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.

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WAM-class vessels are not only modularly designed, but scalable for a variety of applications. For example, Proteus' payload, which hangs beneath the main cabin, can be loaded or unloaded in an hour. And while Proteus does not carry containerized cargo, its four-thousand-pound payload capacity is ideal for what Conti calls "precious cargo."

Not surprisingly, the US military has taken an interest. Given Proteus' transoceanic range, ability to land on a beach, and stealth profile, WAM-class vessels appear ideal for Special Forces and black-ops. Other applications include providing a highly stable dive platform for academic or scientific research as well as recreational use and maybe even a starring role in a Hollywood action film. So far, the US Navy, US Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have met with Conti to discuss their interest.

"For me, one of the most interesting applications would be unmanned oceangoing drones," Conti said. "WAM-class vessels are capable of staying out at sea a very long time, they're fast, they're difficult to see because their profile is so close to the water, and they leave no wake."

Proteus can easily do twenty knots, and Conti predicts the next generation of craft will go even faster. Fully loaded, it weighs twelve tons, has a width of fifty feet, and a draft varying eight and sixteen inches, front to back. The main cabin is housed in a glass shell, which comfortably sleeps four, so you never have to be alone while you're sailing the ocean main.


Conti himself hasn't been alone for more than four decades. He was born and raised in Rome, and graduated from the University of Rome with a doctorate in engineering. In 1964, he married his wife, Isabella, with whom he collaborates. The couple took a ten-month extended honeymoon, traveling around the United States in a Volkswagen van.

"We annoyed so many people," Conti recalled. "They said, 'You're taking off for the Americas? You're leaving your job? Your pension?' But that's the beauty of America; people don't think like that. It's paradise here."

During that trip, Conti concluded that America was the place to be, so he accepted a job with a West Coast-based division of the defense contractor Raytheon as a design engineer. However, he grew restless after several years with the slow pace of corporate life and left to attend UC Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D in geophysics and oceanography.

While at Berkeley, Conti worked with colleagues to develop a geophysical instrumentation system that soon became the industry standard. It was the first of two companies Conti built and sold. But then he heard the siren song of the sea.

Today, the Contis live on an El Cerrito hilltop in a house he built, with spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The property is littered with various models of WAM-V prototypes, including one in the garden which is used as ornamentation and another on a step outside his office, which is almost cute because of its miniature inflatable pontoons.

But the most important place for Conti is his garage office and workshop, where he works on many of his ideas. "I'm an old-fashioned experimentalist," he explained during a recent interview. "I have this connection between my head and my hands. Every time I need something, I make it. I was just born this way."

Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, ponytail, and thick Woody Allen-style glasses, Conti's charming Italian accent and gracious old-world manner make him a sociable companion. Among his many accomplishments, he is the author of the book Crazy by Design: Stories of an Occasional Sailor. Surprisingly, Conti is also a championship whistler, having placed second at the fourteenth annual International Whistler's Convention in 1987. He claims music is something he has failed at, but if coming second counts as failure, you can understand the kind of high standards Conti holds himself to.

Earlier this year, Proteus underwent sea trials along the Pacific coast to better understand its performance characteristics. The shakedown cruise generated much speculation on Slashdot and other gadget-related Web sites about what the amazing-looking spider ship really was. That enthusiasm continued during Proteus' European tour this summer, and will likely begin again when the ship premieres in New York this September.

"People find the shape fascinating," Conti says. "It may not be the perfect boat. It may need a change here and there. But I am already working on the next generation."

All three of the WAM-class prototypes have been built for a total of less than $3 million using a combination of Conti's money, sweat equity, and investment from friends. The price tag has not yet been determined as it depends in part on the configuration, scale, and application of the model, but Conti has invented the craft as much out of love as for money.

His efforts have received support from various sources, including Wing Inflatables, which built the pontoons; Cummins MerCruiser Diesel, which provided the twin engines (the same as found in a 1980s Dodge truck); and TwinDisc, which provided the Arneson surface drives that reduce the craft's underwater drag and maximize its speed and performance. Conti has also received computer hardware, software, and sponsorship support from Hewlett-Packard and Autodesk. However, Conti says the biggest contributors are his wife, Isabella, and his chief engineer, Mark Gundersen, a thirty-year-old mechanical engineer from Stanford University, whose deep understanding of the ocean came from working in the Bering Strait as a commercial fisherman from the age of eleven.

To date, Conti has derived an immense amount of learning from his WAM-V prototypes, which has helped him to evolve and refine the concept. "You must be ready to change the idea," he said. "It's very important not to get stuck in the fantasy, and that was my problem. I made some design mistakes in the beginning using materials like carbon fiber. These things don't behave like metals, so the whole thing fell apart — dramatically. Okay, so fine. I was wrong. I made a mistake. If there is no risk, there is no life. Disappointment lasts a very short time, then you start fixing."

What will Conti do next? Aside from continued refinements of his WAM-V prototype, he's not sure. "I need something challenging and difficult as I grow older because I have nothing to lose," he reflects, adding, "When you are young and you make a mistake, your career may suffer. You have doubts because you failed. [But now] a year is gone and you ask yourself, what have you done? Nothing is left and you have very few memories."

As a result, it's unlikely Conti will become idle. "At a certain point, I get bored doing the same thing, [so] I don't repeat this," he says, waving his hand in the direction of his creation. "A person like me has to depart with my boots on. In engineering terms, that means I have to die with an unfinished project."

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