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This cat plays a different way

The so-called “wave adaptive modular vessel” has inflatable pontoons and springs that dampen wave motion

The so-called “wave adaptive modular vessel” has inflatable pontoons and springs that dampen wave motion

It’s weird, it’s wide and it wiggles. No, it’s not tofu. It’s a boat. Call it a catamaran with inflatable hulls, a high-tech grandson of the Happy Cat that has been around since the 1960s.

The craft is the world’s first “wave adaptive modular vessel,” or WAM-V. It doesn’t cut through waves like rigid power or sailing cats, but somehow bounces over them, adapting to their shape like a tango dancer matching the moves of his partner. It looks like a giant spider on spindly legs connected to inflatable pontoons, which also happen to be the longest in the world. A critical factor in this wobbly equation is the link between the legs and hulls, which consists of giant titanium springs and ball joints that dampen the motion and articulate the hulls every which way.

“It’s soft. It is against the current trend [that favors] hard-bottom RIBs,” says its designer, Italian inventor and engineer Ugo Conti, who also heads Marine Advanced Research, the company that developed the WAM-V. “It is the prototype of a new class of vessel that melds soft hulls with a rigid superstructure.”

The strange craft’s modularity is reflected by different kinds of payloads, exchangeable propulsion systems and replaceable hulls. The exact application remains anyone’s guess, but the possibilities seem wide open, since it can be configured for many purposes, including sci-fi movie prop, pleasure craft, scientific lab, or carrying out military, search-and-rescue and surveillance missions. The boat’s character also is captured in its name, Proteus, a sea god in Greek mythology whose name suggests being “the first” and having protean qualities, such as versatility, flexibility and mutability.

Proteus had been delivered to California under its own power from Puget Sound several weeks earlier, but during the official premiere it hardly had a chance to show off its bag of tricks. San FranciscoBay resembled a millpond; only a passing pilot vessel made enough waves for the WAM-V to flinch. As it crossed the wake at an oblique angle, the hulls flexed and bent while the cabin high above the water remained absolutely stable. Instead of forcing water to conform to the hulls, Proteus’ design comes at it from the other direction. Anyone who has suffered from seasickness on a bucking boat will appreciate the concept.

Observers included a delegation from the Coast Guard, who took note of the vessel’s speed, modularity and minimal draft. Also in attendance was Maria Brown, superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. She went a step further, envisioning possible applications inside wildlife habitats.

“I think it could work for offshore marine mammal and seabird observation in places like the FarallonIslands or shallow-water archipelagos in Florida or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” she says.

Proteus measures 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, with a displacement of 12 tons under full load. The twin Cummins MerCruiser diesels with steerable Arneson surface drives live in their own removable pods connected to the inflatable hulls with special hinges. This keeps both propellers in the water at all times and enables quick exchange of the entire propulsion units. The designer hopes that with a fuel capacity of 2,000 gallons the vessel has enough legs to cross an ocean. Cargo capacity is rated at 2 tons and can vary, depending on configuration. In the demo Proteus carried a pontoon boat with outboard propulsion that could be lowered from abaft the command capsule to the surface.

To get the project to this stage, Conti had help from investors and numerous technology companies. Additional work was done by Bay Area yacht designer Jim Antrim and chief engineer Mark Gundersen, who once worked on commercial fishing vessels in Alaska. Conti, whose resume includes stints with Raytheon and the University of California, confesses to being addicted to inflatables. “I always liked flexible boats, so I decided to push [the concept] to the limit,” he says.

From 1975 to 1979 Conti and his family sailed around the world in a 50-foot Bill Garden ketch. It was on that voyage that he learned to love his inflatable, which he converted to a sailboat, according to his wife, Isabella. In 1983 he took 25 days to sail single-handed across the Pacific from Moro Bay, Calif., to Hawaii in a 28-foot sloop-rigged inflatable, which he had developed for the trip. All went well except for the cookie-cutter sharks, which chewed holes in the Hypalon hull while Conti rested at night. But he managed to make repairs and lived to tell the tale.

Conti, who is 69, visibly enjoyed the opportunity to show off the WAM-V to the press. He considers his latest creation experimental and jokingly suggests that “being a little crazy” helped pull it off. “But when you’re old, you can risk more because you’ve got nothing to lose,” he says.

This cat specs


LOA: 100 feet

BEAM: 50 feet

DRAFT: 16 inches (half load)

DISPLACEMENT: 12 tons (full load)

Propulsion: twin 355-hp Cummins MerCruiser diesels
FUEL: 2,000 gallons

PAYLOAD: 4,000 pounds


DESIGN: Ugo Conti, Mark Gundersen, Antrim Associates

TECHNOLOGY CONTRIBUTORS:Hewlett Packard, AutoDesk, Twin Disc, Cummins MerCruiser, Timet, Wing Inflatables

CONTACT: Marine Advanced Research, El Cerrito, Calif.

Phone: (510) 215-9571.