SI Vault
Hugh Whall
November 07, 1966
Fog, seaweed, treacherous rocks and murderous seas were the enticements offered drivers in the 440-mile Long Beach-to-San Francisco ocean race. Bumps, bruises and lacerations were their reward
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November 07, 1966

Wet Run To Painsville

Fog, seaweed, treacherous rocks and murderous seas were the enticements offered drivers in the 440-mile Long Beach-to-San Francisco ocean race. Bumps, bruises and lacerations were their reward

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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.

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."

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