Brian lights a giant fire on empty island using dried palm fronds. (Daily Pilot / November 22, 2010)

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.

"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 …'"

But for the next three decades, life got in the way: a legal career, a marriage and three kids. Five years ago, Lawler saw a window of opportunity. He had gone through a divorce, his youngest children — twin boys — were finishing high school, and his new girlfriend's lifelong dream was also to sail around the world.

He started looking for boats and bought a North Wind '47 from a guy who, because of illness, had to give up his own dream of sailing the open seas. Lawler vowed the same fate wouldn't happen to him.

So he got his captain's license after attending an Orange Coast College class, spent six months refitting the newly christened Traveler (he's a USC graduate) for ocean cruising, and sold his law practice and, at the top of the market, his Newport Beach home.

Lawler and Burdick sailed east, setting a course that stayed mostly in the tropics. They kept a flexible schedule, spending more time at some destinations such as Tahiti, Australia, Bali and Greece because of weather conditions, repairs or simply because they loved the locale.

They brought family and friends along on many legs of the journey to share the experience — which included lightning storms, high seas and pods of dolphins that nudged at feet hanging over the bow — and seemed positively Forrest Gump-like in their ability to sail to a country where news was happening.

They carried relief supplies to Haiti a month after the killer earthquake, attended the coronation of the king of Tonga (they somehow sneaked into the royal box), participated in a holiday parade in the Cook Islands on a float they constructed in a half-day, and become national heroes in the tiny island nation of Niue — whose population of 1,400 people is roughly three times smaller than Balboa Island — after rescuing two fishermen adrift at sea.