What were they Thinking?
By Doug Ford
February 11, 2013
Book Review by Richard Parks,
Doug Ford fell in love with hydroplane racing as a very young boy in the 1950’s in his hometown of Seattle. That was about the time that hydroplane racing became a big event and the best and brightest among the hydroplane community began to make Seattle the place to be for this kind of boat racing. Ford volunteered to help with various boat racing teams and to study aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. This early influence inspired him to become an aeronautical engineer. Opportunities were available at that time for a young man to meet the famous boat designers and to learn from them. Over the next fifty years his passion for hydroplane racing and design brought him into contact with many racing teams, some of whom created “out of the box” solutions to streamlining, designing, construction and powerplants that didn’t work, but were inspiring nonetheless. He began to write stories on these strange boats that should have worked, but didn’t and used his knowledge of engineering to explain why they failed. His book is called What were they Thinking? It is a marvelous study into the minds, abilities, limited successes and failures of a rare breed of powerboat racers.
What were they Thinking? is a paperback book measuring 6x9 inches and is ¾ inches in thickness. There are 281 pages containing 26 chapters on individual boat owners and an introduction, prologue and epilog. There is a table of contents, introduction and acknowledgment section, but no index. The lack of an index makes this work difficult for historians to do quick research, but Ford wrote this book mainly for entertainment. The only color photographs are on the front and back covers of the book. There are 27 very small color photos and 237 slightly larger black and white photographs. The black and white photographs are for the most part grainy and not of very high quality. The paper is fine for the text but does not allow the photographs to be as clear as they could be. Some of the photographs are larger, but some are very small and the detail is difficult to make out. But these are cosmetic problems and the photos do allow the reader to understand what the author is talking about. The price is $24.95 and the author self-published his book through the printer 48HrBooks. The USBN number is 978-0-9847589-0-6. I googled the title and found this source to buy the book; Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, phone (206) 764-9453 or email to
The strength of the book is the writing style and expertise of the author. Doug Ford is and always has been enthused with a zeal for hydroplane racing and it shows in his writing. He writes like an engineer, dissecting and reconstructing the men and their designs and why they failed and why they could have created new breakthroughs, but didn’t. There are a few terms that Ford assumes the average reader will understand, like cavitation, step up, planing, sponsons, pickle fork and some aerodynamic and hydrodynamic processes. Ford wrote his book for the fan of boat racing who already has a basic understanding of powerboat racing design and propulsion systems. But it was interesting how quickly I picked up on his terminology and how easily he put complex engineering principles into the common vernacular. The book is aimed at the more knowledgeable powerboat fan, and yet Ford brought to life some fascinating men who struggled in their passion for speed and performance. Their trials and tribulations only made their failures to achieve success more riveting. It is the old story of “what if,” and “how close,” and it applies to life in general and not just powerboating. Each short story is well researched and highly interesting. In a short space the author gives us a quick, but fascinating lesson about some of the great men and colossal failures in boat racing.
I literally couldn’t put the book down. It’s a very easy book to read as each chapter details the life of the boat and her owner, designer and crew. A few of the people I knew and was curious to see if the author did a credible job of research; and as far as I could tell he did his job well. Part of his skill is that he just is a good writer. The other part is that he explains so well and so easily why the boat failed from an engineering standpoint. Ford made me feel like I was an engineer on this boat too. And he made us feel for the people involved. These men weren’t failures. They succeeded in life in general and some of the principles that they came up with were adopted by others. Ford makes us realize that failure is only a term to indicate that the project failed, not the people. In the end, after all the technical terms have been explained the basic essence that is left is a series of stories about lives that really mean something to the author and to us as well. What were they Thinking? is a book that goes beyond the failures in our lives, to the greatness that inspires us all to try, again and again, because passion is what motivated these men.
I usually only read a few chapters and scan the rest, but in this book I read it thoroughly and found it so enjoyable that I would return and reread another chapter over again. Ford was very familiar with the subject from the 1950’s through the 1990’s, and I kept thinking that there must be fantastic “thinkers outside the box” that existed before then. Perhaps the author will do some research and use his engineering expertise to go back further in time and give us a book of “those who failed” from before the 1950’s. Back to when the early designs looked more like sailing yachts and motors and propellers were new and exciting men and women of a new age of powerboats. I hope Doug Ford will take up this challenge and bring us a book just as intriguing and interesting as What were they Thinking?