HIGH TIMES ON THE HIGH SEAS : The Romance of Sailing Captivates Toluca Lake’s Roy Disney

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The thrilling “Black Hole” episode of “The Wonderful World of Roy Disney” opens like this: Somewhere on the lonely Pacific Ocean, a million-dollar racing sailboat slices through the night when-- eeeegad !--the boat suddenly plunges straight down, speed more than doubles and the helpless crew holds on for a heart-jolting ride into a seemingly bottomless pit.

Pheeeeeew! Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co., lights up another Lucky Strike in his Burbank office. The 59-year-old entertainment mogul is having a good time telling the story. “It was a negative rogue wave,” he explains, sinking back into his chair and remembering the night six years ago when the sea opened up and his 50-foot Santa Cruz dropped over the edge like a sardine. The boat, named Samurai, finally hit the bottom of a 40-foot hole and then shot up the other side like a giant surfboard.

Not all the episodes in Roy Disney’s world are this exciting, but most are equally as memorable. The nephew of Walt and the son of studio co-founder Roy O. Disney, Roy Edward Disney literally grew up in fantasy land, the kind of place where other kids get to go only in their imagination (Mickey Mouse doesn’t give his unlisted phone number to anybody ).

And while the rest of us have to settle for Splash Mountain, Roy Disney has his own black hole. The longtime resident of Toluca Lake, a sailor for the past three decades, skippers his own boat in races that are as long as Columbus’ voyage to America. “Mysteries of the Deep” is the name of an Academy Award-nominated nature film he wrote, but it just as easily could describe one of his journeys from Los Angeles to Honolulu in the 2,225-mile Trans-Pacific race.


“My first Trans-Pac in 1975,” Disney says, “was one of the great experiences of my life. At one point, we were as far from land as you can possibly be on this planet. You realize you’re sailing into the unknown. There’re no gas stations along the way. Part of me said it’s great to keep on going and another part said get off this boat. It was an enormous relief to get it done and get it done well.”

His office--which is down a path from Dopey Drive on the studio lot and across the hall from Chairman of the Board Michael Eisner--contains drawings of famous Disney characters as well as a large framed color photo of a sailboat crossing under Diamond Head. The boat is the Shamrock, a 52-foot yawl that Disney built and finished seventh in during his first Trans-Pac. The Shamrock--which was later donated to the Navy--had been bought by the Disneys to be a family cruising boat, Catalina and back. But “it never cruised,” Disney says.

That’s because as soon as he bought the boat, he was bitten by the racing bug. “A horrible thing happened,” Disney says, a smile curling his mustache. He won the first race he entered in the Shamrock, Newport to Ensenada in 1974, and “I was convinced I was the world’s greatest sailor.” So he stored enough provisions aboard the Shamrock for two weeks at sea, selected a crew of 11, including his son Roy III and joined the fleet for the ’75 race to Hawaii.

The Trans-Pac takes place every two years and Disney hasn’t missed one yet (neither has Roy III). Sailing the Pyewacket--a 68-foot Nelson-Marek ultralight built for Disney in 1987--he ran into bad luck in this year’s race in July. Two days out, rudder stress forced him to take his spinnaker down and sail a northerly course that took him 50 miles north of his 44 competitors. He finished 10th, eight hours behind the winner.

Disney’s best finish was in ‘83, despite the appearance of the black hole. The Samurai, which he had chartered, sailed across the Pacific in only 9 1/2 days and placed third. “It was the ride of our lives,” Disney says, “absolutely marvelous.” Disney almost won the ’87 race, leading the fleet with only 400 miles to go, but a 40-degree wind shift reversed the order of the first six boats and he came in sixth.

But even though he’s never won a Trans-Pac, “It’s been tremendously romantic to go to Hawaii on a boat,” Disney says. Then again, Disney has “always been romantic about sailing.”


In 1958, Disney, who had never sailed, and his wife Pat experienced one of those transcendent Southern California moments. They are on a cliff in Corona del Mar, looking out at an ocean streaked with gold from the late-afternoon sun. A sailboat appears on the horizon, homeward bound from Catalina. The couple stare at each other, violins playing in their heads, their eyes saying “this is for us,” Disney recalls.

The Disneys immediately bought their “first little boat,” a 30-foot sloop, and learned sailing by “trial and error,” he says. Not long after, Disney entered his first race, Newport to Ensenada. Navigating with “a Shell road map,” he and his crew finished eighth out of 20 boats. “We didn’t think we were good but we beat other people,” he says, still somewhat amazed.

Sailing had to be put on hold when the Disneys had four children in fours years. Spending more time with diapers than foresails, Roy sold the sloop. But in the mid-’60s, he went in with two friends and bought a Cal 28. When his kids were big enough, he decided to make sailors out of them and bought a 40-foot ketch in 1970. On Friday afternoons, the Disneys would set a course to Catalina and return on Sundays, with Roy offering his kids 50 cents for each boat they passed.

“Sailing is the single-best thing we did for family togetherness when the kids were teen-agers,” he says. “There are a lot of temptations when you’re that age, but we always knew where our kids were.”

What also made sailing so romantic for Disney was the notion of man versus sea, communion with the first sailors who navigated by the stars. His first boat had only a compass. But when he began racing and venturing longer distances, his boats got bigger, faster and--ultimately--more sophisticated. He has equipment on board now that can navigate by the stars, and probably to them.

The Pyewacket--launched on a Friday the 13th and named after the cat in “Bell, Book & Candle”--is loaded with electronics: a Hewlett-Packard computer, a radar unit, a WeatherFax machine, a depth-sounder system, a satellite navigation instrument and several radio communications components. “Sailing’s gotten to be an awful lot more technical,” Disney says, almost with regret. But still, “I can’t stay away from the sea.”

A few years ago, he had 11 camera crews shoot 35 hours of 16mm film during the Newport-to-Ensenada race. The result was a feature-length documentary. Disney named it after the feeling he gets on the ocean. “Pacific High.”