Don Fry 

Adj. Professor & Hon. Doctor of Engineering
Principal of AIMTEK Pty Ltd (Formerly NQEA Australia Pty Ltd)


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During the mid 1960’s, we won a contract to build 11 Landing Craft for the Australian Army.

LCM8 Landing Craft built for Australian Army

Production Line – LCM8’s – 1964

I masterminded the production of the landing craft, designing special jigs to achieve serious production gains.  We built the first vessel in 9 months and one thereafter every 5 weeks.  We built them using the same team which had just finished building the roof structure for the Cairns Bulk Sugar Shed.

The project was successful.  We delivered on time, within budget and defect free.  It was a financial success and paved the way for our shipbuilding. 

Some years later, we built our first Roll On Roll Off Vessel to a design provided by Riley, Hercus and Boulton at a time when the trio were together.

MV “Straitsman” – RORO Vessel launched 1971 - transported across the mud flats on a
purpose built 20 foot gauge rail.

MV“Straitsman” still  in service today

As our ships became larger, so did the effort to launch.  In 1975, we began the transfer of our works to be close to our slipway, although it still involved a road crossing.

I think I am the only person in Australia who has built a fully riveted ship (well almost), a 6000 tonne tin dredge barge erected 100 miles west of Cairns.  It was all rivetted to meet the requirements of the Scottish designers.  This was an experience.  I salute those early shipbuilders.

Mt. Garnet Tin Dredge – fully rivetted barge

“The best results come from a combination of practical
experience and theoretical knowledge.”

My patrol boat days were best.  Taking on the contract as a 35 year old was a real adventure.  We could not raise the funds to guarantee the down payment but contact with Sir John Bjelke Petersen soon fixed that – it meant work for Queensland.  I heard the expression first hand “Don’t you worry about that!”

Don Fry signing Fremantle Class
Patrol Boat Contract (1977)

Fremantle Class Patrol Boats on Sea Trials


The design was from Brooke Marine in the UK.  The detail was provided in 1/10 scale transparent drawings arranged for overhead projection onto the plate or by a special cutting machine which traced the 1/10 scale drawings.  The cut components were not accurate and construction time was excessive.

I took the plunge to install a numerical control plate cutting machine.  The technology was in its infancy.  The only unit in Australia was a demonstration model held by CIG which I saw at a machine tool exhibition in Melbourne.  I placed an order at the exhibition.  The CIG Sales Engineer at the time  was the infamous Peter Farley, later to found Farley Cutting Machines. The machine was one thing but how to change the 1/10 drawings to a punched paper tape format was a challenge.

Fremantle Class Patrol Boats in NQEA workshops

The task required relofting the lines.  By this time in my life I realized obtaining permission from Navy for this would be impossible but it had to be done so I just did it.  I located a company in Norway which could refair the lines by computational means and generate the NC data.  I recall having to take the original lines plan from Brooke Marine handcuffed to their chief loftsman.  They were paranoid about losing their prize lines.

We halved the assembly time and along with the benefit of using the first Australian developed and built NC pipe bending machine (a tribute to Robert Pongrass of Pongrass Industries in Sydney), the project became very profitable.

Prior to building Seajet, many of our earlier fast ferries were designed by Phil Hercus of Incat Designs, Sydney, and many of his wavepiercer designs were built by my company.

“Prince of Venice” – Incat Design
Operation from Venice to Lubliana

Jet Cats on Sydney Harbour built by NQEA


It was this type of enterprise which paved the way for the Australian high speed shipbuilding industry for which Australia is a world leader.

I have specialised more recently with low wash ferries. 

Photographs show Rivercats® operating on Sydney Harbour, designed by Grahame Parker of Sydney, followed by our own design based on an extensive research programme.

One of six Rivercats® on Sydney Harbour – built in Cairns

1/5 Scale Radio Controlled Models on Lake Barrine, North Queensland

Tests on Seajet Model – SSPA, Sweden

Our low wash ferries now operate at 25 – 30 knots in Sydney, Rotterdam, Bora Bora and on the Thames in London.  They are state of the art and take pride of place amongst the ferries plying the Thames.

“Hurricane Clipper”

200 passengers, 30 knots on the
Thames River, London

“Sun Clipper”

120 passengers, 25 knots with
negligible wash on the
Thames River, London


But then our dredge “Brisbane” was another Australian first using a revolutionary fluidised cargo concept which allowed the dredged material be pumped ashore, via a central weir.  This arrangement significantly increased dredging and reclamation efficiency.


Ocean going Dredge “Brisbane”
4,000 tonne deadweight


To show my confidence and win the contract, I agreed to fund the whole design and construction and be paid in full once it operated successfully, including the auto dredge and piloting functions.

This design won the Queensland Engineers Australia, Engineering Excellence Award – RWH Hawken Award - in 2001.  We were paid.

The dredge story reminds me of another adventure where I teamed with Stuart Ballantyne to build his design of 3,000 tonne Ore Carrier and NQEA designed and built the automatic filling and discharge system.  Again the client was nervous about my invention which was a travelling gantry mounted bucket wheel reclaimer with top mounted travelling plough to fill the hopper from an overhead conveyor fed from the land based stockpile.

Bucket Wheel


When asked for more detail before contract signing, I advised most of the detail was still in my head.  “What happens if you die after we give you the contract?”  I quickly provided a written statement which declared I would live for at least the next eight weeks and complete the design.  We signed immediately.  Like the dredge, I funded the build with our Bank’s support, until proven.  The “Aburri” has since transferred 3.875 million tonnes of lead zinc ore since it was built.

Both these vessels were fitted with automatic docking devices which were developed in model form at my Malanda farm.

Testing of docking device

AutoDock with auto retract and approach radar
used on the QCL barge, “John Oxley”.  This device enabled reduced manning levels from 23 to 4.

An adaptation of this was used on the Danish Ferries which enable turn around times of 8 minutes be achieved with 450 passengers and 120 cars unloading and loading.

 “If you have an idea and you believe it is possible, then do it.”

The development of the semi swath hull form incorporated in the Seajet series of ferry coupled with the use of marinised gas turbines each delivering 14 mW driving waterjet which you could crawl through, rates high on my excitement list.

We were to have built these vessels in Australia but for complex reasons, I licensed the Danish company, Danyard, to build them.  The builder was nervous about warranting the speed so I offered to forfeit the whole licence fee in the event the ferry failed to reach 42 knots in the specified Sea State.

You can imagine my anxiety whilst standing on the bridge during trials.  Thankfully we reached 48 knots and 50 plus knots when light.  The seakeeping was excellent.

Our very first catamaran, built from steel in 1976, incorporated a semi swath concept forward by virtue of its extended bulbous bow.  It provided excellent seakeeping and is still in service operating to the reef from Cairns.

Seajet 250:
120 cars
450 passengers
50 knots
250 ton deadweight
Powered by 2 GE LM1600 gas turbines
         producing total of 28000 kW driving
         4 KaMeWa water jets

Model of the Seajet Autodok System