Roy E. Disney is best known for making movies -- and a little shareholder revolt that shook up his Uncle Walt’s company. But for much of his life the role he’s loved the most has been performed on the water.
He has set records around the world and won the West’s most prestigious ocean race. Last summer, after finishing the Los Angeles-to-Honolulu Transpacific Yacht Race, he announced his retirement from competition.
To quote his wife, Patty: Yeah, right.
One year later, at 76, Disney is back on deck -- this time trying to assemble the race’s youngest and most diverse crew in what he calls the “white bread” sport of sailing. And he’s making a documentary to show how teaming disparate individuals to race across 2,225 miles of sea is naturally more gripping than any contrived reality show.
“You can’t get any farther from a piece of land in the world than you are when you’re halfway to Hawaii,” Disney said. “I think the drama is about the young people coming together. This is not a story about boats. It’s a story about people. Boats are really, really boring. The drama is simply inherent in the human condition.”
Among the unlikely recruits is Steve Manson, 21. Raised by a single mother in a tough section of Baltimore, Manson had never set foot on a boat until high school, when he applied for a job through a program that prepares public school students for college. His options included picking up trash, painting murals -- or cleaning boats and teaching at the Downtown Sailing Center for $9.50 an hour, year-round, even in the snow.
Manson’s college plans were put on hold when his mother, who worked nights at a nursing home so she would be available for her children’s school days, was stricken with cancer. When she died in February, he moved in with his sister and poured his grief into his work, seven days a week.
Then, in May, he spotted a flier on the center’s bulletin board. Roy Disney was looking for sailors who otherwise would have no shot at the rich, mostly white-male world of sailboat racing. Successful applicants would train and race on boats costing millions, and be supported for six months in Hawaii as they prepared for the race.
“Sailing has changed my life since the first day I set foot on a sailboat,” Manson said. “You just meet good people in sailing, and
The 538 applicants were whittled to 30, who spent 10 days in Long Beach sailing and performing other team-building activities. (A few of them got tattoos.)
Friday night, Manson learned he was one of 15 chosen for Disney’s Morning Light team, for which the billionaire is paying all expenses.
In January, the crew will fly to Honolulu and start intensive training aboard a 52-foot boat under 1984 Olympic gold medalist Robbie Haines. By April, the team will be finalized at 11, with four alternates, for the grueling race next July.
“It has been so difficult,” Disney said of the winnowing process. “We’ve fallen in love with all of them. I’m tempted to buy a second boat so they can all enter the race.”
Kate Theisen, 19, also made the cut and will take a leave from New Mexico Tech, where she studies astrophysics. For most of her life, her family has lived aboard boats, home-schooling and sailing the world, working only as long as needed before setting sail again. She said the roaming never felt uncertain because “we were always together with our parents.”
“They’d work for a year, then we’d sail to Guatemala and live there until we ran out of fun,” Theisen said of her parents, an engineer and a freelance travel writer. “Then we’d buy a van and drive it up to Wisconsin where our relatives live, then they’d work for a while and we’d be off somewhere else.”
Mark Towill, 17, is the youngest of the 15 finalists. He lives in a rural part of Oahu, in a canyon at the end of a gravel road with no street lights. His house is next to the one in which his father, a contractor who sells topsoil off their land, was born and raised. His mother was born on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Towill has mastered the Hokule’a -- the traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe -- and shares the spiritual connection many islanders feel with such old-world traditions. He has dreamed, he said, of sailing from somewhere else to his home, to recapture that sense of how the islands were first settled hundreds of years ago.
Now entering his senior year in high school, Towill hopes to be able to train for the Transpac on the other side of Oahu while keeping up his grades. He knows what a chance of a lifetime the Disney venture is, and he is deeply grateful. He also has a new appreciation for what future teammates like Manson have been through to reach the same spot.
“He works so hard,” Towill added, “and people like Steve inspire me.”
For Disney, spending 10 days in Long Beach with the aspiring crew left him so impressed about their work ethic and character that “it made me feel good about the future of our country.”
