Sailing solo

Donald Lawson is dispelling the stereotypes about African-Americans and the high seas

February 27, 2007|By RICK MAESE

It's early in the morning, and the water in the Inner Harbor is near freezing. We're bundled up, and there's a 1-inch layer of hardened snow lining the bottom of the boat.

"This is relaxing," says Donald Lawson, as the 23-foot sailboat inches past the Domino sugar plant, the smell of molasses warming the body parts the frigid conditions try to numb. "It's peaceful."

And he's right. After a while, we'll hang a U-turn and return to the dock at the Downtown Sailing Center, but Lawson can't help but think of the day when he keeps on going, creating a wake that stretches from here through the Atlantic, under Africa and Australia and past South America - dodging whales and icebergs the whole way - and finally docking back in Baltimore.

"I can't teach sailing forever," he says. "I need to get moving on my ultimate goal."

Lawson is a 25-year-old dreamer. He started sailing when he was 6 years old. In the next 14 years, he says, he saw just one other black sailor, which makes him very much a rarity in the sailing world. It certainly makes his goal seem all the more lofty.

Lawson wants to circle the globe faster than any other black sailor - faster than any other American sailor, too. To do that, though, he's having to battle stereotypes and learning that he'll somehow have to change people's perceptions of what a sailor is and what a sailor looks like.

There are two responses he's grown plenty accustomed to: "You can't do that," and "Why would you want to do that?"

There have been instances of discrimination, sure - crew members who won't listen to him, exclusion from team photographs, prepping boats only to be given a lesser boat on race day - but as he seeks sponsorship to finance his dream, Lawson is realizing how few people equate black people with the sport of sailing.

"They see me and I don't fit that profile they're used to," he says. "It's like, `Yeah, sure you can sail.' They have a hard time seeing how I can fit their customer base."

Oddly, he says those sentiments are just as strong from the black community. Lawson went to high school at Woodlawn High and then attended Morgan State. He talks about his dream to anyone who will listen, but most blacks just don't get it. He says they equate sailing with slave ships, and many blacks in America are raised to avoid the water.

"Many African-Americans today reflexively think, 'Black people don't swim,' or `Black people don't sail,' " says historian Jeffrey Bolster, who wrote the book Black Jacks about black sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries. "There is a history there, but it is categorically not connected to the era of the slave trade."

Instead, Bolster says, it's linked to class differences and 20th-century segregation.

Sailing is typically regarded as a sport for the rich and elite. Lawson comes from a middle-class Baltimore background. He played other sports but always felt most comfortable on the water.

His Mount Washington apartment is filled with sailing photos and boat models. Show him a globe and he can trace the route taken by the first sailor to circle the planet alone, the fastest route taken, the one taken by the first African-American, and the first American. And, of course, the route he hopes to take someday.

"I've always pushed through things," Lawson says. "You can't let them stop you. You got to have determination. Can you imagine trying to sail around the planet and when something bad happens, you just quit? You'll never make it with that attitude."

Lawson isn't the only one trying to change popular perceptions, of course. Steve Manson is a 22-year-old Baltimore man who is also a sailing instructor at the Downtown Sailing Center. Next summer, Manson will be a team member aboard a Disney-owned 52-foot boat that competes in the Transpacific Yacht Race to Hawaii. Cameras will roll the entire time, and a documentary is expected to be released in 2008.

As for Lawson, he's logged 20,000 oceanic miles. He's raced as often as possible and crewed other people's boats. He even made a trek down the East Coast with Bruce Schwab - the fastest American to sail solo around the world.

"He was great to have as crew," says Schwab, who took 109 days to circle the globe, "very enthusiastic. ... It is hard for someone like him to get the experience that he needs, so I was happy to provide the opportunity. I certainly think he has potential, but he has a tough road ahead."

Lawson knows that. He welcomes it, in fact. He says he needs to raise $2 million to buy the 60-foot boat he needs to sail around the world. In the meantime, he has specific races and goals earmarked that will help prepare him.

"It's going to happen," he says. "The way I look at it, when you dream abut things, only a couple of things can happen. Either the dream fades away" - Lawson pauses and gazes out over the water - "or it becomes more real, the details are clearer and you can see it much better."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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