Thursday, September 20, 2007

Proteus Ship Makes Waves With New Design

Proteus, the Greek sea god, was famous for being able to change his shape and form to avoid others. It is not surprising, then, that a new boat with spider-like legs that can speed over the water - or other boats - and lower its cabin into the sea, bears the same name. Stretching high above the water, the super flexible four-legged mega-structure, about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, can cruise at up to 30 knots. It has a simple crew cabin with three dorm-style bunks and a coffee table in an area not much larger than a prison cell. The main cabin is elevated. It can be removed, and other components can be added. Also called the Wave Adaptive Modular vessel, or WAM-V for short, the catamaran vessel is the first of its kind. It's intended for everything from whale watching to underwater exploration to emergency evacuations. Italian-born engineer and oceanographer Ugo Conti, of Marine Advanced Research Inc. in Northern California, designed the boat to work with the current of the water."I didn't want to fight the water," Conti said, explaining that most boats go against the flow of the water while the hulls of the WAM-V conform to the water's surface. Conti said the frame is surprisingly light compared to its counterparts and is designed to be environmentally conscious, letting it slide across the water with very little draft or waves. Conti and his wife, Isabella, co-founded Marine Advanced Research. For the past 5 1/2 years, the pair spent about $1.5 million taking WAM-V from the concept stage to the Proteus. Although the company used private capital to finance the project thus far, its founders hope that a recent trip to Washington will help them to lobby for government funds. Isabella Conti said the boat will sell for $3 million to $5 million, depending on upgrades. The baby boat sailed into Washington's Gangplank Marina for a week of press tours with just 3,000 miles on it, after completing a tour from New York, one off the coast of Italy and a trip from Seattle to San Francisco. Aside from the design, the unique ship provides some exceptional views for those aboard. On the upper deck, there is no steering wheel, just two controls making it effortless to move the boat left or right, forward or backward. "Even a person who's never driven a boat before can do it within five minutes," Isabella Conti said.
"It's easy." Robert Knox, associate director for ship operations and marine technical support at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, is skeptical, however, about how useful the boat will be. "The first thing that strikes you about the boat is how small it is," Knox said. "It could be used in a niche for certain types of research, but not for anything that has to carry a significant weight." Knox said most types of marine research require crews of more than 50 people. While Isabella Conti said the cabin can hold up to 4,000 pounds, Knox said that's "next to nothing" for oceanographic fleet crews. Knox said the boat will be so specialized that only a few people will be able to make use of it. Isabella Conti is quick to say, however, that the Proteus is simply the prototype, and was made as sparingly as possible. Future designs can be as luxurious as money will permit. "We're experimenting," she said. "The next generation will be a little bit different. We're seeing what works and what doesn't, trying to optimize the design."

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