As important as racial diversity, he said, was finding young sailors who were not born and bred into yacht racing. The Morning Light crew has several working-class members, including a pizza deliverer.
In downtown Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor last week, the 30 finalists were in teams of seven or eight, rotating into positions on four sailboats. Shadowing them on land and in the water were a sailing photographer, an artist who was to paint a portrait of each sailor, someone from the Disney publishing wing checking out a book possibility, and the Disney film crew.
The wind was blowing at 15 knots as the wannabes scrambled to tack and turn around seal-laden buoys and other course markers. The boats and the wind churned up white-capped troughs. At one point a crew lost its spinnaker into the brine and nearly raced over it.
Like the onboard judges observing how the crews worked together as they rotated in and out of jobs, Disney gazed with a smile into the saltwater kicked up by the wind and waves.
Then, about 2:30 p.m., he decided to move off a race boat and onto the film crew’s powerboat. As he stepped off, a small wave bounced the vessels -- and pulled Disney’s legs -- farther apart, plopping him into the drink.
A seasoned racer leaned down and grabbed Disney’s life vest. The race boat was cutting through the water so fast it was pulling the vest over Disney’s head, however, so the racer let go. An aspiring Morning Light crew member who said he was a lifeguard back home hopped overboard and helped Disney out of the water. (He did not make the crew of 15.)
“I was like one of my own cartoon characters,” Disney said on the dock afterward, laughing. “One of the stupid ones.”
Disney said the Transpac, held biennially, is his favorite race in the world, simply because it is romantic and he ends up crossing a finish line in paradise. He said it has changed him each time. In keeping with his unreliable retirement claims, he intends to rent back his old boat to race the Transpac himself -- but in a different class than the Morning Light team he created.
“There are a lot of big egos in sailing, but that’s not Roy. He gives back so much to the sport and he doesn’t really want anyone to know about it either,” said Al Garnier, commodore of the Transpacific Yacht Club, which organizes the race. “He’s a very modest individual who is doing a rare promotion. But it is only in order to give a few kids a lifetime opportunity.”
Said Disney: “I don’t know what the story will end up being, whether these kids will win the race. But whether or not they do win is I’m not sure the point. The point is that they will have made it. And it will change their lives forever, as it did for all of us who sailed this race.”
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Since 1906, a Long Haul Across the Pacific
The Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu is 2,225 nautical miles. The first Transpac, in 1906, featured three boats and was intended to promote tourism to Hawaii. It was scheduled to depart from San Francisco when a magnitude-8.3 earthquake struck the city, forcing the change in venue to Los Angeles.
Last year’s centennial race had 75 entries. Next summer’s race begins July 9.
The yachts have staggered starts, classified by size, so that each has the opportunity to reach Hawaii first.
Until last year, Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, held the Transpac monohull record: seven days 11 hours 41 minutes 27 seconds, set in 1999 aboard his yacht Pyewacket. Last year he sailed in his 15th and final Transpac. Hasso Plattner’s Morning Glory won that race, lopping almost a day off Disney’s record.
The crew Disney has selected for next year’s race will be the youngest ever to sail Transpac, ranging in age from 17 to 22. In the 1969 Transpac, Jon Andron’s victorious crew averaged 22 1/2 years of age.
Disney donated the $7-million, 86-foot Pyewacket to the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship last year. It was named for a cat used to cast spells in the play and film “Bell, Book and Candle.” Its keel had to be reduced from 18 feet to 12 feet to fit into Newport Harbor.
One of Disney’s several documentaries is “Transpac: A Century Across the Pacific.” Another, “Pacific High,” chronicles the Newport-to-Ensenada race. Because of its salty language, Disney calls it the first R-rated Disney movie.
Last month, Grant Baldwin, the radio “voice of Transpac,” died of cancer at age 79. Every skipper and crew who had sailed Transpac since 1979 was intimately familiar with Baldwin’s deep, clear voice and his dry sense of humor.
They heard it once or twice a day -- asking for position reports or hosting a lighthearted evening “happy hour” chat that made lonely sailors feel less alone in the middle of the Pacific.