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Lobdell: Chase those dreams

November 22, 2010|By William Lobdell
  • Brian lights a giant fire on empty island using dried palm fronds.
Brian lights a giant fire on empty island using dried palm… (Daily Pilot )

Halfway into his sailing trip around the world, Newport Beach's Mike Lawler nervously scanned the horizon for pirates.

Two days earlier, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers had killed three Somali pirates during a successful high seas rescue of an American captain taken hostage. Somali strongmen vowed to take revenge on any boats traveling through the Gulf of Aden.

As Lawler's 47-foot Traveler approached the narrow passage that connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, he and his girlfriend, Barbara Burdick of Manhattan Beach, knew this funnel was where the pirates liked to stage their attacks.

"I had Somalia to port, Yemen to the starboard and a bottleneck straight ahead," said Lawler, a 57-year-old attorney specializing in estate planning who returned this summer from his three-year voyage.

Sure enough, Lawler spied through his binoculars a fast-approaching fishing boat — called a ponga — with three men onboard. One gripped an AK-47 assault rifle.

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"My heart started to beat out of my chest," Lawler said.

The pirate boat soon pulled alongside Traveler, which was sailing downwind at 8 knots in very rough seas.

"They started shouting, I think in Arabic, and pointing to our sails," Lawler said. "They wanted me to stop but I just kept playing dumb and yelling back that I didn't understand."

At one point, the pirates got so agitated that Lawler feinted an attempt to take down the sails, but he knew his only chance to escape was to keep going at full speed.

After about 15 minutes, Lawler and Burdick decided to sit at the helm with their backs to the pirate ship, praying that they weren't shot in the back. Soon, the fishing boat peeled off.

"Maybe they were beginner pirates," Lawler laughed, over coffee at Kean in Newport Beach. He wore a Panama hat that he got in, well, the San Blas Islands of Panama ("Amazing place," he said).

Since departing from Los Angeles in the summer of 2007, Lawler and Burdick circumnavigated the world, logging 31,145 miles, visiting 61 countries, rescuing two fishermen from nearly certain death, seeing thousands of spectacular sunrises and sunsets, eating freshly caught fish daily, and packing a lifetime of memories into three years.

For Lawler, the dream began when he attended Semester at Sea, a college program aboard a cruise ship.

"It opened my eyes to world travel and sailing across the oceans," Lawler said. "I always thought, 'One of these days …'"

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