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Going to Disneyland

At the helm and in a boardroom, Roy Disney likes to win the right way.

October 4, 2007
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To hear Roy Disney say that this will be his last TransPac and that he is retiring from sailboat racing is a little like hearing that The Rolling Stones are on their final concert tour. If he’s still going strong, still belting out the same hits year after year on the distance-racing circuit, why quit now?

At 75, Roy Disney has 13 years on Mick Jagger and, though he’s not hopping around the stage performing “Jumping Jack Flash,” the billionaire will have spent about a week in July barreling through 20-foot mid-Pacific rollers aboard his 86-foot stripped-out maxi sled Pyewacket IV, either at the wheel or strapped into a pipe berth with 16 other unwashed sailors just a grunt away. It will be his 15th and final TransPac.

“I’ve had enough,” Disney says with a sigh. “These egomaniac boats have gotten so big and so complicated. And at 75, it just seemed time to stop and go cruising with my wife Patty on a smaller boat, maybe head over to Catalina and back.”

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In the past two years, Disney has been on a whirlwind racing tour-his first international round-the-buoys circuit-shipping Pyewacket IV, its four containers of sails and spare parts, and an entourage of nearly 30 to St. Maarten, the B.V.I., Antigua, Sardinia, St. Tropez, and Cork, Ireland. Once every few weeks, Disney and the crew have met at his private hangar in Anaheim, where they ordered a cappuccino and settled into the swiveling, fully reclining seats aboard Disney’s private jet, a Boeing 737 named Air Shamrock. When they arrived, they checked into places such as the St. James’s Club in Antigua or the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club in Sardinia, and got ready to do what they have made a habit of doing: Winning.

Over this same time, Disney, an outwardly gentle and open man, has been spearheading a bitter and much-publicized crusade to remove Michael Eisner from the throne of The Walt Disney Company. Though the underdog going into both campaigns, Disney has come out in the lead. At the March 2004 shareholders’ meeting, Michael Eisner received a no-confidence vote, stripping him of his title as chairman of the board; he announced he would resign as CEO this September. At the end of 2004, Pyewacket IV, which had been beaten early on in the circuit, easily took home the last couple of events-Cork Race Week and the Rolex Maxi World Cup in Sardinia-beating the favorite, the sistership Morning Glory.

As with the answer to the perennial post-Super Bowl question, “So Roy Disney now that you’ve won, what are you going to do next?” you might expect Walt’s nephew to retire to his own personal Disneyland, jetting to the castle in southern Ireland, zipping around Los Angeles in his red Ferrari, or attending to his many charities. But he’s still fighting to save Uncle Walt’s company and in sailing, there’s one more thing to do before he retires: break his own 1999 TransPac record, Los Angeles to Honolulu in 7 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes.

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Sandy-haired, slightly shy, with a casual slouch to his shoulders, Roy Disney appears more Mr. Rogers than Mick Jagger. He does not come across as the type of person who really needs to win. “I was the model for Goofy,” he told Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine in a lengthy story on the Eisner battle that appeared in early 2004. “Do you want to know what really set me off?” he asks. “It was the word ‘brand’-Michael Eisner kept talking about Mickey Mouse as a brand. He’s not a brand,” he says, spitting out the word, “he’s a mouse.”

When I ask him whom he considers the Michael Eisner of sailboat racing, he frowns. “Michael Eisner…is…unique,” he says slowly. As for a rival? “Phillipe Kahn, maybe,” Disney admits, naming the Borland Software founder who has won the Barn Door trophy at the last two TransPacs. “I know he went to Reichel/Pugh and asked for a boat that would beat me.”

While Kahn may represent the America’s Cup-style approach to sailboat racing-get the best technology, the best people and run your boat like a business-Roy Disney’s teams are more like contenders for a yacht club beer-can series: a bunch of guys who have known each other for years, who can round a mark without uttering a word and are out to have a good time. The average age of the crew is well over 40 and, with the exception of sailmaker Robbie Haines, navigator Stan Honey, and a few others, many of the crew are amateurs (albeit world-class amateurs) who share one thing: a love for the sport. “The hardest thing about retiring,” says Disney, wistfully, “will be breaking up this crew.”

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But winning or, as he puts it, “winning gracefully,” is still Disney’s number one priority. As he starts talking about how he will break his own record, his body language changes and he becomes-almost like one of the cartoon characters he grew up with-animated. “The boats have gotten so much faster now,” he says, pumping his fists gleefully, “it’s just fun to sail.” Pyewacket IV, his two-year-old maxZ86 designed by Reichel/Pugh, has a canting keel, a bare-bones interior and more sail area than an America’s Cup yacht. “You hit 20 or 25 knots and the boat still just feels smooth.”

