Now 70 years old, Conti still spends his days
building things in his garage workshop, and he
remains a hands-on maker. I sat down with him
to find out more about the development of the
WAM-V and how he learned to solve very old
problems in very new ways.
Todd Lappin: What made you decide to become
Ugo Conti: I was born an engineer. That’s what
I am. The instinct of wanting to understand how
things work and using that understanding to do
something, to make something — in my case
that started at a very early age. I have intuition
about how things work. I understand certain sim-
ple things, like the laws of physics, for instance,
without mathematics. I’m not a mathematician.
I don’t do mathematics.
TL: You’re just a very hands-on person?
UC: Yes, absolutely. Learning is extremely
difficult for me. It’s not easy to study. I have a
hard time remembering things. Then how did
I get a Ph.D. at Berkeley? I’m a very normal
person, but I have big peaks. It impresses people,
because I can approach a problem without
knowing anything about it and come up with a
solution. It may be a problem people have been
working on for months, but I solve it quickly,
just out of intuition. It’s a gift. I was born with it.
People look at the peaks and think I’m a genius.
Well, yes, in the peaks I am, but most of the time
I’m just normal. In fact, I make a lot of mistakes.
I mean, one mistake after the other.
TL: What was the inspiration for the unusual
design of Proteus?
UC: I get seasick. I suffer from motion sickness.
When I sailed around the world on a regular big
sailing boat, that was a big problem. When an
engineer has a problem, he wants to find the
solution. He wants to make something to solve
that problem. The problem was motion. At sea,
motion is a problem. And it’s not a problem only
for motion sickness, but also for stability, for
safety, for all sorts of things.
Also, I think if you go down deeper, I’m motivated to do something that doesn’t exist. There’s
an attraction to that. I’m not copying something;
I’m doing something completely new. That’s how
32 Make: Volume 19
I ended up in the boat business, even though I’m
not a professional boat builder or designer.
TL: What about the unusual configuration
of the WAM-V? Where did that come from?
UC: Originally I was thinking about building a
flexible sailboat, with a flexible mast. I always
wondered why masts aren’t flexible. That’s how
it works on a windsurfer. On a windsurfer, a person uses their body to adjust the position of the
mast. The person provides active control and
flexibility, because if the wind picks up, you don’t
stand stiff and rigid. You adapt automatically
because the mast is always pivoting.
Insects and bugs work in a similar way. They
not only have great control, but they also go
through obstacles very quickly because they’re
TL: That sounds more like biology than naval
UC: In fact I studied ants and so on. I was
studying insects and how they have many legs.
All those legs are controlled and flexible, so it’s
OK because you can always keep them where
TL: Those ideas led to the development
of your early models?
UC: Yes, I made a model of the boat that
eventually became Proteus, and put it on the
living room floor. That’s when things started
I’ve learned that big projects have three
stages: fantasy, dream, and plan. The fantasy
stage is all in your head, obviously, but eventually
you decide you’re ready to get a little bit more
real. The dream stage is where you actually start
thinking about the project in practical terms.
After the dream you start planning. You go into
planning and doing, and that’s when reality
strikes. You never succeed in fulfilling a fantasy,
almost by definition, because it’s just a fantasy.
But the fantasy is what catches the imagination
and provides motivation.
TL: What was the hardest setback you
encountered while building Proteus?
UC: I started this project by building a proto-
type — a 50-foot prototype I built in the garage.