Ugo Conti Sees the Future of Ocean Travel 

From his El Cerrito workshop, the Italian engineer has designed a boat that just might revolutionize shipbuilding.

Every time Ugo Conti feels a life transition coming on, he builds a new boat. He usually does it by hand, and usually by himself. "I solve my aging transitions by building," the 68-year-old engineer quipped recently. "The beauty of these transitions is they make you young again."

In 1975, Conti left his research job at the University of California at Berkeley, sold everything he owned, and bought a fifty-foot wooden ketch to sail around the world with his wife and their four-and-a-half-year-old son. Although Conti had always been attracted to the ocean, he had little sailing experience. Many of his friends thought he was crazy to undertake such a difficult voyage, which lasted more than three years.

"One thing I learned is if you want to go to sea, you should either be experienced or scared," he recalled of the trip. "If you're neither, it's extremely dangerous. If you're both, it's better. I was very cautious and it was a fantastic trip."

Conti's first boat-building experience came as a direct result of preparing for his round-the-world voyage. He modified a nonrigid dinghy with a sail to serve as a life raft. His motivation was simple, although his prior boat-building experience was nil: "If I have an accident at sea," he recalled, "I don't want to be in a raft that doesn't go anywhere."

As a result of that experience, Conti began experimenting with inflatable structures. In 1981, he designed his second craft, an inflatable 28-foot boat that he sailed alone to Hawaii from San Francisco. During the 25-day voyage, Conti encountered several potentially fatal situations that demonstrated the benefits of an inflatable design. The first occurred when several so-called cookie cutter sharks mistook the boat for something like tuna, and took bites out of the hull, puncturing two of its five inflatable chambers. Conti quickly patched the holes and continued on. Later in the trip, he experienced engine failure which forced him to run aground on a coral reef near Hawaii. Another boat would have been destroyed by the pounding surf, but Conti's vessel sustained minimal damage because of its inflatable hull.

"The safety factor of something like this was incredible, but nobody knew," he recently recalled. "I kept thinking that an inflatable structure's flexibility was the key to adapting to waves instead of beating on them."

It turned out to be an important insight. Twenty years later, Conti founded Marine Advanced Research, Inc., and the latest of his three major boat designs was born. The Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel, or WAM-V, is a new class of oceangoing craft that conforms to the water's surface in a way that minimizes drag while maximizing speed, maneuverability, and efficiency.

"This is not a better mousetrap, it's a radical new design," he said during an interview in his El Cerrito workshop, which overlooks the bay. "It's something new and different."

It's no exaggeration to say that Conti's new breed of oceangoing vessels are faster, more efficient, more economical, more stable, and more stealthy than just about anything on the water today. Not to mention their coolness factor. In other words, they just might be the paradigm-busting breakthrough marine engineering has been searching for.

"I've been in the business 25 years and we've never seen anything like this before," said David R. Stevenson, technical director of the American Society of Naval Engineers in Alexandria, Virginia. "Dr. Conti presented at our symposium on high-speed performance ships earlier this year and really won us over with what he's doing. His design and production of a working, oceangoing prototype is extremely innovative and has a lot of potential."

Conti's hundred-foot-long prototype, Proteus, is having its official US debut in New York Harbor this September. It appeared briefly in San Francisco Bay in April and did a cameo at Cannes in May during the film festival. It is built from off-the-shelf parts, including aluminum tubing, which Conti mills in his workshop laboratory. Although there are customized parts, such as the titanium springs that anchor Proteus' superstructure to its inflatable pontoons, the materials are not radical in themselves. It's their application that is new.

What makes WAM-class vessels unique is their flexible design, which helps adapt the craft to the surface of the water. Since the invention of the outboard motor, conventional power boats have used brute force to propel themselves through the waves. Proteus is designed so that its hull and components marry the ship to the water's surface. In other words, it doesn't fight the waves; it blends with them.

A WAM-class vessel shares many characteristics with a catamaran, but differs in important ways. For example, because catamarans have a rigid structure, one of their pontoons is often out of the water. But by putting the WAM-V's engines in separate pods and using flexible hinges to attach them to the back of catamaran-style runners, Proteus' engines stay in the water at all times.

The craft's superstructure is designed to reinforce this effect, which is one reason the cabin and its payload are elevated above the ocean. Using flexible materials, Proteus' superstructure is mounted on springs, which helps ensure that its two pontoons and engine pods remain in the water and that the ship's footprint is minimized, so it can skim across the waves. The fuel tanks are themselves flexible, so they are easily housed inside the pontoons without compromising Conti's design concept.

Because the WAM-V's hull is rounded and has no keel, there's minimal drag to slow the ship. As a result, Conti's innovative design is not only ultralight, cheap to manufacture, and virtually unsinkable, it also greatly reduces fuel consumption. Proteus uses an estimated five to ten times less fuel than equivalent oceangoing vessels. With an approximate range of five thousand miles, it can easily cross the Atlantic or Pacific on as little as two thousand gallons of fuel. And because it has a minimal draft, it can access shallow coastlines that are inaccessible to deep-water vessels.

And if that's not enough, Proteus' stable footprint and flexible materials make the vessel virtually indestructible. "Proteus is very wide; it has a 2:1 ratio, width to length, which makes for tremendous stability," Conti said. "It cannot tip. And if you hit a container at sea, nothing will happen. If you rip the bottom, the water comes in, but there's an air bubble, so you can't sink. It's a big advantage."

Proteus' two inflatable pontoons each contain six chambers, any one of which is sufficient to keep the ship afloat. And in the event of an emergency, the boat's main cabin is a self-contained module that can drop into the water and navigate under its own power. How James Bond is that?

In other words, Conti's patented design is an elegant solution to a problem vexing naval architects since the birth of outboard motors. "As a designer, I love to see craft that look different and which explore the boundaries of our knowledge," says Derek Kelsall, founder of New Zealand-based Kelsall Catamarans and an international pioneer in the design and construction of modern multihulled ships. "WAM-V does both exceptionally well."


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