But is that fast enough? When Pyewacket III, Disney’s 75-foot Reichel/Pugh design, broke the record in 1999, it took less than four hours off the 1997 record set by his son Roy Pat (a race Roy Sr. sat out with a broken leg) aboard Pyewacket II, a Santa Cruz 70. In 1997, Pyewacket II, in turn, had taken a day off the previous record: but that was one of the longest-lasting marks in the sport-the 1977 record Bill Lee set with his groundbreaking Merlin.

That year, 1977, was the year Roy Disney, a writer by training, quit his job creating nature shorts for his late uncle’s company and began racing in earnest (though, at Eisner’s urging, he returned to head Disney’s animation division in 1984). Two years earlier, captivated by stories he had heard from an ocean-racing colleague, Disney had entered his first TransPac. He did the 1975 biennial 2,225-mile slog in his S&S 52-foot yawl Shamrock. It took eleven-and-a-half days and Disney drove for much of the way. “It was grueling,” says Disney, who has an almost photographic memory of each of the races. “We spent most of the time with the spinnaker pole in the water on one wave, the boom in the water on the next, rolling around. When we finished, I couldn’t believe we had made it there. Here we were in Hawaii-with the bright hotels of Waikiki, palm trees and mai tais, it was this magical place,” his eyes light up. “In the early days, of course, the first few races we all just got slathered at the finish.”

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For the next race, Disney chartered a Santa Cruz 50. The difference was electrifying. “Instead of pushing through the waves we just accelerated down them”-the cartoon thing kicks in again here as his whole body twists and ooches forward. “We were all fighting over who would get to drive.” From then on in, Disney was hooked on ultralights, eventually building four boats, all named Pyewacket after the witch’s cat in the 1958 Disney movie Bell, Book and Candle. Though he upgraded boats, Disney kept the same crew, to the point that the joke on the docks became that you can only get on board Pyewacket if someone dies.

For the next couple of decades, Disney played primarily on the West Coast circuit, trading trophies and speed records with a half dozen other owners in the perennial favorites such as Newport to Ensenada and San Diego to Manzanillo, and waiting for the rest of the world to catch on. The early sleds, designed for long, downwind races, were ignored by East Coast round-the-buoys racers, immersed in the vagaries of rating rules and for whom distance racing meant the traditional four-day jaunt from Newport to Bermuda.

Then, in 2002, along came Disney and Pyewacket III, the Reichel/Pugh 75, breaking first the Newport to Ensenada Race record, then the Newport to Bermuda Race record (finishing in 2 days, 5 hours), then the Chicago to Mackinac record. Today, according to the World Speed Sailing Record Council, Roy Disney holds more ocean-racing records (six) than anyone except catamaran racer Steve Fossett. It’s a fact that Disney appears genuinely unaware of. “Hey Leslie,” he says, turning to Leslie DeMeuse, a former ESPN and current CSTV producer, who is rewinding video footage of a race, “Did you know I have the most distance records for a monohull racer?”

DeMeuse is too busy to look up from the camera. The slight blonde sailed her first TransPac in 1973 on her father Ken’s maxi, Blackfin. When DeMeuse was 16, her father, brother and sister were killed in a plane crash. “Roy and Patty invited me out for dinner, took me under their wing and practically adopted me,” she says, later. “Roy is just one of the kindest, most genuine people I know.”

With Disney’s help, DeMeuse set up her own production company. In 2000-the same year that Disney remade the IMAX version of Fantasia (Roy Disney was executive producer)-the two created a two-hour documentary, TransPac-A Century Across the Pacific. It wasn’t Disney’s first sailing film. In the 1970s he made Pacific High, a documentary on the Newport to Ensenada Race, shot in 16 mm film with cameramen (including Stephen Burum, who had just returned from directing segments of Apocalypse Now) on four boats and in a helicopter. “At the time, The Walt Disney Company was going to hell in a handbasket and I wanted to do something creative on my own,” says Disney. “We shot it in the same way I made my nature movies-not a lot of Ken Burns-style narration, just more of a reality TV feel, letting the camera roll as the sailors did their thing, showing the drunken madness at the finish. I even left in the profanity: I think it’s the first R-rated Disney movie,” he says with a laugh.

“It was an amazing technique for the time,” says DeMeuse later, “and a shame that Roy never got the credit for it. I used the same technique for a documentary that won me an Emmy.” For the past year, DeMeuse has been following Disney on the circuit, along with a camera crew and still photographer Sharon Green. Disney reviews the footage and shots after each day, with the eye not of a racer but of a filmmaker.

And if there were a real movie about his life, I ask him, who would play Roy Disney? Disney pauses for a while. “Well, I’d like to be played by Cary Grant…” I tell him the truth: I just don’t see it. He thinks again, smiles and says, “No, Jimmy Stewart” and breaks into a perfect imitation of the laconic actor best known as the underdog who fought a greedy banker in It’s a Wonderful Life-and who was also the lead in Bell, Book and Candle. In that movie James Stewart played a staid publisher who was bewitched by a sorceress and her cat, Pyewacket.

This time, it’s easy to see the resemblance.

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