“Danger” should be the middle names of Balboa Island residents Michael Lawler and his wife, Barbara.
That’s because Michael, a Newport Beach attorney, and Barbara, a seventh-grade English teacher, confronted an assortment of crises, some of them potentially life-threatening, during a round-the-world cruise several years ago aboard their 47-foot sailboat Traveler, which carried them more than 32,000 miles to 61 countries on six continents.
“Most of our journey proved to be idyllic,” said Barbara, citing the five months they spent cruising the waters of French Polynesia and the “fantastic time we had with the new king of Tonga who invited us to attend his coronation in the presence of his queen and island chiefs.”
But the pair also struggled with perils along the way, such as that “frightening day” they were terrorized by heavily-armed seagoing pirates in the Gulf of Aden and their encounter with a “monster storm” that suddenly came upon them in the dead of night and threatened to capsize Traveler during their rescue of two fishermen whose 20-foot skiff was foundering off the coast of Niue Island in the South Pacific, added Michael.
They faced other trials as well, including fierce storms in the Atlantic and Indian oceans and off the coast of Mexico and when they had to make emergency repairs at sea after their boat sprang leaks and its auxiliary diesel engine and navigational equipment broke down.
But despite the dangers they faced on their “adventure of a lifetime,” the Lawlers are making plans for “lifetime adventure No. 2 ” sometime next year, said Barbara.
“This time, however, our round-the-world trip may last five years, not three,” said Barbara, who was born and raised in Glendora, graduated from UC Santa Barbara, lived aboard a 44-foot sailboat in the Caribbean for five years before meeting Michael, holds a Coast Guard 100-ton master’s, or captain’s license, and has participated in countless races including the Los Angeles-Honolulu Transpac.
“In fact, Barbara and I met in Honolulu following a Transpac,” added Michael, the first child born at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian following its opening in the early 1950s, a graduate of Newport Harbor High School, USC — where he was a member of its sailing team — and Western State University College of Law. Michael, who began his sailing career at the age of 8, came in second place in the 2007 Transpac cruising class competition and also holds a Coast Guard 100-ton master’s license.
When I asked the Lawlers what they consider to be the most ominous episode of their three-year voyage, they replied, almost in unison, “when the pirates threatened us in the Gulf of Aden.”
“It happened when we were sailing north on our way to the Red Sea, with Somalia and Djibouti on our port side and Yemen on starboard,” Michael recalled. “This is where the Gulf of Aden narrows to just 17 miles and near a group of small islands named Bab el-Mandeb, which in Arabic means ‘the Gate of Tears’ because so many ships have sunk there.
“All of a sudden, we saw an open boat, about 24 feet long and powered by an outboard engine, speeding toward us. Aboard were three men. One was brandishing a large gun, which appeared to be an AK-47. The men were yelling to us in Arabic and gesturing us to stop in mid-channel. They wore civilian clothes, so we assumed they weren’t police or military.
“I realized right away that we were in big trouble, as this was approximately the same area where pirates had hijacked the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama and captured its captain, Richard Phillips.”
(Phillips was ultimately rescued by U.S. Navy Seals, who killed three of the four hijackers, and his ordeal was portrayed in the motion picture “Captain Phillips” that starred Tom Hanks).
“We had no weapons aboard Traveler, so when the pirates came alongside we tossed them a water bottle to indicate we were friendly,” Michael said. “But they continued screaming at us to stop our boat, and the fellow with the machine gun kept pointing it at us. We then decided to turn our backs on them and pretend to ignore them. At first we were frightened, but we didn’t panic and were able to regain our inner-calm.
“The sea gradually became rough, with the wind blowing at 40 knots or better. This worked in our favor. The pirates were getting their butts kicked in their small boat in the choppy seas, and I think they were getting a bit seasick. After about 15 minutes, they suddenly turned their boat away and left us alone. It would have been disastrous for us if they had boarded Traveler. We were just plain lucky they didn’t.”
Today, the Lawlers are studying maps of the world to determine the route of their second world cruise.
“It will be a bit different from our first voyage, which took us from Newport Beach to Hawaii, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, several cities in Western Europe, North Africa, a crossing of the Atlantic to South America, the Caribbean, passage through the Panama Canal to Panama and then north to Central America, the west coast of Mexico and back to Newport Beach,” Barbara said, adding that she and Michael will participate in the next Transpac competition which will be held in three months.
On their 2020 cruise, the couple plans to return to the Pacific but then sail directly to South Africa and South America before coming home to Newport via Mexico’s west coast, said Barbara who hopes to take a leave of absence from her teaching position in Paramount, a small city north of Long Beach, during their voyage.
Before Michael and Barbara had described the itinerary of their next international cruise, I asked if it would again include the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which, until 1980, had been jointly ruled by France and Great Britain.
“Of course. We look forward to returning to Vanuatu. Cannibalism was practiced in Vanuatu until 1969, the same year the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon …. Vanuatu is beautiful and unspoiled, so I can see why the TV show ‘Survivor’ is set there,” he said.
“When Barbara and I landed in Tanna on our first sail around the world, we were introduced to an older gentleman wearing only a loincloth who told us he was a ‘retired’ cannibal. I shook hands with him, but then stepped back a few feet, fearing he might decide to revert to his former diet as lunchtime was approaching. He appeared to have a good set of teeth, and I didn’t want to take any chances,” Michael explained.