The trip from Long Beach, Calif. to San Francisco by plane or by train is a pleasant one, and it offers the traveler some of the finest scenery in the world. Why, then, would anyone want to make it in an open motorboat? Certainly not for the $3,500 in prize money offered by the sponsors of the race that followed this course last week. The race, patterned after one that was last held in 1936 in stout cruising boats, not only is the longest ocean powerboat race ever scheduled (two laps of 220 miles each), but it crosses what may be the most treacherous expanse of water. Even so, some of the best drivers from both sides of the country showed up to try their luck. To veterans of the Miami-to-Nassau, the Cowes-Torquay, or the Viareggio, a challenge such as the one offered by the Long Beach-to-San Francisco race was just too much to resist. Moreover, it provided a fine arena for the growing rivalry between East Coast and West Coast drivers. Said Race Chairman Sandy Kemp, a Westerner, "We're out to show the Easterners that we know what ocean racing is out here. I think this East-West rivalry is good for the sport."
The West's top team consisted of Peter Rothschild, a Beverly Hills representative of the famed banking family, his millionaire pal, Larry Smith, and a tough former race-car driver named Chuck Daigh, who knows a thing or two about engines. They already have won two consecutive ocean races—this year's Hennessey Cup and the earlier California Challenge trophy. Naturally they wanted to make it three straight. Their boat, the 23-foot Thunderballs, was the only boat in the race with a single engine, but that one engine was a dilly, thanks to the supersupercharger mated to it by Daigh. If one engine quits, say most drivers of twin-prop boats, you can count on the second engine. But Rothschild disagrees. "Listen," he says, "if one of those twin-engine jobs breaks down you can't run the other. It just drives your boat in circles. What good is that?" Moreover, thanks to an efficient water-ballast system and the huge, controllable tabs on her transom, Thunderballs runs level, with her propeller in the water more often than not—a thing a lot of other boats cannot do.
Don Aronow, the swarthy past winner of the Miami-Nassau and numerous other races, led the eastern contingent. He brought with him a brand-new, untried boat that had people scratching their heads. Called Lil' Maltese Magnum, the 27-foot boat was very lightly built and was powered by two relatively tiny Volvo outdrives. What puzzled everyone was its comparative lack of speed. Miamian Bob Rautbord's Patty Lou, for example, could be expected to fetch better than 70 miles an hour. Aronow was unfazed by the questions. "We're depending on reliability," he said. "We just hope the big boats get out there fast and burn themselves up while we honk along behind."
Another eastern contender was New Yorker Bill Wishnick's Big Broad Jumper. Built of aluminum and designed by Jim Wynne, she originally carried twin Daytonas stuffed into her engine compartment but, after Wishnick saw several Holman-Moody-powered boats pass him in other races, he yanked out his Daytonas and replaced them.
November 7, 1966
From the West, besides Rothschild's boat, there was Surf Rider, driven by veteran Bob Nordskog from Van Nuys. A millionaire-builder of airliner galleys, Nordskog is well into his 50s, yet has the stamina of a teen-ager and as much driving ability as anyone.
Early Friday morning at Long Beach, these five drivers and four others climbed aboard their boats, warmed up their engines and idled to a starting line hidden in the murk of a smoggy dawn. As the starting flare lit, the nine boats roared away toward the first of 12 checkpoints. Although the wind had not yet begun to blow, the Pacific swell launched the boats skyward in long, graceful arcs. Immediately the fleet divided as the faster boats began to draw away from the slower.
At a luncheon two days before the race, the drivers had got an inkling of what they would face in a film that traced every mile of the 440-mile course as seen from an airplane. Frame after frame clicked past, showing the brown fog that lives in the area and the murky water near the first mark of the course, Point Vicente. "Now here," said a local pilot a few seconds later as the sea flattened out, "you have to watch for kelp." The Pacific is full of kelp—long ropes of weed that lie just offshore, creating deceptive calm patches in the heaving ocean. Large and solid enough for gulls to stand on, they can enmesh a boat like an insect in a web. The ropes twine so tightly around propellers that the only recourse is to hack them free, then paddle out.
There were other warnings: "Look out for that rock there. If there's fog, you'll be in trouble," or, "You can expect some pretty big seas here." When the camera zoomed in on the halfway point, Morro Bay, where boats would lie overnight while drivers licked their wounds and mechanics tried to put engines and boats back together, the rattling of cups, knives and forks on the lunch table ceased. The plane flew on toward San Francisco.
Off Monterey the north and south Pacific oceans supposedly meet, and a plaque to that effect is mounted on a cliff top. Here the swift-flowing cold California current runs head on into a fast equatorial current, and the two don't get on at all. The number of days when it is calm are few.
North of this point lies the "potato patch," at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, where a few years ago a wine tanker foundered after a particularly large dollop of water fell off a wave and found its way down the tanker's stack, flooding her engines and sending her to the bottom. That wine tanker was 300 feet long. The biggest boat in the race about to be run was all of 32 feet. As the film ended, Pete Rothschild summed it up: "We're all scared to death."
