Grand Prix According to Roy Disney

About to line up for his 14th Transpac, the Walt Disney VP talks about his love for sailing, his speed record, and his newest boat. From our June issue.

Courtesy Walt Disney Co.

The 73-year-old vice president of the Walt Disney Co. owns the record-setting turbo sled Pyewacket and will be competing in his 14th Transpac this July. He has a new boat, a MaxZ86 on order, for delivery in the fall. Disney spoke with Sailing World Editor John Burnham by phone from southern Ireland, where he says he spends as much time as he can.Sailing World: You set elapsed time records in the Chicago-Mac and Bermuda Race last year. Is the TransPac still most important to you, or will the Fastnet and Sydney-Hobart be next?Roy Disney: Transpac is sort of like the home race for us. It’s where I started and of course I live in L.A., and ever since I knew about sailboats I knew about Transpac. My first job was working for a film editor who was just home from the ’51 Transpac, and he put these stars in my eyes that just never did go away. Talking about the long Pacific rollers, and surfing down waves and all that stuff in a 35 foot heavy-built ketch of some sort, which he said was terrifying. SW: And that interested you?RD: For some reason. It sounded like something I wanted to do. I’d learned to fly at 16 and had a pilot’s license, so that sort of thing was part of my blood. Finally, when we got our first boat; I realized that sails on a sailboat are like vertical versions of wings on an airplane, so it kind of all made sense to me right from the start. Yes, Transpac will always be the one. SW: In this summer’s Transpac, are you more motivated by the chance to set a new record, or is it the match race with Philippe Kahn’s Pegasus that’s got you fired up?RD: Well it’s clearly a bit of both. If there’s any breeze at all, we’ll probably both be quicker than record, because we both are going to have a lot more sail area and better stability. So the match race is the part that really is the question, because whichever of us gets there first is very likely going to have the record. It’s going to be a really slow race if we don’t set the record. In the older versions of the boat last time we were only 12 hours over the record in a race that would’ve been 11 days on any other boat. SW: Do you like having a boat that’s your equal out there?RD: It’s certainly going to make us prove ourselves. We had this situation last time, with Pegasus and Chance, and we were still in a circle you could barely draw a half mile around on Day 6. Then a little squall separated us and Pegasus from Chance. And then the night before we finished we had Pegasus dead abeam in a squall. So it was pretty much of a boat race all the way across, and I’m sure it’s going to be that way again.SW: That’s a bit different from a lot of the races you’ve been on. You just won a race to Puerta Vallarta–and you competed even though there was no boat Pyewacket‘s size to race against. Why bother?RD: It’s a nice place to go, and it was one of the few records left that belongs to an older boat. We thought it might be kind of fun to hold the record. The gods weren’t nice to us, but we had a lovely sail. A bunch of neat guys, good food, and we actually brought wine for a change. SW: Would you have brought wine if there was another boat your size racing?RD: No sir, we would not. Unless it was smuggled aboard.SW: Obviously you’re out there for more than just the competition.RD: Absolutely. I wouldn’t be out there if this wasn’t rewarding in tons of other ways. I learned to fly because of the pure joy of flying on a little airplane. And that’s really still why I sail–it’s just a joyful experience.SW: You’re 73, still an officer of the Walt Disney Company. Does work keep you sharp and competitive and eager to go sailing–or needing to go sailing. Or is it the sailing that keeps you young enough to keep working?RD: It probably goes both ways. You need to get away from both things I think. Sailing competitively takes concentration and you can’t get lazy because there are too many guys that won’t. But you can’t do that–at least I couldn’t–on a regular basis, so getting away from it at the studio is fine. And then getting away from the studio and being out at sea–I know they can’t call me out there. That’s pretty good too. SW: Inshore racing or offshore–you’ve done both recently. Which do you prefer? RD: I love both. Inshore racing is great because you get to go home and get in a bed every night. But the distance racing is about going somewhere and arriving in a new place and getting there with a degree of style and knowing you did it well. My first Transpac we got that old 52 Shamrock over the finish line after 11 and a half days, and all I could think of was, I didn’t care how we did it, we did it! Now it’s become a question of doing it well more and more, and there’s a lot of pride. SW: Your last three boats have been successively faster. What’s the lure of the new tricked-out 86-footer you have under construction? RD: Oh god, I don’t know. It’s the disease. Bigger is better obviously. The technology has come so far in recent years. Part, our kind of boats, big boats, and in part the America’s Cup, has influenced a lot of things too. And there really is a desire to get there quicker. I’m really following Bob McNeil, who was first one to say why don’t we get together and find a way to have bigger, faster boats, but not have too much of an arms race. Of course it’s an arms race, give me a break, but at least with this association we can say, this is far enough, we can’t go any further with this, and race each other boat for boat.SW: You can put some parameters around it.RD: Right, and not go home next week and say, “OK, I’ve got to have a bigger boat.” Which is still going to happen with other people, I’m sure, but maybe at least we can build a fence around ourselves.SW: If speed is part of your quest, why not race a multihull?RD: Stan