Friday, January 19, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO / SPIDER SHIP ON THE BAY / El Cerrito firm unveils the Proteus, 'a new class of vessel'


SAN FRANCISCO / SPIDER SHIP ON THE BAY / El Cerrito firm unveils the Proteus, 'a new class of vessel'

The strangest vessel made its formal premiere Thursday on San Francisco Bay, and it was a sight to see: It looked like a spider, wiggled over the waves like a porpoise, and was fast as the wind.

It is named the Proteus, after a Greek god of the sea, and is the first of what might be a long line of wave adaptive modular vessels -- WAM-V for short -- developed by Ugo Conti, an engineer and inventor. Conti calls it "the prototype of a new class of vessel."

Using technology developed by Conti's El Cerrito Marine Advanced Research Inc., the WAM-V is "a new class of watercraft ... that delivers a radically new seagoing experience." It has twin hulls, like a catamaran, connected to each other and a control cabin by four metal legs. The legs ride on titanium springs -- like shock absorbers -- that allow the WAM-V to adjust to the surface of the water -- to flex like knees.

It has many uses, Conti says. "It can go many thousands of miles to deliver something." It can also enter shallow lagoons in faraway places, help scientists, would be useful in search and rescue operations, and even has some military applications.

The Proteus is 100 feet long, 50 feet between the outsides of the twin hulls, and is powered by two 355 horsepower Cummins marine diesels. It displaces 12 tons fully loaded. Fuel is stored in the flexible pontoons, and the vessel, Conti says, has a range of thousands of miles.

It can carry 2 tons of cargo, and can be operated by a crew of two.

The cabin, which sleeps four, can be lowered into the water -- "like a helicopter landing," Conti said -- and sail off on its own.

Conti would not say how much the prototype had cost. "We are still adding that up," said Isabella Conti, the inventor's wife and a vice president of Marine Advanced Research. The couple would also not disclose the vessel's speed, pending full sea trials. "It can go faster than I can run," said Dave Hitz, who said he has invested in the company.

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