Before 30 miles of the real race had passed, two of the boats had quit. Dick Bertram of Moppie fame, who had traveled 2,250 miles to make the event, got discouraged with his borrowed boat and dropped out 20 miles from the start. A 1934 relic from Newport Beach named Lucky B turned unlucky and retired too. Soon afterward Bill Cooper's Pioneer, dicing for the lead, went dead, leaving Thunderballs, Patty Lou and Big Broad Jumper in front. Far astern, playing his waiting game, was Aronow.
At Point Conception, which lies just south of Point Arguello, the weather changed as predicted, and whitecaps flecked the swells. Patty Lou's zigzag navigation was holding her back, while Big Broad Jumper was gaining all the time, trailed by Thunderballs. "It was a real nightmare from Conception on," said Rothschild later. "We were 20 feet out of the water a couple of times." On Thunderballs conditions soon went from trying to worse. The forward hatch cover began to work loose right before Rothschild's eyes. Short of stopping, there was nothing anyone could do. "I could see it rattling around, coming loose. I kept telling myself, 'It's going to come loose, it's going to come loose.' " Then it did. "Gasoorch," said Rothschild. "It hit me full force, right on top of my head." Meanwhile there were other problems. Every time they came off a vicious sea the Thunderballs crew would fall in a jumble to the cockpit floor, then ask each other, "Who's driving?"
All three suffered injuries of one degree or another. Rothschild was so blinded by spray that all he could see was a milky mist even in bright sunshine. His hands were rubbed raw from driving. Daigh suffered lacerations to his face, and Larry Smith fared worst of all. Once he fell forward into the padded dashboard, opening a cut on his nose that took five stitches to close at Morro. Worst of all, ahead and opening up a wider lead all the time, was Big Broad Jumper. It seemed a safe bet that Wish-nick and the East would take the first round in the East-West duel. Then, with Morro Rock looming up, the big boat's engines coughed, caught, coughed, caught and stopped. She had run out of gas. There was simply no way her crew could have precalculated the amount of gas her two new Holman-Moodys would eat up. Towed in by the Coast Guard, Big Broad Jumper was automatically disqualified.
Thunderballs made Morro Bay first with a time of 5 hours 28 minutes for the 223 miles. Twenty-one minutes behind came slowpoke Aronow, whose cautious strategy seemed to be working. Behind him was Patty Lou followed by the consistent Nordskog.
All afternoon and into the night repairs were made to engines and patches were applied to hulls and crews. Next morning at 7:30 dense fog hung over the second-leg starting line. However, it showed signs of clearing. Down the ramp to his boat, his hands bandaged like a fighter's, red eyes hidden by goggles, went Rothschild. As he left, all he could mutter was, "Painsville, man." But his battle plan was unchanged: get out there and go!
The weather was warmer, the seas calmer and the fog less general on the second leg. Yet when the fog did drop in it was as thick as fresh steam. To the east, 200 yards off, great stubbled jaws of rock jutting into the Pacific kept the racers company. Astern, like airplane contrails white as fresh-plowed snow, streamed their wakes. Thunderballs was leading, followed by Surf Rider, then Alimony III from San Diego and Patty Lou, the only hope left for the East. Soon after the start Thunderballs' engine quit. Somehow Daigh got it running again only to have it stop once more, then start again, run for a while and quit, thanks to mysteriously icing carburetors. This happened 15 times in all, and as Surf Rider opened up a huge lead, it looked as if Thunderballs was done for. Then they both disappeared into a dense fog bank north of Monterey.
"Thank God for rough water and fog," said Peter Rothschild later, and his gratitude was sincere, for, as the fog descended, Surf Rider's compass had broken and her worried crew found themselves confronted by a solid wall of jagged rock. The resourceful Nordskog ordered a line rigged on the bow so that the sun filtering through the overcast made a sort of crude sundial on deck to steer by. It got them out to sea, where, luckily, they ran across a fishing boat whose crew pointed the way to San Francisco. Meanwhile, still hiccuping, Thunderballs retook the lead. A few minutes later, apparently sensing the end of her torment, Thunderballs began to run as smoothly as she had the day before. She roared under the Golden Gate Bridge past the St. Francis Yacht Club and over the line. She had taken 11 hours 26 minutes 32 seconds to cover the 440 miles at an average speed of 38.454 mph. As if by magic, all three of her crewmen's injuries healed.
Simultaneously nursing a beer and the airline stewardess who held the winner's check, Peter Rothschild declared happily that it was the roughest race he'd ever run. Would he come back for another run from Long Beach to San Francisco? "Come back," the battered sailor shouted. "Not me. Never again. Not for no amount of money." But he added, "Of course I'm kidding."
HALF MOON BAY
CAPE SAN MARTIN
MORRO BAY OVERNIGHT
POINT SAN LUIS
START LONG BEACH
SANTA MONICA BAY