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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

On the morning of 9 October 2014, two patrol boats from the Spanish Maritime Service and Public Safety Unit were sent out from Algeciras with police on board in response to a telephone call from the captain of a vessel in local waters, claiming his ship had been taken over by mutinous crew members who had threatened to kill him.

His vessel, named Queen of Melbourne, which had operated as a passenger and car ferry in Norwegian fjords for over 40 years under several names, was on its way to Australia to begin a new career. Built by Løland Motorverkstad at Leirvik, the vessel was originally named Masfjord, being delivered in April 1969 to A/S Bergen-Nordhordland Trafikklag, of Bergen, which in 1973 was renamed Bergen Nordhordland Rutelag. Masfjord was 663 gross tons, 44.6m long, could carry about 350 passengers and 30 cars, and was powered by a Wichman diesel driving a single propeller with a service speed of 12 knots.

Masfjord operated on the Sævråsvåg - Masfjordnes - Duesund - Solheim service until 1980, when she was transferred to the Leirvåg - Sløvåg - Skipavik - Gråvik route, though in 1984 the call at Gråvik was dropped. In 1986, Masfjord was sold to Møre og Romsdal Fylkesbåtar AS, of Molde, renamed Rinna, and ran between Seivika and Tømmervåg until 1989. From 1990 to 1996, Rinna operated a summer service between Geiranger and Hellesylt, and also filled in on other routes. From 1997 to 1999, B was on the Brattvåg - Dryna - Fjørtoft - Myklebust service.

In 2000, Rinna was sold to Fylkesbaatane i Sogn og Fjordane AS, of Florø, and extensively refitted, a major change being the conversion of part of the vehicle deck into a dancing area with a wooden floor. Renamed Gudvangen, she was placed on the summer Sognefjord tourist service between Flåm and Gudvangen. In 2005, the operating company was renamed Fjord1 Fylkesbaatane AS, but Gudvangen remained on the Sognefjord service until the end of the 2013 season, when she was withdrawn and laid up at Askoy, being advertised for sale on the internet.

‘A complete nightmare’
In early 2014, the advertisement attracted the attention of Farooq Qamar, originally from Pakistan, who had been living in Melbourne for twenty-five years. He had once worked as a deck hand on Yarra River ferries, and later became a teacher, but his dream was to have his own vessel, possibly as a private luxury yacht, but more likely as an excursion boat. When Qamar saw the advertisement, he thought he might have found just the boat to make his dream come true and arranged a trip to Askoy to inspect the Gudvangen. Little did Qamar know he was starting out on what would turn into a complete nightmare.

On the flight from Australia, Qamar was detained by authorities in the United Arab Emirates over an incident when a fire was detected in a toilet on the plane, possibly started by a cigarette. Qamar was one of several passengers the cabin crew indicated might have been responsible. He was soon freed, and he later said that when he rang his wife, “my wife told me ‘come back, come back, this is a bad omen’.”

Ignoring this advice, Qamar resumed his trip to Norway, and purchased the Gudvangen for A$300,000. The vessel was renamed Queen of Melbourne and placed under Australian registry, but apart from having wooden boards carrying the new name erected on either side above the bridge, no changes were made.

Qamar now had to get his vessel from the far north of Norway to the southernmost part of mainland Australia, one of the longest voyages in the world. He signed up six Pakistani seafarers, including Captain Syed Abid Hussain, who would be joined by another Pakistani, an old friend of Mr Qamar who had also moved to Melbourne and had an Australian passport, but no seagoing experience. Once these arrangements had been settled, Qamar returned to his home in Melbourne to await the arrival of his dream boat, which he expected would be in a few months.

Captain Hussain would later say that when he first met Mr Qamar’s Australian friend, he sensed there could be trouble ahead. The friend was supposed to assist the crew on the epic voyage, but was not happy with the deal he had struck with Qamar and wanted more money for helping to get the Queen of Melbourne to its destination, and this attitude had spread to some of the Pakistani crew. Despite this, in September 2014 the Queen of Melbourne with its rather unhappy crew of seven departed Askoy on its long voyage to the other side of the world, at a speed of 8.8 knots.

After going down the North Sea, through the English Channel and across the Bay of Biscay, the first destination was to be the Canary Islands. Queen of Melbourne was then to cross the North Atlantic and pass through the Panama Canal, followed by the long haul to the other side of the Pacific, with stops for fuel and supplies at islands along the way. However, by the time the vessel was off the coast of Portugal the situation on board had turned very bad.

