SAN DIEGO (AP) — Roy Pat Disney was just getting out of his bunk at 2:30 a.m. Monday when he heard a distress call from another sailboat in the 50th Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu.
Disney couldn’t immediately make out the words but knew it was urgent. He definitely heard “OEX,” the name of the yacht owned by friend and sailing rival John Sangmeister, and then “abandon ship.”
Disney and another crewman aboard Pyewacket roused the navigator to figure out where OEX was.
“We thought they were 30 miles to the south, but they were less than two miles ahead of us. It was easy to change direction, 2 degrees or so, and we were there in 15 minutes,” said Disney, the grandnephew of Walt Disney.
OEX, a Santa Cruz 70, was sinking about 200 miles off the coast after its rudder was damaged.
The race was also over for Pyewacket, an Andrews 70.
“Rule No. 1 in the Racing Rules of Sailing is save lives. It’s not even a question,” Disney said in a phone interview from his home in the L.A. area on Tuesday.
Sangmeister, who was part of Dennis Conner’s winning America’s Cup campaign in 1986-87 and sailed with Conner again in the 1992 defense trials, was sitting in OEX’s aft cockpit, his crew having inflated two life rafts.
When he saw Pyewacket’s running lights, “I said, ‘OK boys, it’s time to go.’ We have a watertight bulkhead in the bow and I thought the boat would go down by the stern and the mast would land on top of our rafts,” Sangmeister said, with Disney at his side, in a dockside interview released by race officials after Pyewacket returned with both crews early Tuesday. “I just said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get going.’ I felt really confident that Roy and his remarkable crew were going to look after us after we got into the boats.”
Pyewacket sailed alongside the rafts and retrieved OEX’s nine-man crew.
“John made the decision not to leave the boat, which was the smartest thing to do if it’s still floating, until he could see us.” Disney said.
The trip back to Marina del Rey “was darn pleasant, even though it was crowded on the boat, 12 bunks for 19 guys. But it was a really fast sail back,” Disney said.
The two crews shared baby back ribs, swordfish and several bottles of wine.
“It’s a right-handed race, with the wind coming from the right, so it makes sense to bring really heavy food and store it on the right side of boat,” he said. “We carry good food.”
Making the rescue in the dark was a challenge, but Disney praised both crews.
“We all try to surround ourselves with people who are quite competent, but when it comes to these things, you never know until you know. We had a good group of guys with a ton of experience. Everybody just went about their jobs and there was not a lot of panic. We knew what we had to do.”
Pyewacket’s crew includes Paul Cayard, Brad Jackson and Mark Towill, all veterans of the grueling Volvo Ocean Race. Cayard is also an America’s Cup veteran.
Disney, sailing the biennial Transpac for what he said was a record 23rd time, said it was fortunate the boats were near each other.
“The truth is, we all go out there on our own. There’s sort of an implication you should be able to handle it if something goes seriously wrong. It’s implied, but we don’t always take it that seriously, but sometimes reality hits.
“The first time I saw those guys in the rafts tied together in the dark and in big, pitching seas, having to jump into that life raft and the unknown like that, I felt for them. It’s frightening. When they got on board, the first thing I did was check with John. It’s pretty stunning to have your life’s blood, your pet project, disappear under your feet. It’s a pretty severe loss and I wanted to make sure he was not in shock.”
Sangmeister said in the video interview that the crew heard a loud bang, the boat lost steering and began taking on water. The lower rudder bearing had blown off and the rudder was “can-opening” the bottom of the boat. A crewmember sat on a bucket over the opening “and was blown off as if it was a geyser.”
It’s not known if the boat hit something. Reached by phone, Sangmeister said only that it was a “catastrophic rudder system failure.”
This was Sangmeister’s eighth Transpac, which covers 2,225 nautical miles.
In 2013, he was first to finish aboard his trimaran Tritium despite hitting six telephone poles in a debris field from the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan. He said the crew had to slow down for 14 hours to make repairs, and missed setting the speed record by 90 minutes.
“Roy, I’m really sorry we ruined your race,” Sangmeister said in the video interview.
Disney, who has broken the Transpac record twice and won the Barn Door Trophy three times as the first to finish, said he’s flying his crew and their families to Hawaii on Saturday.
“It was the right thing to do. We’re all disappointed that we don’t get to sail down Diamond Head and Molokai Channel but we did what we had to do,” he said.
Sangmeister said he and his crew were “extremely grateful for the crew of Pyewacket for their superb seamanship, gracious welcome and extra kindness at a moment in need.”
Also early Monday, Giovanni Soldini’s trimaran Maserati collided with “a big floating object” while sailing at 23 to 24 knots, damaging the bow of the port hull and the wing on the rudder. It made repairs and continued on.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson