Ferry in mutiny on high seas

Daniel Emerson
Trouble: Farooq Qamar with the Queen of Melbourne. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

If the peeling blue paint and chipped gunwales of this nondescript ferry docked in Fremantle could talk, they would tell a rollicking tale of international mutiny, immigration detention and deportation.

Fishing Boat Harbour has been abuzz with gossip about the Queen of Melbourne after it berthed there on March 4 at the request of Customs and Border Protection, which let slip to wharfies that it had been through a mutiny.

The West Australian tracked down the Australian-flagged vessel's owner, Victorian businessman Farooq Qamar, who confirmed the "hijacking" off the Spanish coast in October.

The 46-year-old, 45m ferry had been bought just weeks before in Bergen, Norway, where it was renamed, and Mr Qamar made preparations to have it head to Victoria to operate as a sightseeing vessel between Geelong and Frankston.

Mr Qamar was not among the eight crew but enlisted a friend from Victoria to travel with seven Pakistanis.

According to Mr Qamar, his friend wanted to buy into the business and when he was refused, became agitated at sea and convinced two crew to help take control. "He said he was going to slash the captain's throat while he was sleeping and all sorts of stuff," Mr Qamar said.

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When Queen of Melbourne approached the Spanish port of Algeciras for refuelling, the captain managed to call the coastguard, which sent two boats to intercept it.

Mr Qamar said the chief engineer went to (the ring-leader) and told him: "You've got two very fast boats behind you. You can't go anywhere.

"If you continue this course, you will get boarded and they can do anything. People can get seriously hurt."

The agitators gave up after a short chase and were ejected by Spanish authorities, he said.

That left the problem of an undermanned vessel and Mr Qamar had no sooner begun recruiting replacement crew from Morocco when a fresh dilemma emerged.

Australian authorities advised that the vessel did not have authority to enter Commonwealth waters, and it took two months before certification had been granted under the old name, not Queen of Melbourne.

Finally, it left Algeciras in January after picking up the replacement crew in Morocco. It charted a course for Fremantle via the Suez Canal, Maldives and Christmas Island.

Then more drama.

A mix up between Mr Qamar's shipping agent and Australian authorities resulted in the crew obtaining the wrong visas, and they were promptly taken to Northam's Yongah Hill immigration detention centre after arrival. A Customs spokeswoman said eight Pakistani crew had since "voluntarily departed Australia".

Mr Qamar, who has recruited another crew from Victoria to get the vessel to Melbourne, was in Fremantle yesterday to make final preparations ahead of its expected quarantine clearance tomorrow.

He said the drama and delays had cost him money and his family had suggested he was an "idiot" for embarking on the venture.

"Half the stuff I haven't even told you," Mr Qamar said.

"There was an enormous amount of stuff the crew went through.

"It was an eventful trip, a few nightmares in it, but I think it will eventually be a good one."