On 8 October, Qamar’s supposed friend and two members of the hired crew staged a mutiny, and Captain Hussain was threatened that if he did not follow their instructions his throat would be cut. Qamar’s friend assumed command of the vessel and the course was changed to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. The mutineers planned to hide the vessel along the coast of northern Africa and wait until Mr Qamar gave in to their demands. The friend wanted Qamar to give him a share of the vessel, while the two crew members wanted 20 per cent of the profits of the ship and help to enter Australia illegally.

The mutineers locked Captain Hussain in his cabin, but failed to remove the satellite phone, so Hussain was able to get in touch with Mr Qamar in Melbourne and advise him of the situation. Qamar contacted the Australian Maritime Security Operations Centre in Canberra, who emailed Spanish authorities. As the vessel was approaching the Straits of Gibraltar, Captain Hussain made another call on the satellite phone to Spanish border and coastal security authorities, telling them the crew had taken control of his ship and he was locked in his cabin.

Spanish Civil Guard officers made radio contact with the vessel at dawn on 9 October and stated later that a crew member had tried to masquerade as the real captain. As a result, two patrol boats from the Maritime Service and Public Safety Unit were sent out with police on board. They intercepted the vessel midmorning, but the mutineers refused to stop, and the police warned they would shoot if their instructions were not obeyed. Captain Hussain later said the chief engineer, who was not one of the mutineers, managed to stop the vessel, and the police were able to get on board. They found the crew was not armed, and the captain was unharmed in his cabin. Maritime Service agents ordered the Queen of Melbourne be escorted to Algeciras, and on arrival there the entire crew was taken away for questioning. The three mutineers were locked up in prison before being deported, and three new Pakistani crew members were signed up by Captain Hussain.

In early November, Queen of Melbourne was able to resume its voyage to Australia, which now would be through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal. Heavy weather was encountered in the Red Sea, which caused some damage to the vessel, but it continued on, being escorted by a naval ship through the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean plagued by Somali pirates. During a stop in the Maldives another Pakistani crew member joined the ship.

Four months after leaving Algeciras, Queen of Melbourne was nearing Australia, only to be battered by Cyclone Olwyn off the coast of Western Australia. The vessel arrived in Fremantle on 4 March, being instructed by Customs and Border Protection to berth in Fishing Boat Harbour. It was not to be a happy arrival, as Captain Hussain and his crew were immediately arrested and put in custody for visa violations.

Captain Hussain later said he had been looking forward to arriving in Australia and watching the World Cup, but in all his 30 years at sea he had never received such bad treatment as he did at the hands of Australian authorities. “They treated us like criminals, like prisoners,” Captain Hussain said. Despite the protestations of both Captain Hussain and Mr Qamar that all their paperwork was in order, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection stated, “All eight crew were refused immigration clearance and detained at the Yongah Hill IDC.”

After several days in detention, the eight men were put on a plane to be deported to Pakistan, but the visa issue would cause them more problems. They were locked up at Bangkok Airport when they arrived in Thailand and locked up again in Karachi when they arrived in Pakistan. Mr Qamar had to struggle with Pakistani officialdom to ensure the crew would be freed from detention. “The bribes I was asked to pay were just enormous,” he later said.

Mr Qamar went to Fremantle, where his vessel had become a focus of interest in Fishing Boat Harbour. Interviewed by a local newspaper reporter, Qamar said he believed the worst was now behind him, and the story continued: -

He has discussed the ordeal that went down on the Queen with the leader of the mutineers. Mr Qamar said his old friend went a bit mad at sea and he doesn’t believe in holding grudges. And it seems Mr Qamar’s dream may yet be realised. He’s not sure of the Queen’s future. Maybe she will be a private yacht or could be used as a commercial vessel. Either way, it looks as though things are getting better for Mr Qamar. “The happy ending is that the boat is here, safe and secure,” he said. “And at the end of the day that’s what we wanted, to bring the boat to Australia.”

Once authorities had cleared the Queen of Melbourne to leave Fremantle, Qamar needed to find a new crew for the voyage to Melbourne. He signed up a captain, Stephan Tate, who put together a crew, and on 24 April Queen of Melbourne departed for the last stage of its long voyage, across the Great Australian Bight to Melbourne.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - August 2019 Issue
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