this around the world, and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do for my career,” Lawson said. “From that day on, that was my goal – to become a professional sailor.”
Fast forward 31 years and Lawson, now 40, has his sights set on becoming more than any old professional sailor – he wants to become the first African American (and fourth American) to complete the Vendée Globe, a ocean race around the world considered the pinnacle of single-handed offshore sailing.
And as if that weren’t enough, Lawson is also invested in the art of breaking records. With his Dark Seas Project Foundation, he is looking to break 35 records over the next ten years in a soon-to-be-announced trimaran (“All I can tell you is it’s going to be fast,” he said. -He’s joking). If successful, Lawson would be the first African American to hold a sailing world record.
“Becoming the first African-American man to set a sailing world record 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 for young members of my community that I wish I had as a child. But the most important goal I want to achieve is to leave a lasting legacy in the world and inspire others to pursue their dreams and 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 its ranks both at the member level and at the volunteer level,” he said. “My committee’s job is to help guide US Sailing and the Board in implementing these improvements. I am very proud and excited about the work the staff and volunteers do.“
At first, Lawson was pushed towards big boats and offshore sailing because of the opportunities it offered him as an underfunded sailor eager to get into racing.
“Growing up, I didn’t know Olympic sailing or the dinghy. I knew if I wanted to sail and race I had to get on one of the bigger boats where there was always a need for a crew,” he said. “It was my gateway to high-level racing.”
Lawson appears to be a champion of diversity within the sport, providing opportunities for his community, while breaking down stereotypes about sailing and the sailing community.
“When I tell people I do sailing and racing boats, most people imagine martini glasses, clear skies and rich people,” Lawson said. “When I explain to them that 90% of us are broke half the time because we put all our money in boats; they are surprised.
Although sailing hasn’t always been a welcoming sport, Lawson believes times are changing, slowly but surely.
“The bigger picture is that the sport hasn’t done a good job image-wise, historically, because it didn’t have to. Exclusivity was part of the appeal. But now we have Paralympic sailors, sailors and various sailors. Now that there are more opportunities, it’s important to show newcomers to the sport, “hey, maybe it wasn’t good at the time, but it’s not 1940 or 1890.”
When he began his journey, the perception of sailing as a “white man’s sport” certainly rang true for Lawson. He did not see himself represented in the sailing community, despite growing up in a predominantly black town. But that didn’t stop him from forging his own path.
“When I started, I was the only African American I saw, but my passion, my love and my drive made me forget the problems or the people who didn’t want me there,” said Lawson said. “I didn’t care – I was going to do what I love to do.”
His advice to other underrepresented young sailors?
“For people who are nervous or worried, I would say go out there and find your own niche, find your place where you fit in. Maybe a person will kiss you; maybe a lot of people will kiss you – but you won’t know until you try.
Lawson is currently fundraising for the record-breaking Dark Seas Project trimaran, with an announcement on April 1. To donate to the foundation, click here.