Roy E. Disney led several notable lives—creative artist, entrepreneur, philanthropist—but the one where his loss will be felt most personally by his peers is that of a world class sailor and selfless promoter of the sport.
Disney passed away last Wednesday at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian less than a month shy of his 80th birthday of Jan. 10 after a year-long battle with stomach cancer—possibly the only circumstance that would have kept him out of the 63rd Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race starting April 23 just a couple of miles away off Newport Beach, where he also made his home in recent years.
He had sailed his various high-performance Pyewackets—named after a mythical witch’s cat—and earlier boats in about half of the previous 62 races and twice held the elapsed time record for monohulls.
“I know he loved it,” said Robbie Haines, who organized the crews and racing schedules and served as tactician on Disney’s boats for the last 21 years. “As crazy as the race is, he really looked forward to it, every single year.”
Disney loved the race so much that in 1978 he produced a documentary film about it—”Pacific High”—based on his first ocean racer, Shamrock.
Disney held the record that Doug Baker’s Magnitude broke in 2002 when Disney was off campaigning Pyewacket in the Caribbean . . . while the cat was away, the record went astray. But a year later when Baker had sold Magnitude and was sailing on another boat, Pyewacket reclaimed the mark with a time of 10 hours 44 minutes 54 seconds.
Baker said at the time, “I’m glad for Roy. He’s been great for the sport, and he deserves [the record].”
It stood until last April when after several tries Baker’s newer Magnitude 80 rode moderate but steady straight-line winds to beat Disney’s six-year-old record by 7 minutes 3 seconds with a time of 10 hours 37 minutes 50 seconds.
“I’m in shock,” Baker said afterward. “I don’t have any fingernails left. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’m still amazed by what happens out there.”
At Disney’s passing, Baker saluted his rival: “I broke his record and then he came back and broke it again. We had a good rivalry.”
Haines, who sailed with Disney on 13 of his 15 Transpacific Yacht Races to Hawaii and many other ocean races, described him as “not your typical owner-skipper. His demeanor was very informal
“He’d come on board and you’d know that Roy was in charge, and especially in the long races you would want his input because of his vast [sailing] experience. But he would take the opinion of everybody he respected and together come up with a decision on strategy.”
It was unusual for the sport but normal for Disney to sail with essentially the same crew of 12 to 15 for a decade or two.
Haines said, “The Pyewacket group was such a family over the years that I would get phone calls from all kinds of sailors asking, ‘Is there any room?’ and Roy was so loyal that I’d just say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re gonna keep the same guys.’ It’s extremely rare. A lot of people want the best pros or latest world champion or Olympic medalist. Roy was happy with the guys he had.”
During longer races Disney would regale the crew with tales of making movies and cartoons as he grew up through the ranks at the Walt Disney Co., founded by his uncle Walt and father Roy.
“I can remember many races when we’d be on deck or down below asking him about old-time Disney studio stuff,” Haines said. “It was fascinating listening to him. Certainly, there’s nobody in the Disney company that knows more than he does about it. He was very well read. He knew a lot about everything.”
And he didn’t mind striking impromptu conversations with friends or strangers.
“He just had this very unassuming way with people,” Haines said. “He treated everybody the same. He was just a nice guy to the average guy.”
It was no different on the boat. Even at night in cold wind and rough seas, Disney would ride the rail with the rest of the crew.
“For many years he would take his turn at every job on the boat,” Haines said. “There was this rotation where you’d steer and then you’d do the main and then you’d grind and then you’d trim. He’d do all of that . . . he was just part of the team, although in the last few years he would mainly drive. But he was always in charge of cooking. He’d make lunch and dinner. He loved that. He didn’t like freeze-dried [food] very much.”
Ralph Rodheim, marketing director of the Newport-to-Ensenada race, offered thoughts in the same vein.
“My fondest memory was when we selected Roy as Grand Marshall for the race,” Rodheim said. “Although his boat went back to San Diego he stayed for the entire trophy presentation. He then needed to get back to L.A., so Penny and I took him to the Ensenada military airport in our Dodge caravan mini-van—not the transportation he was used to. However, he was as friendly as anyone could be. At the airport we got to board his ‘Shamrock’ jet where we were invited to join him on the flight to L.A. unfortunately, we could not take him up on the offer. Roy Disney was a sailor’s sailor, and will be missed.”
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