.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.”

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.”

In the meantime, Conti is satisfied with the WAM-V’s progress. “The payment for me has been the enthusiasm people have shown,” he said with cheerful exuberance. “The response we get is fantastic.”

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