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."