Honey of course has been charging around with Steve Fossett on that big thing [PlayStation], and he comes home with his eyes awfully large. It’s never appealed to me for some reason. My idea is that the keel is still down there for the monohull to keep you from falling over.SW: You’ve built a strong, loyal crew. What’s the No. 1 characteristic you look for in a prospect?RD: Obviously, they’re all good sailors. There’s a comradeship that goes with it. We’ve had people on the boat on and off through the years that didn’t fit. We knew it and they knew it. That was the end of that. No word spoken or sour grapes or anything. It is a gang of people that’s been together and had a lot fun and been through a lot over quite a long period of time now. I think it’s a kind of a pride in ourselves as a group that people become attached to it when they see it. If you talk to somebody who sails with us and hasn’t been with us before, like last summer going to Bermuda; they all get off boat and say, “Wow, you guys really work together well.” I don’t think anybody can say anything that’s nicer than that. SW: Are you going to need more people for the bigger boat?RD: We’re looking at probably 18; we’re generally 12 or 13 now. Last year around the buoys in the Caribbean we had 23 or 24.SW: You sail with your son often, which must be fun. Who’s the faster driver? RD: Roy is still part of the group, and that’s a lot of fun. We have another son, Tim, who’s younger and has sailed with us on and off, but never got as joined at the hip about it as Roy.SW: Who’s the faster driver?RD: We have this deal when it’s an owner-driver race; I go downwind, he goes upwind. SW: It’s complementary, not competitive?RD: Yes, I think he’s a lot better upwind than I am. And I like to think I’m pretty good downwind.SW: What’s your all-time speed record?RD: It’s hard to say. If you want an instantaneous thrill-meter reading¿we always keep the averaging on the speedo turned way up. But on the Santa Cruz 50 when we’d turned it down, I saw 28.5 one time in the middle of a moonless night when it felt like I was going straight down. SW: Were you a little nervous?RD: I was scared s–tless. But it was so dark that we had to turn the bow lights off because it gave people vertigo. All that was there was the compass and one little teeny old B&G; with numbers about half an inch high.SW: Did you believe what you were seeing?RD: Well it went from 12 to 18 to 28.5 about as fast as I can tell you that. Then started to subside again. It really felt like we were going straight down a cliff or something. We called it the black hole.SW: How fast will the new boat go? Over 20 on a regular basis?RD: I would think so because we see 20s on the current boat not uncommonly, and 20 doesn’t even get your knuckles too white. SW: What’s your favorite racing memory?RD: When we made the film about Transpac and Leslie deMeuse and I were trying to sell it at yacht clubs, I always used to tell this story about doing the Pacific Cup on the old Santa Cruz 70. On the last afternoon before the finish in Hawaii, we were sailing into one of those incredible Pacific sunsets with multi-layered, multi-colored clouds out in front of us, and it was blowing about 25 and the boat was just sort of surfing along probably averaging 16, 17, 18. It was sort of one-handed steering, you know, no strain no pain. I remember at the time saying to the guys, I wish I could bring everybody I know out here right now and just give them 5 minutes, because then they would know why we do this. That’s one of the good ones. There are a million good ones. Then there are a few crappy ones, too. I wish we’d had a picture of it from off the boat going to Bermuda; I’m sure the boat was like airborne. We had to really slow down. I thought sure the whole thing was going to break.SW: Do you ever think of races in terms of being movies. Every one has a story line, lots of scenes.RD: I don’t. I wish I could make a movie about it somehow or other, but I know that it tends to be really boring to most people. When Leslie and I started doing our Transpac movie we said right from the start, let’s understand that this is not a movie about boats but about people. I think that’s why most people who see it who don’t know much about sailing actually enjoy it. It’s got the history to it and real people you can empathize with. Actually, I was flicking through the TV the other night and some offbeat channel was broadcasting that old “Wind” movie. I watched for about 10 minutes in horrible fascination. It was maybe one of the worst movies ever made.SW: You’ve been supporting youth sailing financially through the California International Sailing Association. Why is that important to you?RD: We got talking some years ago about trying to do something to give a little something back to the sport. We came to the conclusion that giving to young people was the best way you could do that. We got together with CISA and put this program together. We did a mini version at Royal Cork YC as well. There’s a Pyewacket trophy we donated for the youth sailor of the year.SW: Are you pretty involved at Royal Cork?RD: Not a lot. We’ve been over her twice for Cork Week. And we do down for dinner once in a while. It’s about a 45 minute drive from where we are.SW: You spend quite a bit of time in Ireland.RD: We’d love to be here even more. SW: As long as you keep working and have a boat going around the world¿RD: Right, it’ll keep me busy and on the move, but I’ve always been that way, so I guess that’s normal. As we always say, “whatever ‘normal’ means.”SW: A lot of people really get now that sailing’s something they can do for a long time.RD: I hope so, because you can. You sort of need to stay closer to the back of the boat.SW: That’s OK.RD: There’s no shame in that. And the boat probably ought to be a little bigger than when you’re younger, but other than that, it’s a great sport.


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