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Magic Touch

Roy Disney is retiring from competition after the Transpacific, in which he has raced for 30 years and holds the monohull record

July 04, 2005|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The slender white sailboat moved across the swells so swiftly and purposefully, it was as if some supernatural force had taken control.

Roy Disney would later describe Pyewacket's historic sprint to the finish line, during the 1999 Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, as one of the most magical experiences of his life.

Clouds had been painted pink and orange by the setting sun. With darkness came ferocious gusts, called puffs, which were visible as surface blemishes in the reflection of lights from Waikiki. They helped propel the boat to an unthinkable 27 knots.

The reception committee, including the sailors' wives, watched in astonishment as the 75-foot vessel materialized off Diamond Head as a ghostly image beneath a moonless sky. With its billowing spinnaker showing the way, it swept past the committee boats and disappeared into the blackness as quickly as it had appeared.

It was a storybook ending, aboard a craft named after a witch's cat in the movie "Bell, Book and Candle." It was also the pinnacle of Roy Disney's long and distinguished racing career.

Pyewacket covered the 2,225 miles in 7 days 11 hours 41 minutes 27 seconds, a Transpac record for a monohull.

That will be the time the skipper will strive to improve on after departing July 17 --with others in the elite maxi-sled class, aboard his new 86-foot version of Pyewacket. Whatever happens, he'll have one more Transpac experience for the memory bank.

"The best of all of it has been the friends we've made," Disney said.

A former Walt Disney Co. vice chairman, the nephew of Walt Disney says he will retire after this race from a competitive sailing career that has spanned more than 40 years, 30 of them as a Transpac fixture.

The news has saddened the sailing community. The void created by his departure will be difficult to fill. Disney has for so long added celebrity and a splash of magic to the racing scene.

"It's definitely the end of an era, and he's going to be missed tremendously," said Robbie Haines, 51, Pyewacket's longtime sailing master. "We adore him and consider him a friend. He's like a second father to a lot of us."

Disney recently turned 75 and Transpac, which is held every two years, is celebrating its centennial. These considerations were factored into the timing of Disney's retirement, even though he remains a formidable captain.

Offshore racing requires a tremendous commitment, he said, adding that he will sell Pyewacket and buy a smaller cruising boat on which he and his wife, Patty, will sail more leisurely.

As for the magic, Disney assures that it will remain for all sailors as long as there are vast blue oceans and wind for the sails.

Disney and his wife bought their first sailboat when he was in his late 20s, after their second of four children was born. They had fallen in love with the image of sailing after visiting the coast and watching a lonely little sloop returning from some unknown destination, passing silently through a sunlit patch of ocean on an otherwise gray day.

One of their fondest memories is of a late-afternoon voyage to Catalina with their two young daughters.

The setting sun had projected a shimmering orange path to one side of the vessel and a rising moon had set a silvery path to the other. The Disneys sailed over these dreamy trails as their two young daughters were playing guitar and singing "Puff the Magic Dragon."

Years earlier, Disney had developed an interest in racing. He and two friends had gone in on a Cal-24. One day they covered the 22 miles from the east end of Catalina to the west end in only two hours. They had sailed as fast as the wind, Disney said, explaining that he was able to light a cigarette "without even having to cup my hands."

He had already competed in his first offshore competition: the Newport-to-Ensenada race. The wind was light and the voyage excruciatingly slow, but his boat finished ahead of some bigger boats and that inspired him.

Later, aboard the 52-foot Shamrock, Disney and crew won their class in the Newport-to-Ensenada race and celebrated by getting "hopelessly drunk on rot-gut Mexican tequila."

It was with Shamrock in 1975 that Disney, then an assistant film editor at the studio, competed in his first Transpac. His oldest son, Roy Patrick, had turned 18 and was part of the crew. It was a daunting endeavor, and the trip took 12 days. Shamrock pitched from side to side throughout, "but we made it," Roy said. "And we knew we could do better."

During the 1977 Transpac a wild wind raged across the Pacific. Several boats lost their masts and had to quit. The vessel Merlin and Capt. Bill Lee made the crossing in 8 days 11 hours 1 minute 45 seconds. It was almost a day faster than the previous record, set by Windward Passage in 1971.

Merlin had set a standard serious racers would strive to beat, and Disney began moving up the ladder of contention with the first Pyewacket, a Nelson/Marek 68 christened in 1987.

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